Since opening its doors in September 1999, Conservatory Lab Charter School has always believed in the power of music to transform children’s lives. From its inception, Conservatory Lab Charter School has aspired to serve as a national model of music-infused elementary education. Music at this school is like a heart that pumps and beats to infuse vitality into all the aspects of the school community. El Sistema was incorporated into the school day in September 2010 and has since greatly strengthened the musical core of the school.
El Sistema is a unique program designed to effect social change and nurture promising futures for underserved communities through intensive, ensemble-focused music education. El Sistema was founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu in Venezuela and has become a hugely successful program that teaches approximately 400,000 children and boasts some 60 children’s orchestras, 200 youth orchestras, 30 professional adult orchestras, and dozens of choruses.
El Sistema’s philosophy is based on the idea of music as a vehicle for social change: that the pursuit of musical excellence teaches students to strive for quality in all areas of their lives. The orchestra provides children with the space within which to learn these musical and social skills at the same time, for as Dr. Abreu says, “The orchestra is the only community that comes together for the sole purpose of agreeing with itself.” It is within this ensemble context that students experience the joy of hard work and the beauty of large groups of people creating music together. Additionally, frequent performance and teaching opportunities support the development of students’ self-esteem by having them play an important role in their own community. The focus is thus not only on the child as a musician, but the child as a citizen, a contributing member of society.
Indeed, this philosophy reflects many core elements of Conservatory Lab’s mission. We support each of our children, not only academically and musically, but also socially and emotionally. We believe in respecting every child and providing them with opportunities to contribute to the community. We hold high expectations for our students and share with El Sistema the notion that each one of them can learn to express and experience music deeply. In our daily teaching and learning, we provide multiple opportunities for “ensemble” work, and frequent performances emerge in both music and academic classes, providing moments for whole community growth. The processes emphasized in El Sistema reinforce the students’ work in Expeditionary Learning, and the whole-child philosophy complements the perspective of Responsive Classroom.
While the mission of El Sistema at Conservatory Lab is to embody the philosophy of Dr. Abreu, and many of the programmatic choices were inspired by Venezuela, the program itself serves the needs of the school and responds to the interests and skills of its teachers. While El Sistema in Venezuela is primarily after school, El Sistema at Conservatory Lab is completely infused into the school day, with classes scattered throughout the morning and afternoon. These classes include four orchestras, four choirs, a world percussion program and individual instrument instruction with 16 professional musicians. In K1 and K2, students are immersed in a pre-orchestral early childhood program, culminating in the construction of a papier-mâché orchestra at the end of their K2 year. In 1st grade, all students begin with a stringed instrument, and flute, clarinet and trumpet are offered beginning in 3rd grade. As in Venezuela, students use their newfound knowledge to contribute to their community by performing frequently and teaching each other.
With El Sistema at Conservatory Lab, our community experiences the transformative power of music, and our children grow as musicians, as students, as teachers and as community members.