El Sistema is a game-changer for urban communities, providing opportunities for young people to participate in music making at a level that was previously out of reach. It originated 40 years ago in Venezuela, and it now serves hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan youth and more than a million children around the world. Participation in El Sistema-inspired programs like Trenton Music Makers has been shown to reduce gang participation, improve graduation rates, and provide a sense of purpose to young people. As its founder says, it is “social justice through music.” It is also now recognized for developing world-renowned musicians, such as Gustavo Dudamel, Music & Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In 2009, El Sistema founder Jose Antonio Abreu was awarded the prestigious TED Prize, with a multi-million dollar grant that led to the founding of El Sistema USA. Supported by this initiative, musicians and educators who were inspired by Mr. Abreu's vision have started El Sistema programs in major cities all over the country. The Harmony Project in Los Angeles, one of such programs, participated in a research project whose results demonstrate that “learning to play a musical instrument produces such profound changes in children's brains that kids actually can hear and process sounds they couldn't hear otherwise.” Playing a musical instrument changes brain functions in very positive ways, and changes lives for the kids who need it the most. Millions of Americans were introduced to El Sistema by a 60 Minutes segment that aired on April 13, 2008, and have been following the movement as it grows.
Trenton Music Makers is currently operating at Grant Elementary School in Trenton. We are grateful to the administration of Grant Elementary, and the Trenton Public Schools, for providing the space for this program, and for working with us to coordinate our curriculum and the curriculum being followed during the school day. Our teaching artists are not only excellent musicians themselves, but are motivated by the community and character building goals basic to El Sistema programs. There were 30 third- and fourth-graders in the pilot project, who capped the year with a joint performance at NJPAC in Newark, with hundreds of string players from the other programs that make up the El Sistema NJ Alliance. This year the program grew to 45 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, who met three times a week after school, worked hard to support their own and their fellow students' development, played onstage with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, welcomed surprise guest teaching artists, and returned to NJPAC in May to play again with their 200 friends from around the state. We are building upon the El Sistema principles that bring discipline, confidence, and motivation to children’s lives.
Already in the early stages of this project, we have seen dramatic examples of music changing lives. One third grader known for creating disturbances in the classroom became a model student in order to participate in the El Sistema initiative. He even persuaded his father to purchase a violin – not a small investment for a family living in very challenging circumstances – so he could play at home in addition to the school program. A second student, a third grader with dyslexia and ADHD, raised her grades from C’s to A’s in the 16 short weeks that the pilot project ran. Her teachers remarked that she was particularly attentive in class on the three days that the program was held. She is a living example of how human brains react to music instruction.
Music-making is a natural community builder. An orchestra is a team of one’s peers. As founder Jose Antonio Abreu says, "the orchestra is the only group that comes together with the fundamental purpose of agreeing with itself." Learning how to perform in harmony with others, contributing to the group effort towards a common goal, is an important ingredient in personal success.
And as our kids also learn, music-making is the most fun you can have when you are working hard. It teaches delayed gratification, and the satisfaction of a job well done (a piece well played) is its own reward.