Sistema Tulsa teaches lessons beyond music 


By JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer

Excerpt  / Read More

The purpose of El Sistema, Hernandez-Estrada said, “is to use music, to use our culture, as the vehicle to raise up a new generation of achievers and give them the tools they need to succeed. “All instruction is done in ensembles, and we meet five days a week, so the instruction is intensive,” Hernandez-Estrada said. “The idea is to develop a sense of discipline and focus, as well as the ability to work accurately and to work well with others.

Interview from Public Radio Tulsa  

From Public Radio Tulsa: 

On this edition of Studio Tulsa, we learn about the nonprofit program known as Sistema Tulsa. Per its website, Sistema Tulsa"envisions how a comprehensive and inclusive music program can positively impact the social, cognitive, and aesthetic realms of youth development. Supported by partnerships with the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church and the Tulsa Public Schools, Sistema Tulsa plans to provide a model for accessible, ensemble-based music programs that enrich the lives of local youth across varied underserved communities. Inspired by the philosophy and values of El Sistema in Venezuela, the program aspires to grow and support youth musical ensembles that exemplify and nurture the pursuit of excellence and high aspiration. 

In this edition of Studio Tulsa, Jose Luis speaks "both eloquently and incisively about the profound ways in which music can enrich the lives of students -- as well as the families and communities of those students." 

Listen here:

Remarks in support of Sistema Tulsa at TPS School Board of Education  

Remarks given at the July 7, 2015 Regular TPS School Board of Education meeting in support of agenda item G-6. 

With your permission Madam President: 

My name is Jose Luis Hernandez. I am founding director of Sistema Tulsa. I would like to begin by thanking the School Board for allowing me the opportunity to comment on the Memorandum of Understanding that is being recommended today, which outlines a partnership between the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church and the Tulsa Public Schools in support of Sistema Tulsa.

Sistema Tulsa is a brand new after-school music program with an educational impact focus that will launch on September 9th of this year. On its first and pilot year, it will serve up to 80 students representing three Elementary schools—Burroughs, Chouteau, and Lee. These students will participate in the program daily, receive free tuition, instruments, and instruction from quality teachers, some of which are music teachers in the district.

Our program envisions music education as a tool for human development and social transformation among underserved communities. From the Boston Avenue perspective, it is also an opportunity to provide our fellow citizens with access to what we believe can be best described as an "affluence of the spirit."

Our model is adapted from El Sistema, an international arts learning movement now present in 35 countries and in over 90 communities in the United States. The model supports a philosophy of education based on moderating learning experiences within high-functioning, aspiring, and nurturing communities. Research shows that students participating in musical ensembles with Sistema program around the US are improving their academic achievement, developing empathy towards others, fostering integration among their peers, and persevering through the discipline and focus that the practice of music requires.

A few weeks ago, our Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Deborah Gist, sent out a survey to the Tulsa community so that they could help us discern the most critical needs for education in our district. "What is the purpose of K-12 public education in Tulsa?" she asked.  80% respondents said, and I quote, “To help students fulfill their potential and have choices in life.”

I see Sistema Tulsa as playing a part in response to that need.

Sistema Tulsa affirms that the intensive study of music framed as part of a social or community experience can help participants develop critical habits of mind that will allow them to be persistent in spite of adversity, produce accurate work, work well with others, and think about their future in a positive light.

We will measure positive gains over time with the help of researchers from the Center for Music in Education in Boston and the OSU Center for Family Resilience.

For the past several months we have been working with Principals, PTA presidents, music teachers, and other leaders to shape the purpose and pedagogy of our program. We’ve transferred the most relevant practices and ideas from El Sistema in light of our working context. The process has been very rewarding. It has allowed us to plant the seeds for a truly community led program that can also aspire to be a model for partnerships-in-education.

On behalf our program, its advisory committee and funders; our students, families, and staff. We thank the district for all of the support given to this cause. I also would like to thank Rochelle Klein who helped us lead the effort to bring this MOU to the Board today. Also, the district Fine Arts and Music Coordinators deserve our recognition, as well as the lead Elementary ILD Director for supporting our work.  

I know that we will do a good work together and will look forward to receiving the School Board’s feedback and input as we sustain and grow this program over time. We are delighted to formally begin this partnership. Thank you very much.

