Playing for Their Lives

Tricia Tunstall & Eric Booth

383 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016

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Four decades ago, Venezuelan economist, musician, and government official José Antonio Abreu founded the music education program El Sistema on the belief that musical collaboration teaches children the values and skills needed to become productive, fulfilled members of society. The program, which Abreu continues to lead, features intensive, inclusive participation in ensemble music-making, and a primary focus on empathic collaboration, disciplined practice, and positive energy. Over 40 years, Abreu has sought to bring this opportunity to all children in Venezuela—especially the most impoverished and neglected—and the program is increasingly seen as a novel and promising approach to ameliorating the effects of childhood poverty and trauma. In recent years, programs in more than 65 countries across the world (including 120 in the United States) have adopted and adapted the model. In an effort to discover what makes this movement successful, we visited programs in more than 25 of these countries. —Tricia Tunstall & Eric Booth

In the world’s happiest country, we encountered one of the world’s most challenging Sistema environments. The United Nations World Happiness Report has ranked Denmark the happiest nation on earth, using internationally agreed-upon measures—of wealth, health, social welfare, generosity, and freedom—to rate happiness in 150 countries. (In 2012, the top five were all in northern Europe). Spending time in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city and one of the most human-friendly as well as eco-friendly cities on the planet, we could believe the UN findings. The site of a major port on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, the city combines Old-World provincial elegance with a modern public sector of parks and community arts projects, and it twinkles with turning bicycle wheels; many Aarhus citizens pedal through its vast network of bike lanes daily, leaving the automobile roadways eerily unclogged even at rush hour.

Just outside of Aarhus, the Gellerup district is the largest housing project and the poorest neighborhood in Denmark. Fully 88 percent of its population is comprised of immigrants and refugees from many countries; they are mostly Muslim. (In 2005, the local Aarhus newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad that sparked controversy and violence there and across the world.) The “new-Danes,” as they are officially called, often do not integrate well with local Danish culture; they tend to live in a parallel society, turning inward to sustain their homeland cultures and to resist assimilation. Unemployment is over 70 percent; crime, tension, and poverty are high. The community resists government help and resents the necessity to accept it…. During the past few years, the neighborhood has seen over thirty teenage boys leave to join ISIS in Syria.

In one Gellerup elementary school where nearly all the children are from immigrant Muslim families, a Sistema-inspired program called MusikUnik (Unique Music) brings ensemble music-making to about fifty second- and third-graders three or four times a week during the school day. The children play flutes, clarinets, a few trombones and trumpets; they play at a rudimentary skill level, even after two years. The day we observed them, three little girls were learning a simple flute melody, while the other children learned even simpler harmony lines on their instruments. Bjørg Lindvang, the head teacher, told them: “I wrote this tune because these three flute players are working so hard, they inspired me.” The children were fairly shy and withdrawn, but the teachers—all young, skillful and tirelessly sweet-tempered—coaxed the notes out of them.

Speaking with us after the session, Bjørg talked about Naadir, a nine-year-old trumpet player. (His name and the names of some of the other children depicted in this book have been changed, at the request of program directors.) He started coming to the program when it first began, but wouldn’t sing, play, or join in any way. The teachers didn’t know what to do, but because inclusion is a foundational priority of El Sistema programs, they made an agreement with him that he could attend as long as he didn’t distract the others. He attended the entire first year of classes, often with his back to the action, sometimes having to leave when he began distracting others—but returning, day after day, week after week. The teachers treated him as someone who belonged, and never pressured him. After about a year and a half, Naadir casually picked up a trumpet and started trying to play along with the group. He had been paying attention, it turned out; he had a pretty clear idea of what to do, although he couldn’t do it at first. A teacher sat down next to him immediately and started coaching him.

At every MusikUnik session since then, Naadir has played the trumpet. They don’t let him take it home, but he clearly assumes it’s his. He attends most days, has almost caught up musically, and is a full member of the ensemble. Naadir feels valuable. He feels included.


Inclusion is the first principle of El Sistema. In visiting over a hundred núcleos around the world, we found that no matter how vastly different their cultural settings are, they share a profound dedication to this ideal. The citizen artists who launch and run these programs have chosen to work with children and families who are sidelined— by poverty, discrimination, or other kinds of adversity—from the flourishing centers of their societies. They commit themselves to bringing these children into a state of belonging. They encounter difficulties that are almost always greater than they had anticipated. In most cases, they keep going.

José Antonio Abreu has often said that of the manifold kinds of suffering caused by poverty, none is worse than the feeling of exclusion—of not belonging, of literally being “no one.” This feeling can be a complex tangle of perceived and reinforced rejection. A child in circumstances of poverty or ethnic discrimination, for whom exclusion is a material fact of life, will internalize the feeling of not belonging, of being no one. That feeling will become a psychic certainty that persists regardless of circumstances. Naadir lives in a community that feels excluded even as its host city goes to serious lengths to make the new-Danes feel included. He re-created his deep feeling of exclusion even within a program that reached out to include him with every kindness it could devise. It took more than a year of daily, patient welcoming before Naadir could trust that, in fact, he belonged. By the end of the second year, he began to feel he was valuable.

