El Sistema For Choruses

New choral programs are embracing Venezuela's El Sistema model to reach children in America's underserved neighborhoods.

Fifth-grader Jade (not her real name) had little interest in singing when she accompanied a friend to the Sister Cities Girlchoir, a new group that was rehearsing in her North Philadelphia school. Part of her reluctance was the belief that her breathy voice just wasn’t good enough to be heard by anyone.

But over time her singing improved—enough so that when the choir held auditions for a traveling group, she tried out and got in. More importantly though, says Alysia Lee, who founded the Girlchoir in 2012, Jade grew into a leader. Now other girls look up to and confide in her.

“Here is this really shy girl,” says Lee, “who may not choose to be a music major, but she was able to learn a little more about herself—that who she is, is beautiful enough. When she’s doing her best, that’s all it takes to make something beautiful.”

What Sets El Sistema Programs Apart?

Sister Cities Girlchoir is one of a handful of newly established children and youth choral programs in the United States that have been inspired by El Sistema—Venezuela’s free nationwide classical music education program that aims to transform the lives of impoverished children.

These choral programs share a common mission: creating social change in underserved communities through singing. They follow a series of El Sistema guiding principles, including breaking down barriers to access, maintaining intensity, frequent community performances, encouraging high aspirations, and creating a participatory environment in which students and teaching artists lead and learn together.

El Sistema for Chorus leaders
Clockwise from top right: Zanussi, Pontin, Lee, Grogran, Bowden, and Booth.

All of this is accomplished within what is called the nucleo—a haven of safety, fun, and friendship where students are encouraged to explore their potential. “There is a lot of energy invested in creating a conducive, joyful learning environment,” says arts consultant Eric Booth, who is writing a book about the movement.

The qualities central to the El Sistema way—including working in underserved communities, intense focus, high expectations, and joyful learning—are also key aspects of many children and youth choral programs that do not identify as “El Sistema-inspired.” Sarah Grogan, who grew up singing in the Cincinnati Children’s Choir (CCC), is the director of a new El Sistema-inspired program that will launch in January as a partnership between CCC, Cincinnati May Festival, and the Vocal Arts Ensemble. She credits her background as a CCC alumni as the reason that El Sistema principles first resonated with her so strongly.

But Grogan and other founders say that El Sistema-inspired choral programs are different in a subtle but important way—a distinction that starts with the intention behind the program. “The biggest difference is the purpose of existence,” says Sara Zanussi, the founder of ComMUSICation in the Twin Cities area. “It’s music for social change at the front of our mission, rather than as a secondary priority.”

“Programs are built to remove access barriers for children,” says Lee. “That affects every element, from program design to repertoire, performance opportunities, and marketing.”

“El Sistema’s true north is youth development and how you get there is through musical excellence,” says Booth. “So there is this little bit of difference in intentionality. But over time it becomes and creates a different culture.”

Breaking Down Access Barriers

The low barrier to entry of choral singing—all you need is your voice—makes it ideal for reaching children in neighborhoods with few resources. El Sistema programs are traditionally orchestra-based, but their no-tuition, no-audition structure is a natural fit for choral music. “One reason choral El Sistema programs make so much sense is you’ve eliminated a huge cost when you eliminate the need for instruments,” says Grogan.

In order to reach underserved students where they already are, the majority of American El Sistema programs are located at schools or community centers. Each nucleo adapts to maximize the opportunities available—or to meet needs specific to its site. “Everyone wants a recipe,” says Sara Zanussi, “but you really have to tailor the program to your own community.”

For the Pacific Chorale Academy, launched in 2014 as an educational program of the Pacific Chorale, that means working hard to overcome language barriers and build trust. The majority of the 60 fourth to sixth graders who participate at three different elementary schools are Latino, and 75 percent have parents who do not speak English. “Parents are often working two to three jobs so having adult interactions has been difficult,” says Molly Pontin, who directs the Academy. But the program has blossomed, she says, and parents are now its biggest supporters.

ComMUSICation’s choral programs draw over 50 students who live in the area served by the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood initiative, a federal program that takes a community-based approach to improving outcomes for children. Even though the choirs rehearse at the local St. Paul City School and the Mt. Airy Boys & Girls Club, Zanussi has had to find creative solutions that make transportation easier for the families involved. “Fifty percent of our families do not have access to a car,” she says. “So we got in-kind tickets for the light rail system and started meeting at the school and using their vans and buses to caravan to events. We also pick up and drop off many students from their homes.”