Charting a Path to Clarity in Sistema-inspired Work  

First Published June 19, 2015 on the Sistema Fellowship Center Blog

One of my education systems professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently shared that “People support most what they help create.” (Cassidy 2015) For Sistema-inspired leaders and especially those who have delved into program design, applying this simple but powerful aphorism can help them chart a compelling vision for change.

Outcomes are an important piece of visionary thinking, but let us also not forget the value of leveraging people and ideas. This is how we can create economies of scale and bring programs to the next level. We know that music education produces a myriad of social, cognitive, and aesthetic outcomes and there is ample evidence to support its value, yet we seldom focus on music education as public policy. Every single Sistema program in the US and elsewhere has the potential of being an experiment of that possibility. They are producing relevant outcomes at the local level and soon enough researchers and practitioners will collaborate at the national level. The field has the potential of being successful at this practice. To reach such a level of sophistication we must pause and consider what is working and how we can multiply its effects. So my hope for this blog is to draw attention to a powerful framework that can help Sistema-inspired leaders think more deeply about their work and position their practice as relevant interventions that can lead to systemic change.

Sistema has been an influential force in arts education worldwide. As it became widely disseminated through the media and other scholarly explorations, the Venezuelan program presented us with opportunities and challenges to engage with music education as an innovation for solving a community’s deepest social needs. A leading scholar in the field of international education, noted that innovations, whichever part of the world they hail from, must be “reinvented by adaption.” And discerning the context in which we operate is key to their successful application. Equally important is that discerning leaders should know which elements to transfer and which to leave behind. Some “innovative” ideas can be “superficial and inaccurate” so we must be careful as we consider them as plausible. (Reimers 2015)

I am currently working to design a Sistema-inspired program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that will affirm the value of music-in-education. Our work is designed to serve as a platform to culture aspirations for human development in a group of inner-city elementary level students. To gain dexterity in the process of program design, I’ve been applying a tool called the “Eightfold Path” as outlined by Eugene Bardach in his book, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving. This tool charts a clear path to conceptualize designs that can be embraced at both the social and political level. The “path” includes several steps: a definition of the problem to solve, collection of evidence pertaining to the problem, identification of alternatives that can solve the problem, criteria by which to weigh the best course of action, a projection of outcomes, examination of costs vs. benefits, and documentation through storytelling. You might have also heard of “logic models” as a parallel idea and found the tool to be useful (if you have not done so, I recommend exploring the Kellogg Foundation’s Logic Model Development Guide), but the Bardach approach posits a more contextual approach that invites practitioners to really “see” their work at work in the midst of landscapes of constant fluctuation and change. 

We tend to think of policy makers as specialized technicians sitting in an ivory tower dictating how public benefit programs should operate. The beauty of our field is that most Sistema-inspired leaders have the opportunity to take on multiple roles and so many of them might already be engaged in the practice of policy making without realizing it. From that vantage point, the practice of policy making can evolve organically as they make critical decisions in support of the communities that they serve. My hope for these leaders is that they would begin charting and documenting their path for change and inviting others to reflect upon that work. This is a critical piece of a program’s sustainability.  

The work that we are doing together across the country (over ninety programs and counting) is a testament of our collective vision for change. But we must bring this change to the next level by thinking broadly and transferring ideas and frameworks from other disciplines into our work. Sistema-inspired leaders are adapting a noble educational philosophy that posits bringing music education to the masses but we still have a long way to go to reach our goal. To be successful, we can begin by examining our own work more closely and using relevant tools to test its logic. Local programs can grow stronger when they articulate their goals clearly, establish links with like-minded programs, leverage resources in the community, and bring people together to pursue a shared vision. People will not only support most what they help create, but also what they can clearly understand.

Jose Luis received an Innovation Grant from the Sistema Fellowship Resource Center to pursue a professional program in educational leadership through Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. He currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and leads the design and management of Sistema Tulsa.

Speech on a "Pedagogy of Compassion" 04/25/2015 

On April 25, 2015 I spoke to a group of United Methodist Women in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They are part of a service organization that engages with various social mission throughout the city. I was the speaker for their Quarterly Meeting. I spoke about my engagement with the work of Sistema, music education, and social justice. (Sistema is an after-school and full scholarship music program that serves youth and families who can benefit from an intensive, disciplined, and joyful approach to education.) I focused on sharing several ideas. One that resonated was the role a pedagogy of compassion plays in redefining priorities for education. Here is an excerpt of my speech which I have recently revised to follow an essay format:

You will recognize these words: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” These are the words of John Wesley. His teachings were instrumental in the founding of Methodism and they continually inspire many to think in terms of offering their lives as instruments of service in a spirit of social action or communal fraternity.