The phenomenon of social exclusion has been increasingly recognized by social scientists as one of the most damaging threats to emotional wellbeing. In 1995, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary argued that a sense of belonging is a fundamental human need, not simply a preference, and that the absence of this sense results in mental illness.17 In more recent research, brain scans have shown that the feeling of being excluded registers in the brain as actual physical pain.

There is also increasing recognition that social exclusion is deeply connected to poverty, with research showing that poor children, whether in the absolute poverty of developing nations or the relative poverty of wealthier ones, often grow up with an abiding sense of exclusion. Some researchers have concluded that social exclusion is the single most damaging result of poverty. “We typically think of stress as being a risk factor for disease,” scientist and professor Steve Cole has said. “And it is. But if you actually measure stress, using our best available instruments, it can’t hold a candle to social isolation. Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psycho- logical risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.”

Research on gang membership around the world indicates that the psychological drive to belong in a group is one of the primary reasons for joining a gang. In Venezuela, a country rife with gangs, there’s extensive observational evidence that early engagement in Sistema programs can effectively lower the risk that children will join gangs. Around the world, the anecdotal and early evaluative data suggests significantly lower gang involvement on the part of Sistema youth in comparison with their non-Sistema peers.

To date, research on the cognitive, psychological, and physical damages of chronic stress is rarely combined with the research on social isolation. But our observations suggest that the combination of stress and social isolation can be distinctively toxic to children’s development.

During the 1990s, “social exclusion” became a commonly used term in public and social discourse; in 2000, the European Union adopted an official policy to combat it. But combating so complex a phenomenon, in contexts ranging from ghettos and refugee camps within poor countries to immigrant enclaves within wealthy ones, is not simply a matter of policy change. Real change can occur only when individuals’ internal psychic structures of “being no one, belonging nowhere” begin to change. Social remedies that do not invest in what it takes to change internal psychic structures, the habits of mind and heart, are going to achieve limited results at best, no matter how well intentioned or well funded they are.

This is the investment El Sistema attempts to make, by creating youth musical ensembles that include the conventionally uninclude-able. Through the sustained pleasurable experience of community inclusion in music-making, children are given a chance to re-create their sense of belonging in the world. In the most successful Sistema programs, each child experiences the wholeness of musical community and internally reconstructs it as psychic wholeness. The sense of inclusion within a larger human endeavor nurtures a sense of self- worth and intrinsic value.

This may sound abstract, but we encountered specific examples of it many times in the course of our travels. Arriving late at night in Bucharest to learn about the Sistema program in Romania, we were picked up at the airport by a young couple, Avram and Alina. As they drove us to their small town in the Transylvanian mountains, they told us that belonging to the Sistema program there is the best thing that has ever happened to their nine-year-old son. When we asked why, Alina said, “We are Roma. So the rest of society looks down on us and doesn’t want to associate with us. But my son feels now that he is worth something, that he is valuable. He is much happier and more self-confident. Now he sings all the time.”

In Turin, Italy, observing a Sistema program for preschoolers, we noticed a particularly tiny boy who could barely hold his one- eighth-sized violin but was completely on board with the rhythmic chants. “Lun-a! Lun-a! Sol-e! Sol-e!” he sang vigorously as he endeavored to pluck his open E string. His teacher, Ayben Soytuna, a music student from Turkey, told us that the boy, whose parents are immigrants from China, had been mute for the first four months of the program, clearly terrified to try to speak Italian. But when he found he could sing it, he felt a sense of inclusion that changed his demeanor. “We were all in tears when he began to sing,” Ayben said. “It felt like he was being born all over again.”

As a simple but absolute priority, the principle of inclusion is embodied in El Sistema practice first and foremost as an admissions policy: entry is open to all, with no auditions and no fees (a few have very modest fees), and targeted at under-included communities. When compared to the procedures of most non-Sistema youth ensembles across the world, this is a policy radical in every sense of the word. Ever since the beginning of El Sistema, when José Antonio Abreu shocked the musical establishment of Caracas in 1975 by eliminating auditions for his new orchestra, many longtime musicians and music educators have been skeptical about the musical efficacy of its all-inclusion policy. To welcome all comers, including those who demonstrate no musical aptitude at all, into an endeavor that aims at the complex goal of ensemble mastery is to challenge most of classical music’s received wisdom about both talent and mastery. Orchestral excellence is difficult to achieve under any circumstances. How can an orchestra possibly aim high and become great, if the untalented kids are welcomed and kept in the ensemble? El Sistema’s inclusivity mandate caused many to conclude that El Sistema work was doomed to musical mediocrity—until the evidence from Venezuela began to undermine that verdict.


One final, essential point about ensemble music as a vehicle for inclusion. A choral or orchestra concert is in many ways like a big team-sports event; it represents the culmination of teamwork and cooperation, intensively practiced. But there is one crucial difference: in a musical event, no one loses. In any sports game, fully half of the players always lose. And no matter how enlightened the coaching, showing up as losers can color the young players’ sense of self. In addition, there are usually players on both teams who sit on the bench, just hoping for a chance to play—in effect, visibly announc- ing they are not so good, and thus feeling only half-included and less important.

When a Sistema orchestra team takes the field, everyone—every single one—wins. Every single player is necessary and equally responsible. This is the singular potency of musical ensemble inclusion.

Copyright © 2016 by Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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