Sister Cities Girlchoir founder Lee decided to create a girls-only choir after reading World Bank research about the “Girl Effect” in developing countries. “Investing in adolescent girls can bring the biggest economic change and social change in underserved areas,” she says. “There is a growing movement to see that body of research applied in the U.S.” The Girlchoir currently works with around 250 girls, from first graders to high schoolers.

Adjusting the Intensity

Rigorous rehearsals and frequent performances are important trademarks of an El Sistema program. But how that translates into a weekly schedule can vary. “Your definition of intensive is what works for your neighborhood,” says Aisha Bowden, director and co-founder of AMPlify, the choral music program that is part of the El Sistema-inspired Atlanta Music Project. AMPlify serves around 60 children at two sites: a recreation center and a flagship site, newly opened this year, at the Kindezi School at West Lake, a public charter school.

The Kindezi Flagship program meets four days a week for two hours each day and serves students in grades one through eight. Students who meet at the recreation center receive instruction on Thursdays from 5:30pm to 8:00pm and Saturday from 9:00am to 12:00pm. Several other directors say their programs share this twice-weekly model.

The ComMUSICation Choir, ComMUSICation’s top ensemble, meets more frequently: Monday through Friday for two hours and 15 minutes per session. The first half hour is devoted to completing homework and getting a snack. ComMUSICation has also launched a training choir called Crescendo with rehearsals twice a week and musical activities the other two days of the week. Students in this training choir learn ComMUSICation traditions, music literacy, and the skills that will eventually allow them to focus in more rigorous rehearsals.

El Sistema choirs perform often, with typically 30 or more opportunities per year. “These are not necessarily structured, planned concerts,” Bowden says, “but the idea is to always be performance ready. That’s what leads to intensity in rehearsals.” When visitors come to observe her program, for example, she turns that into a performance opportunity for the students.

Becoming comfortable with the risks and rewards of performing helps nurture a quality of fearlessness. “Kids these days have a lot less margin for failure,” Pontin says. “To give kids a place to struggle and possibly fail, and do it publicly—that process is an important part.”

Reaching Unreasonably High

El Sistema programs encourage children, even those who begin without obvious musical talent, to be “unusually ambitious in their aspirations,” says Eric Booth. The idea is to instill the concept that by working hard together, it’s possible to pull off projects that seemed impossible. “Each difficult piece is an opportunity to inculcate this growth mindset that kids take away from music into the rest of their lives.”

“I can’t emphasize enough how the insistence on artistic excellence is what really builds the intensity,” says Bowden. “Without it, AMPlify would just be a fun place to hang out after school. Because of the high level of artistry, AMPlify is fun and a powerful learning tool for its participants.”

Pacific Chorale Academy
The Pacific Chorale Academy in one of their performances.

To encourage high ambitions, the Pacific Chorale Academy celebrates individual and team achievements. Every rehearsal includes a badge ceremony that rewards individuals for achievements like consistent attendance, singing a major scale, showing growth or demonstrating leadership. “Students love it,” says Molly Pontin. “It’s also useful for us for assessment, to see how kids have progressed.”

Every Academy performance is videotaped, and together the singers grade themselves on such things as how well they stayed in their “window” or watched the conductor. “After seeing themselves giggling, talking, and not in a straight line as they went on and off stage for their December concert last year, they decided they wanted to improve this in future performances,” Pontin says. The singers practiced diligently in preparation for their May concert and were proud of their silent, professional entrance and exit.

For Lee of the Girlchoir, reaching high also means choosing repertoire that sends an aspirational message. The Girlchoir’s so-called “purple” pieces—the group’s signature color is purple—all reinforce the singers’ worth as strong girls and women. Lee includes repertoire selections from her singers to create a rich palette of styles that are meaningful to them. “To say that Beyonce is worthy of study in this rehearsal space next to Beethoven,” says Lee, “speaks volumes in terms of our philosophy.”

Teaching Artists who “Get It”

At the heart of the El Sistema programs are the teaching artists, who create an atmosphere in which children can take risks, overcome their fears, and excel. In the El Sistema philosophy, teachers are also working artists—an important distinction.

“As a teacher, to continue to keep in shape as a performer, much like an athlete, is really important,” says Sara Zanussi, who studied piano and voice. “El Sistema gives you a fresh opportunity to think about music in new ways and grow as an artist. You are on the same level as the kids, learning right alongside them.”