We need to think service in terms of a pedagogy of compassion. Such pedagogy may not just apply to the work of Sistema or music education but can spill over in and through other service missions. So many projects that you are already part of. In order to discern our role in nourishing compassion, we need to take a hard look at the reality of our world. Not in the way the famous actress Gwyneth Paltrow was challenged by the Food Bank of New York and sought out to live on $29 a week for food and then failed what turned out to be a widely broadcasted publicity stunt. Not like that. I am talking about getting to know people at the core of their humanity. Yet getting to know people also means suffering with them. That can be difficult for so many of us. Where should we start? Nelson Mandela said, that human compassion must bind us to one another—not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future. Let’s pause and ponder the words. I invite you to explore those ideas. What does a pedagogy of compassion really entail? Does it entail experimenting with whether you can survive on little money for food or really getting to know people at the core of their humanity? And to suffer along with them. Those who are in service to others cannot ever pontificate from a pedestal. You might fight in the trenches, be in the trenches. Before my speech today, someone asked me whether I had an assistant to take Sistema student applications to schools or do some of the things that directors don’t have time to do? I said that I did not need such help. I need to take those applications myself. See the Principals, meet with parents, and speak to teachers. I need to meet them face to face so that I can feel who they are. To understand where our participants come from. I need to know the needs that inhabit their being. Because when I do that I realize that I have a lot to learn. We can all learn from one another. As we do, we come to cultivate a richness, an affluence of the Spirit as a community and as people. Even as we struggle and also as we thrive together.

As an educator, it is very important for me to engage with social contexts. What are some of the challenges that students living in poverty today face? I am asking about Tulsa, and Chicago and Philadelphia and the inner cities across the country. The Harvard Center for the Developing Child has uncovered many of these general challenges. The list several and include environments of violence in neighborhoods where there are almost daily thefts and drive-by shootings. Chronic parental neglect not because of choice, but because parents must work extra shifts and have other jobs to make ends meet; and they can’t see their children to bed, or read them a story, or sing them a lullaby. And then there is economic uncertainly. These all can become toxic stressors that impede proper brain development. The stressors have an impact in the development of executive functions, the brain’s air traffic control system, if you will. Working memory, mental flexibility, and inhibitory control are all essential tools that young people need to succeed later in life as they go to school, engage with their families, and play soccer at the local league. Here in Tulsa, George Kaiser is working to alleviate some of those challenges by providing a robust services platform for children between 0-3 years of age. This is the time when brain architecture is developed and is a crucial moment to invest to change the trajectory of child’s cognitive and emotional capabilities. This is important.

I hear educational leaders talk about the need to improve test scores and build better school infrastructures as if these could improve in a year or two. It doesn’t work like that. There are no magic wands to achieve instant success. We first need to understand where people are coming from. And then work with them and suffer with them. We have a lot of challenges. One of such challenges is segregation in our schools. Years after the civil rights movement, we the people have still have not achieved the ideals of equality and justice that all rightfully and unequivocally deserve. As I travel to schools in Tulsa, I see schools that are made up of a large number of minorities, sometimes up to 90 percent. And this is due in part because there is residential segregation. This of course is a larger issue that merits revision into many archaic public policies. Richard Rothstein has written eloquently about this and has expressed that social and economic disadvantage—not only poverty, but also a host of associated conditions—depresses student performance and that "concentrating students with these disadvantages in racially and economically homogenous schools depresses it even further." As we are building the Sistema Tulsa program, I’ve been very much aware of this phenomenon. And I ask myself, if we are truly looking to seek a social change through music education and believe that the orchestra can be a model for integration and social inclusion, shouldn’t we bring students together to play from all walks of life, rich and poor? So we are finding schools that together would strike that balance. Yet when I mentioned Lee Elementary to a few people, a school known for its maturity and perceived higher economic affluence, I received criticism. “Isn’t your Sistema program, an initiative for the poor?” they said. I believe this criticism was unfounded and lacked seriousness or understanding. I explained that our logic follows a research based approach and belief that if we integrate disadvantaged with more privileged students we can help narrow the achievement gap. Rothstein further explains that if we were to only focus on those students who are challenged the consequences of disadvantage would be exacerbated. So we must work towards inclusion not just in the orchestra but in the universe of our daily conversations, work spaces, and positions of leadership.

