At Queen Elizabeth School in Moncton, there is a flurry of activity. It’s 4pm and children are assembling in classrooms, the cafeteria and any available space along with their music teachers. A large group of 6 to 7 year olds hum along to the melody on their music sheet, learning to read musical notes in preparation for playing their string instruments. Not too far away, older kids form an orchestra to practice a piece of music that Sistema teacher and New Brunswick Youth Orchestra (NBYO) Conductor Tony Delgado tells me they have only started learning a week ago. The music that is coming out of the group’s instruments is astoundingly good – I’m getting goose bumps. The kids’ faces are deeply concentrated on following along and you can sense the hard work and dedication that these young musicians are putting in. Even more astounding is that these kids will be rehearsing for 3 hours and their attention span is impeccable. Every child here is passionate about learning music, all the while having tons of fun.
That’s the magic of Sistema New Brunswick, a program run by the NBYO, which is aiming to break down barriers to inclusion for children in need. The principle is simple: any child who shows enthusiasm and commitment to learn should be able to learn music. Young Sistema musicians are given the instrument of their choice and free instruction every weekday afternoon. Through the process, they also learn valuable life and work ethic skills, which favour their growth and have a positive impact on their lives and society.
“Seven years ago, I came across this story online about El Sistema, a social development through music program that was well established in Venezuela”, recalls Ken MacLeod, President and CEO of the NBYO. “I had to learn more and see if this could work in New Brunswick.”
Sistema NB offers instruction in both English and French and now runs 5 centres: two in Moncton, one in Saint John, one in Richibucto and one in the Tobique First Nation. Partnerships with local schools give access to rehearsal space. The program is run entirely by the NBYO, which provides the instruments as well as hires professional musicians from around the world to teach.
“In our first year, we were aiming for 20 to 30 children. Instead, we had over 180 applications. We ended up starting our first year with 50 children. We now have 520 children in our program, with hundreds more on a waiting list.”
What makes the Sistema program so popular with its young students is its participatory ensemble-based approach to learning music. Instead of more traditional music education, where a child learns with a private tutor and is expected to practice by him or herself in between sessions, the Sistema students learn in groups, as part of an orchestra. The young musicians are held to the highest work ethic. They learn from their teachers and practice for 3 hours every day after school, which creates discipline and commitment. They need to learn to play in tune and also in time with their peers.
“Literally within months, we see dramatic changes with the kids. They are engaged, involved, happy and disciplined. When they get to play in front of an audience, their self-confidence just soars when they hear that applause. They start wanting to make their instruments sound good and they start identifying the success they are having with focus, discipline, hard work and respect for their teammates. These are all great life lessons for any child.”
For the first time this year, 8 kids have gone on to join the NBYO from Sistema. The NBYO is expecting that another 20 might audition to join next year. “We try to reach children who do not have many options available to them. We go into the schools and talk about Sistema and give the children application forms to fill out with their parents if they are interested. Our passion is to see these children reach their full potential and realize just what great things they are capable of. And it’s always great to see the families – how proud they are of their children when they come to shows. Parents are just in awe of the beauty of what their kids are able to do with these instruments. While we don’t expect all these children to become professional musicians in the long run, many will go on to become community leaders because of the work ethic, self-confidence and mind-set they have gained through Sistema.”
MacLeod and his team’s hard work and vision have paid off. While over 40 countries run Sistema programs, Sistema NB is the largest of its kind in Canada and is now recognized as a leader in its approach. Representatives from Sistema NB are often called upon, both in Canada and internationally, for conferences and coaching/mentoring to help disseminate what they have learned with others.
“We may be small, but we’re mighty. There is no shortage of talent here in New Brunswick.”
Nathalie Landry is a freelance writer and communications consultant. Her communications for social change consulting practice, Echo Actions, is dedicated to helping non-profits and small businesses who want to change the world find the right medium and audience for their message. @EchoActions
Sistema New Brunswick: http://sistemanb.ca/