In Sarah Grogan’s experience, American El Sistema choral programs take a slightly different approach to the traditional Venezuelan “Citizen-Artist-Teacher-Scholar” model and its strong emphasis on working artists. When hiring instructors, she looks first and foremost for a background in music education. “Your teaching is your art,” she says. “We expect our teachers to perform at a high artistic level but we don’t define that in terms of solo performance.”

El Sistema’s commitment to accessibility means that teaching artists deal with a wide range of abilities and interest levels. “You get kids who love to sing alongside kids who come because they hate their after school program and don’t want to do their math homework,” says Molly Pontin. Patience and creativity are key to maintaining a joyful, productive energy. “You can’t start bearing down or getting frustrated with those who aren’t getting it,” says Eric Booth. “When a kid is struggling, you have to meet that kid on a different level and invent solutions.”

Working Effectively with Schools

Removing access barriers means meeting children where they already are. For El Sistema choral programs, that usually means partnering with schools to share rehearsal space, costs, or teaching staff – and sometimes all of the above. Because each program is tailored for its community, each partnership has a different structure.

The Pacific Chorale Academy is an “official” after school program that receives a portion of its funding through the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. Choirs are co-led by the school music teacher and a program teaching artist. The formal partnership makes it easier for students to participate in the Academy and taps into the school’s support services, says Pontin. “If a kid is having academic issues, medical issues, family problems, there is an entire system to deal with it. And there are translators, too, to deal with language differences.”

The different ways that Sister Cities Girlchoir works with school music teachers show how this relationship can vary depending on the situation. At one school, the Girlchoir hired the music teacher as a teaching artist. “She attends all our professional development and training sessions, and attended ACDA with our staff last winter,” says Lee. At another school, the music teacher serves as the staff liaison, helping the program navigate school scheduling and culture and assisting with administrative needs. At a third school, the music teacher, who has an instrumental background, “did not feel comfortable assisting,” says Lee. The student life coordinator serves as the staff liaison instead. “The joy of Sistema is being flexible to maximize the strengths and opportunities present,” says Lee. “There is no cookie cutter plan.”

Choir leaders agree that finding the right school to work with is essential. AMPlify‘s first partnership with a school did not continue because of internal problems at the school. The program now puts out an RFP—Request for Partnership—to help guide creating formal relationships with schools and other organizations. Due diligence includes site visits by AMPlify board members and detailed conversations with school principals and other key people. “We really want to co-found the program with them,” Aisha Bowden says of AMPlify’s approach to working with schools.“We are not just coming in with our program and leaving. Everyone is getting into the game.”

Pontin echoes this sentiment: “As an arts organization, we need to be very careful about providing music education in lieu of the school system doing it, because we advocate for arts education being part of the regular curriculum.” When the district has some skin in the game, she says, “we are able to leverage our influence to support arts education as a whole.”

Partnering to Piece Together the Funding Puzzle

Like most non-profits, El Sistema choral programs are funded through a combination of individual donors, foundations, corporations, and local, city, and state arts councils. Several of the choirs have found additional income and resources through programs that support projects in underserved communities.

ComMUSICation initially gained entry to three St. Paul public schools and one charter school by connecting to the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood initiative, a federal program that brings together families, schools, and public agencies to take a whole-community approach to improving children’s lives. St. Paul City School, where the top choir rehearses, provides students with snacks and transportation—an $18,000 a year expense that ComMUSICation would not have been able to pay. ComMUSICation’s other site, a Boys & Girls Club, provides office space for ComMUSICation staff, as well as program space, snacks and dinners for students, and supplies. In exchange, the Club gets to say, for the first time in over a decade, that it has arts programming to offer neighborhood children. “It is all about building a great relationship and finding a way that it can be mutually beneficial,” says Zanussi.

In Camden, Sister Cities Girlchoir has benefitted from a large federal grant through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, which supports enrichment opportunities for children during non-school hours. “We partner with Rutgers Camden to bring our program to one of the sites they support which draws from four schools,” says Lee. The Girlchoir and Rutgers University-Camden also partner to provide paid internships for Rutgers music students, to host a career fair for girls, and to perform on the university campus.

Fundraising is a top priority as programs look to expand into new sites or to serve wider age ranges. Pontin has her sights set on tapping Title I federal funding earmarked for schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families. “We are at two Title I schools now,” she says. “There are a number of resources to serve those kids. And there are a lot of foundations here in Southern California that also want to serve those kids.”

Aisha Bowden welcomes the challenge. “I see this program as something that is building the city,” she says. “We are giving people an opportunity to invest in their own community. We are building something beautiful and magical together.”

Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco.