El Sistema Diary: Finding Mystic

During the last couple of days, I’ve heard from numerous people involved in El Sistema one word that resonates ever so strongly with the work we’ve experienced: that is, mystic. A word we don’t often hear, at least when describing the processes and outcomes of music education. After seeing a concert of very young musicians at Montalban, family members referred to the work as having a special mystic, “our children can learn to work together and believe in themselves,“ one mother said.

A recent New York Times article touched on the idea of an overarching mystic permeating  El Sistema, citing an almost religious quality to the work of Maestro Abreu. This is very true, nucleos feel in many ways as sacred spaces, sanctuaries for the learning and teaching of music.

How does this manifest itself? As you enter a nucleo, there is music all around you. Upstairs, one orchestra can be working on Handel’s Water Music, while another plays an arrangement of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Downstairs is a wind band playing through Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. In the room next door, cuatro lessons (a Venezuelan folk instrument) are being taught to anyone who might be interested. Other students are taking lessons in solfege, very young musicians are working on Dalcroze exercises. All happening simultaneously. One can hear music emanate from every classroom and carry into another, creating a kaleidoscope of sounds, all infused with an aspiring zeal. Every student in the nucleo is aware of each other’s musical activities, creating even deeper connections among themselves.

This is part of that mystic: the experience of being part of an endearing yet almost indescribable experience. That’s why students and teachers keep coming back, they instinctively know that music can offer the kind of intrinsic motivation and hope that few other activities can provide.

In El Sistema, music is seen in the context of what it can provide to the development of youngsters. And because music is one of the most demanding of all the art forms, it is the perfect vehicle to achieve this mission. Students are pushed to the limits. Middle-school age children can reach levels of musical accomplishment far beyond what is expected of that age group in any setting. Building a tenacious spirit is a way out of the stresses of both material and non-material poverty. Meeting extraordinary musical goals on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis is their measurement of success.

Indeed, inviting young people to believe in themselves might be perhaps one of El Sistema’s greatest contributions. The joy that this brings cannot be measured. It can only be felt--with the heart.

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