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Photo Credit: © El Sistema NJ Alliance

How the El Sistema Movement Began

Originating in Venezuela in 1975, El Sistema, under the visionary leadership of José Antonio Abreu, pioneered a state-funded music education program. The program was funded not through the ministry of arts and culture, rather the ministry of social services, emphasizing its community centered approach and focus on teaching the whole child. The program provided ensemble based classical music training (which later expanded to many genres, including traditional Venezuelan folk music, jazz, and rock) to all children, regardless of background or ability to pay. El Sistema swiftly gained international acclaim through the success of The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

In the early 2000s, El Sistema’s influence extended beyond Venezuela, inspiring music education initiatives worldwide, including in the United States. ESUSA, shorthand for El Sistema USA, was established in 2014 as the national alliance for individuals and organizations inspired by the Venezuelan model. Today, ESUSA supports and connects a wide variety of music programs and leaders through our organizational, individual, and affiliate membership options. Members are united by their commitment to our core values of excellence and equity and membership criteria which include a commitment to social impact, intensity, accessibility, ensemble focus, nucleo environment, community, and multi-year continuum.

ESUSA began as a program of the New England Conservatory, forged in partnership with TED following the 2009 TED Prize awarded to Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu. The Sistema Fellows Program, a crucial element, trained 50 musician activists and community organizers to propagate Sistema-inspired programs across the United States. The establishment of the first “Criteria for Membership” in 2016, through a NEA Arts Research Grant in partnership with Duke University, marked a milestone in standardizing ESUSA’s approach.

This evolution underscores ESUSA’s commitment to leveraging music education for positive societal impact in the U.S. The adaptation of El Sistema principles reflects the organization’s responsiveness to diverse local needs, echoing the transformative potential of music education across communities in the United States.

Today, ESUSA connects and supports 140 member programs that are committed to excellence and equity in music education in the US and Canada through professional development, data & advocacy, and student leadership & learning.

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