Not too long ago, I visited Chouteau Elementary to promote our program as part of a formal presentation. As I walked out of the room a family of Hispanic descent stopped me and asked, “Are you Mexican?” I said yes, my parents grew up in Mexico. Their eyes light up and I could sense that the little girl felt very proud about this. All of a sudden there was validation towards her heritage and in being able to feel that she can play a part in shaping the fabric of her own community. This also reminds me of the need to be role models for children. Especially teenage boys who because of their engagement with video games or music videos might develop a distorted view of the world and their role in it. (There aren’t that many male teachers in our schools. A recent study concluded that 1 of 10 Elementary level teachers is male. We need to encourage more participation because strong male role models are an important piece of the educational process.)

Speaking of views that shape habits of minds, I am also concerned about the amount of standardized testing that goes on at our schools. A few days ago, I sat as a monitor to the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test or OCCT and I learned much from this experience. I was also reminded of Paulo Freire’s luminous book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” as he warns socially conscious educators of employing any kind of activity that might have the potential to depreciate students. Every year, as test results come in to schools that are at-risk or disadvantaged their report cards tell them that they have made very little or no gains whatsoever. A letter grade of F is issued, and as a result, the community becomes demoralized. This tells them, as Freire contends, that “they’re good for nothing” and with time “they finally believe it.” This is a very dangerous educational practice. We must do everything we can to turn these flawed perceptions of non-aspiration around. This where I think music education can play a liberating role by recognizing each person as an asset, including them in an experience far greater than themselves, and weaving them into the fabric of beauty. And as they work hard to sound better they come to the quiet and spiritual realization that "nothing will work unless they do" (wise words from Maya Angelou). I think this is what compassion is all about. The British poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote a poem that I really like and I think it reflects the kind of feelings I’d like to impress upon you today:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

The bird is such a compelling metaphor as for everyone must find their voice and their passion and then sing it out loud to the world. As compassionate people, we must be there to help make that happen and feel that our song is bound up with theirs in the darkest and brightest passages of harmony. Even in the midst of our condition, I am still hopeful. And I hope that you will be too because we need people like you to help others understand how to make our communities a better and much richer place.

-Jose Luis

A few thoughts on Education - April, 6, 2015 

A few days ago, I visited with students and parents at a local Tulsa Elementary school to speak about music education and our Sistema Tulsa project. I enjoy these opportunities because I can connect and learn from them. I always feel that effective education should be a "from the ground up" or grassroots process if you will—where parents, teachers, and students must all "play" in concert to make it work.

As I shared a dinner in the school cafeteria, I met a mother and daughter who told me that they really enjoyed their school. As the conversation unfolded, I learned that the daughter, a third grader, had a few pieces of constructive criticism to share. She said, I make the Principal’s Honor Roll every time, yet I don’t feel like receive the recognition I deserve.” She believes that the school pays too much attention to behavior management and to her it seemed that doing well in that area carried more weight as far as rewards were concerned. I wonder if the school, or any school for that matter, has a process in place to hear the feelings, attitudes, or aspirations of their students. I know this would not be an easy task given the extraordinary demands teacher face on daily basis, but I learned that even taking a few minutes to hear a concern over a quick dinner can make a big difference to make a student feel included.

This exercise of inclusion can be productive on many levels. First of all, because it recognizes someone’s viewpoint and this can be important in the educational process. When Howard Gardner was in here in Tulsa to lecture on his ideas as part of the Brock International Prize in Education, he explained the concept of “individuation.” He shared that teachers must be conscious of each student’s intellectual profile (I would also add an emotional profile as rendered by the contextual circumstances of their own life). Interestingly enough, individuation is not a new practice. It happens often in the context of personal instruction or tutoring which for the most part only the more economically affluent students can partake in. In urban school districts where poverty might be an issue, all who participate in education cannot shy away from the potential of being as present as we can be in the life of each student. This of course is a parent’s responsibility first but needs to also be balanced among different supporting pillars.

