Composition in El Sistema

From Sistema Fellow Albert Oppenheimer…

After five weeks in Venezuela for our immersion in the teaching, learning, and community of El Sistema, we found ourselves seated at a table with the founder and patriarch, Maestro José Antonio Abreu. When Maestro Abreu asked us about our experience traveling throughout Venezuela, it seemed perfectly natural. However, his real interest in the conversation was suggestions for improvement. After the amazing journey they’ve been on for the past 37 years, where else could they go? What opportunities have we seen?

When the time came for me to speak, I first shared how I viewed my time in Venezuela through the lens of the language of music, linguaje musical – how children are taught and how they interact with reading music, theory, and ear training; how those skills are applied in relationship to their instrumental practice. (More reflections on this are available on my blog.)

But the conversation did not last long as we began to discuss a phenomenon I saw throughout my time in Venezuela.

I’m a composer, and in every site we visited, I was approached by some student in the nucleo who wanted to share their music with me. Sometimes the student didn’t approach me directly but instead the nucleo director or teacher would excitedly point me towards the 7 year old who had just written a string quartet or the 17 year old who was puzzling out how to harmonize the melody he had just written for violin.

I was approached by so many young, excited composers, scores in hand, eager to show and tell. I realized:

Composers are everywhere in El Sistema.

There just isn’t a structure within the system to nurture them… yet.

It is reasonable that within El Sistema there are young, budding composers. They are introduced to composers and composition through the music they play. Through the act of playing classical music, composition is role modeled for them. And they are immersed in that environment for 4-6 hours a day, 5-6 days a week! The potential is exciting.

So, in response to Maestro Abreu’s query, I suggested El Sistema take the exciting step to nurture these composers and give them a path. The Maestro looked at me, nodded, and agreed, requesting that I continue to envision how young composers could grow through El Sistema, and that I eventually return to dream with others in Venezuela and create a home for composers within Sistema. I excitedly agreed to his charge, and, as we left the room, I began dreaming about the many ways this could be accomplished.

When my fellowship ends, I have the great honor and joy to be joining the family of the People’s Music School in Chicago as the Director of the YOURS Project. With YOURS, I hope to develop resources with and for El Sistema-inspired programs here in the United States, while simultaneously developing resources and the structure for the potential of composition in El Sistema in Venezuela. YOURS will act s as a sandbox and launching pad for open-source curricula, tools, and thoughts regarding the use of improvisation and composition as teaching tools. These tools can be used as pathways to musical literacy, self-direction, ownership, and independence.

Music is not just a language for one to speak, like speeches to be read off the page via the violin, much like one might perform Shakespeare. It is also a language of creation, of personal ownership, expression, and exploration. Every pitch, every rhythm is another tool/ingredient/option to potentially be re-imagined into a unique composition. If music were to be taught with the understanding that it is also as malleable as language, as fluid as finger paint, perhaps we could nurture a generation of composers.