El Sistema

Making Music at Mitchell


Excerpts adapted from an AAPS News article by Tara Cavanaugh

Starting in October 2013, Mitchell Elementary School fifth graders began learning to play string instruments through a program modeled on El Sistema.  From its origins in Venezuela, El Sistema is making its way into some schools in the United States. Now, thanks to a partnership with the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD), School of Social Work (SSW) and School of Education (SOE), an El Sistema model is being piloted at Mitchell, an Ann Arbor Public School. This model gives students a chance to benefit from high-quality musical instruction and develop the personal strength that comes with learning to play an instrument.

Project Description

El Sistema, which is Spanish for “The System,” is Venezuela’s internationally renowned music education program. It began in 1975, and its influences are spreading into the United States. Schools in California, Texas and New York have used the program, to name just a few. An El Sistema graduate, Gustavo Dudamel, was named the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009. At just 33, he is the youngest conductor of a major symphony orchestra in the world.

At Mitchell Elementary, El Sistema students practice after school for 90 minutes, four days a week, building upon the skills they are taught during the day in the school music curriculum by Mitchell music teacher Dan Tolly. The cellos, violins and violas practice together, in small groups, and also one-on-one with the program’s three teachers and several volunteer tutors.

During each El Sistema session, Dan Tolly and U-M SMTD graduate students Horacio Contreras and Zach Ragent lead the students in mastering songs, some as complicated as “The Star Spangled Banner,” in three-part harmony. They circle the room, helping students master whatever part seems difficult. For further reinforcement, SMTD also sends music majors who provide individual tutoring for the students.

Project Background

There would be no El Sistema program at Mitchell if it weren’t for the U-M Third Century Initiative. A $50,000 Discovery grant covered the expenses of the pilot program, including after-school snacks and bus transportation home. Additional support was provided by U-M alumni Jerry and Helga Bilik and the William and Ilene Birge.

The U-M School of Social Work, and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance consulted with the School of Education, which leads the Mitchell Scarlett Teaching and Learning Collaboration (MSTLC), when applying for the grant. Mitchell is in its fourth year of this intensive partnership, designed to assist school personnel in improving student achievement and creating a context for teacher education. The El Sistema initiative will complement other extended day and extended year programs offered collaboratively with the MSTLC that focus on literacy, math and science instruction.

The reasons for starting this pilot program were threefold: 1) to serve the diverse community of Mitchell Elementary; 2) to add to the research on El Sistema outside Venezuela; and 3) to collaborate with SSW and SOE to develop a Social Engagement curriculum of greater depth for SMTD’s students.  More specifically, through their involvement in music instruction and work with children and families, U-M undergraduate and graduate students will have opportunities to work in a socially, economically, and linguistically diverse context; to enact pedagogies with direct feedback on their work; and to see the impact of arts engagement on the overall achievement and well-being of students in the academic and social life of the school.

Next Steps

First, the program needs to be proven effective — that El Sistema students not only show growth in the technical skills of playing music, but that they also show personal growth in areas such as determination, perseverance and school pride.

So how to prove all of that growth? A team of researchers at the School of Social Work and the STMD’s Department of Music Education have been tasked with making this assessment.  Dr. Michael Hopkins, chair of the Department of Music Education has been conducting the research into the pedagogy of El Sistema at Mitchell Elementary School.  Dr. Hopkins reviewed hours of videotape of the afterschool sessions to track teaching techniques and student learning.  He also conducted interviews with the program’s teachers.

School of Social Work Associate Dean Michael Spencer and SSW graduate student Anthony Provenzano conducted research on the program’s impact on the lives of the children.  In order to analyze an intangible thing like a child’s sense of responsibility or belonging, the researchers are looking at several forms of data: surveys of the children, their teachers and parents; and changes in student behavior, attendance and academic performance. The data will be collected on paper, in individual and group interviews and on video.

“All of these components give us the data to indicate that yes, there have been significant increases,” explains Anthony Provenzano.  “When you cross that with some of the grades and behavior and see some of those things change, you can have a better understanding that it’s going to change that child’s sense of self and sense of community.”

El Sistema is a program that is still relatively new to the U.S.,” says John Ellis, associate dean of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “There’s a lot of talk about it but not a lot of empirical research. So the idea that we as the University of Michigan are uniquely situated to be able to carry out that research is, in and of itself, an important aspect of it.

Project Team

John Ellis, Associate Dean for Administration and Associate Professor of Music, School of Music, Theatre and Dance

Michael Spencer, Associate Dean and Professor of Social Work, School of Social Work