I remember my first piano teacher used to say that it took the participation of the student, the teacher, and the family to reach success. I know that educational leaders often try their best to plan activities where the three can meet and share. The parent teacher conference or the “Rise and Shine” general assembly come to mind. Lately, I witnessed another type of bonding experience—the Music Festival. Around thirteen Elementary schools in Tulsa met to make music together through "Orff" ensembles and choral groups. About 200 students shared the stage with several teachers taking turns at leading the music. The general atmosphere at these events is always one of pride and celebration. It always impresses me to see so many cameras and flashes shining around, as if this were a Garth Brooks concert. But the whole point of the experience goes much farther than the waves that a musical tune can produce or the images that can be captured on a cell phone. This is about the experience of being in the presence of a much more hopeful future. As students sang (and they sang with gusto) you could sense that they felt that they were part of something important. How many times have students left a testing room feeling elated or proud about themselves?

Back to Gardner and his talk, in addition to individuation there was also “pluralization” in learning. This idea has everything to do with finding ways to teach a specific idea from multiple perspectives. There is research to prove that the arts can teach us much more than playing a note in tune or drawing a line with finesse. In fact, there are several experiments around the country having to do with what experts call “expeditionary learning” where mathematics or language can be taught from a musical perspective. I have not fully participated in this but I presume that this would work given I can still remember all 50 states and all the Books of the Bible (since they were taught to me in the form of a song).

Beyond the academic realm, I do think that there are things that only the arts can teach us. The great American jazzman Wynton Marsalis speaks eloquently on this subject. He uses music and swing as a metaphor for inclusion. “Music necessitates listening to and working with others in fulfillment of the requirements of ensemble performance,” he says, “The art of swing is the art of balance, of constant assertion and compromise.” I like the word compromise because it implies trust. And perhaps this is just what we need more of today. We need to find ways to listen better to each other, to recognize that viewpoints which might be foreign to us still matter, and to celebrate our diversity in the broadest sense of the word. I remember the student at the local Elementary school and ponder that this is perhaps why it is so important that we can listen to the most vulnerable of voices because they can teach us how we should lead and how the music should sound.

-Jose Luis

El Sistema 40  

Por su  transcendencia social y educativa, El Sistema es uno de los más importantes proyectos culturales de nuestros tiempos. En su 40 aniversario, me uno a la celebración de sus logros e ideales sublimados por el trabajo constante y paciente de su fundador José Antonio Abreu. Me siento muy orgulloso de poder ser parte de ese gran sueño de proyección hacia el futuro. ¡Felicidades! 

Because of its social and educational significance, El Sistema is one of the most important cultural projects of our time. On its 40th anniversary, I join the celebration of its achievements and ideals guided by the constant and patient work of its founder José Antonio Abreu. I feel very proud to be part of this great dream of growing better futures. Congratulations!

Music Among Friends / January 25  

I am pleased to share an upcoming musical performance in Tulsa, OK. 

Next Sunday, January 25, some of Tulsa’a most gifted instrumentalists will join members of Boston Avenue’s music program to perform a beautiful concert of chamber music at 5:00 p.m. The concert is free and open to the public.“This concert will feature  pieces that are quite intimate and expressive,” says Joel Panciera. In addition to two new vocal works by American composers, the concert will include solo concertos by J. S. Bach and Wolfgang Mozart. Jose Luis Hernandez-Estrada will be a featured soloist on the Mozart piano concerto.  The chamber group will also perform movements of Handel’s famous Water Music.  

The concert is free and open to the public.
Boston Avenue United Methodist Church
1301 S Boston Ave, Tulsa 74119 


New England Conservatory "Innovation Grant" 

I am happy to share that I am the recipient of the New England Conservatory's Sistema Fellows Resource Center Innovation Grant. This grant will allow me to pursue advance studies through the Harvard Graduate School of Education professional program "Leading Change in Education Systems." The committee stated their support in helping me "pursue learning of personal interest that will also contribute to the growth and thinking of the rest of the field." 

The Messiah at Boston Avenue  

I recently had the opportunity to conduct in a performance of Handel's masterpiece "Messiah" during the Advent Season at the Boston Avenue Church in Tulsa. It was a concert full of joy, warmth, and beauty. And a wonderful testament to the idea that music can bring people together and make communities stronger. I am grateful to music director Dr. Joel Panciera, Susan Panciera (organist), the Chancel Choir, and the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra musicians for all of their support and generosity of spirit. 

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas!