Eric Booth on the Global El Sistema Movement

In this interview, Lee Ann Norman and Eric Booth discuss the global El Sistema movement, which is the basis of his new book Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016).

The music learning approach known as El Sistema began in Venezuela more than 40 years ago. Founded by orchestral conductor, pianist, economist, educator, activist, and politician Jose Antonio Abreu, the approach relies on teaching social skills through intensive arts training. It has spread to 64 countries and reached nearly one million children living in the most stressed communities. Although the focus has typically been music, El Sistema-inspired programs are expanding to other art forms.

cover_playing-for-their-lives-p4c3fk-lo-resTheater artist, educator, and founder of the teaching artist movement Eric Booth has been charting the unprecedented growth of the program around the world, and his latest book Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016) examines the key question around Sistema’s success: How can a set of values, rather than a pedagogy, be adapted to be effective in settings as varied as South Central Los Angeles, Afghanistan, or an Inuit village in Greenland?

El Sistema-inspired programs emphasize strong connections between the sites of learning and participants’ communities. Although empirical research is still in development, programs provide abundant anecdotal evidence suggesting that young Sistema students do not join gangs or experience contact with the criminal justice system, and have higher academic achievement at dramatically higher rates than their peers. In this interview, Lee Ann Norman and Eric Booth discuss the new book and how El Sistema provides a strong case for social transformation through arts learning.

Lee Ann Norman: Let’s begin with some background about the book.

Eric Booth: My co-writer Tricia Tunstall really captured the growth of El Sistema in Venezuela then as it grew in the US in Changing Livesthe book she published in 2013. The historically unprecedented thing is this same set of principles, although not the same set of pedagogical practices, has spread to 64 countries with the widest variety of cultures, and almost one million children around the world. When she finished this book, we noticed that there was a big untold story, which was the US has the most El Sistema-inspired programs in the world. A couple of things that were particularly fascinating for me [to learn] as we wrote the new book was that the social problems El Sistema-inspired programs were targeted to address were different in different countries.

LAN: How does El Sistema change when it’s implemented in different communities? 

Eric Booth: One example is that the first program in Japan — which has the best music education program in the world — was started in Fukushima. After the tsunami, radiation, and ecological problems that followed, the towns were full of kids in trauma. The music education was not speaking to their need: yes, these are excellent programs, kids win awards, but in their words, “ . . . we need the pedagogy of joy.” We saw the same impulse in Screbrenica, Bosnia, which was the town during the war that experienced the worst massacres in the world since the Second World War. Neighbors slaughtered neighbors and were still living next to each other. They thought the only way to bridge this ethnic divide was to get young kids making music together, and then using that to get their parents communicating, singing together and traveling when their kids performed.

That’s where the book came from, putting the thoughts together to ask: What is this thing that is arts education, but it so powerful that it is proving more effective at social transformation than anything else these cultures have been able to throw at these problems?

LAN: I was talking to someone recently about the history of education in the US. The focus went from very pragmatic — teaching and learning the “three Rs” to a social shift focusing on morals, how to be a good person and citizen of the world. I see similarities with the El Sistema approach: There is an emphasis on making sure the things being taught in the program are being reinforced in the home or community. Do you think this has been important to the movement’s success?

Eric Booth: One of the principles of El Sistema-inspired work that people find challenging is it’s unabashedly a youth development program and not a music education program. Its purpose is to inculcate essential social skills that enable kids who haven’t had particularly advantageous education [opportunities] to succeed in ways that others in their community have not. But here is the paradoxical part: They recognize that only way kids can really develop those skills is through high artistic achievement. It’s putting the notion of social development and artistic achievement together in a different way. It’s flipping the idea that community based work is second rate, which takes community-based arts learning to a new level of ambition. The reason they can do it is because they are getting so many hours with the kids, and they are focusing on the development of intrinsic motivation. They are taking the whole ensemble up to a level of ambition that says there is another kind of excellence; music education is social transformation.

Sistema program in Uummannaq Greenland
Sistema program in Uummannaq Greenland

LAN: A very rewarding aspect of playing music is you can see clearly how your individual part fits with the ensemble. Everyone has to practice, then come back and negotiate what she’s learned with others. It creates a different understanding of what it means to relate to others as well as the preparation it takes to do that.

Eric Booth: Yes, I would take that observation further by saying there is a strong emphasis in Sistema-based work on peer instruction and peer responsibility. There is a phrase that is often used in Venezuela — if you know how to play four notes it’s your responsibility to teach your friend who only knows three. In teaching your friend the fourth note, you become more ready to learn the fifth. This is vastly different than arts education in the US where you are assessed for your individual accomplishment, and there is a fair amount of competition for status. El Sistema says we only succeed together, and there is no separation between being an artist and being a teacher. We noticed this when we talked to kids around the world, asking if they’d like to become teachers some day. It never occurred to them that you could be an artist without being a teacher. These are such suffused roles: Being an artist means being a teacher and being a teacher means being an artist. We have artists with a much broader definition of what artistry means.

LAN: That’s a radical shift in the way people in the US typically learn and participate in arts.

Eric Booth: Sistema programs are usually mistaken to be synonymous with classical music, but in fact, they are much broader with their musical exploration. The directors of the programs say the music we play is music that’s important to the community. Classical music happens to be a good accelerant for the development of technique, but in performances, we want music that creates a surge of emotional pride in the audience, music that is a hoot for everyone to be around as well as a classical piece so the kids can show what they can do. It is much more responsive to the values of the community than an elitist imposition in which it is sometimes portrayed.

LAN: There is a lot of focus [in Sistema programs] on music education, but there are theater and dance based programs in development. Are there plans to take this into the visual realm or into literary [arts]? How do these values transfer to other art forms?

Sistema program in a community hall in Mozambique
Sistema program in a community hall in Mozambique

Eric Booth: Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, has been saying that we are experimenting in music, but this can work in all art forms in the same way. Renaissance Arts Academy in Los Angeles has programs in music and dance (kids can choose which one they want to join) that work in parallel ways. The program directors say they get the same results using the same principles of peer instruction, youth development focus, and ensemble-based work. A guy in New York right now is looking to start a program in musical theater. We don’t usually think of musical theater in this way, but if you look at the program as devised theater — ensemble based, intensive, 15 hours a week, using huge amounts of kids’ discretionary time — they are developing serious vocal chops and movement abilities. They would then take those productions into their communities. I can see that [experience] being just as powerful as a youth orchestra where kids play Mozart and John Williams.

What’s fascinating to me is that arts education is being deployed to solve the challenges that countries have almost given up hope of finding solutions for. Arts education is the least likely solution on earth for solving problems like immigration, poverty, and community trauma, but the least likely solution is proving to be the most practical — and I would say cost effective — way to make a difference in addressing these problems. It’s a kind of honoring of what arts educators have known for a very long time; the world is now recognizing this sleeping giant of potential that has quietly been disregarded throughout America.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Related on ArtsFwd

Last year, EmcArts launched the Community Innovation Lab, a program that helps communities begin to address challenging social issues by deeply integrating artists and artistic experiences into rigorously designed and facilitated change processes. Check out our series of project updates to learn how two cities gathered a diverse, cross-sector group of stakeholders to begin addressing a specific and urgent local challenge in civic and cultural life.

Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music by Eric Booth and Tricia Tunstall. 2016. ISBN-13:978-0393245646. W.W. Norton & Company. 432 pages. Buy the book