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The Unsung Side Of El Sistema

December 4, 2012

When most people think of El Sistema, the amazing Venezuelan-born music education program that's transforming the way in which many countries are approaching the musical development of children, images of little kids playing violins and French horns come most readily to mind.

Few people, particularly outside of Venezuela, consider the fact that El Sistema also has an incredible vocal music education program involving thousands of children.

Documentaries about El Sistema focus strongly on the instrumental training, as do news stories. Most of the photographic documentation related to the program that's disseminated around the world captures kids blowing, plucking and hitting various orchestral instruments. Very rarely do we see images of El Sistema kids singing. And it's the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the top tier instrumental group of the El Sistema program, that most of us here in the US have been lucky enough to experience live on stage. The ensemble has been touring this country for a number of years now. The Simon Bolivar Choir, by contrast, only made its US debut this fall, and has only undertaken one previous international tour.

At a conference about El Sistema hosted by Cal Performances last week, the singing side of El Sistema was once again invisible. At least it was until I asked a question of keynote speaker Eric Booth about why so little emphasis is placed on the choral activities of El Sistema in the marketing of -- and international conversation surrounding -- the program.

Booth replied that although the singing program is very extensive and impressive, it doesn't have the same marketing cache as the orchestral program. What it boils down to is this: Seeing a picture of a little kid holding a violin, as above, left, is somehow much more impressive and compelling to people than looking at a picture of a bunch of children, as above, right, with their mouths wide open singing a song.

This wasn't a very satisfactory answer to my question. I don't think Booth felt very comfortable talking about singing.

Funnily enough, people who attended the conference picked up on the singing issue several times for the rest of the day, so it clearly touched a nerve. Gillian Moore, of London's South Bank Center, said during one panel discussion that the El Sistema choral program, "is going to be the next big story coming out of Venezuela."

I certainly hope that this will prove to be true.

It's time for marketers and media types to pay attention to singing as a core component of music education. The voice is the most primal and widespread instrument. It's arguably the most powerful too, in terms of its ability to touch vast numbers of people both at the individual and community level. The brilliant vocalists who come out of the El Sistema choral program can help to demonstrate just how important singing is to the world.

But their efforts would be much more visible if they didn't have to stand in the shadow of the El Sistema orchestral juggernaut all the time.


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