The Massachusetts Cultural Council announced this week that it has launched a new music education initiative for underserved students throughout the state — the first statewide program of its kind in the United States. It blends a forward-thinking attitude toward music and arts education and a focus on multiculturalism and community empowerment that, taken together, can dramatically change students’ lives.
The initiative is off to a strong start, allotting a total of $55,000 spread over eight pilot grants and three planning grants, distributed among a wide range of communities, from the Berkshires to Somerville, Mattapan to Cape Cod. Participants include local schools and social service providers such as the Josiah Quincy School Orchestra, the Bridge Boston Charter School, and the Worcester Chamber Music Society’s after-school program. Aside from pilot grants, the MCC program will provide musical instruments as well as organizational and curriculum support.
The model for the programs supported by the initiative is global: the music education project known as El Sistema, which was created in Venezuela more than three decades ago and is now catching on throughout the world. The most well-known product of El Sistema is conductor Gustavo Dudamel, longtime music director of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra (a primary outlet for El Sistema students) and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
It can also be a potent social force; El Sistema is not solely a music teaching method, like Suzuki or Kodaly, but was created in 1975 by educator and activist José Antonio Abreu in order to serve youth from poor communities. Individual teaching methods vary from program to program, but key to its success is its intensive, community-based approach: students work together in long, daily after-school sessions. Even more important, young students are placed in an ensemble or orchestra almost from the moment they first touch an instrument. Given free music education and access to instruments, they learn as part of a group, and from each other, from the very beginning.
The effect of this kind of teaching can be transformative. A much heralded Sistema-like program at Springfield Science Technical High School has been credited with turning around drop-out rates and increasing graduation rates. El Sistema’s adherents have pointed out that through peer-to-peer teaching, students learn their individual value and worth as part of a larger group. What’s more, students from diverse backgrounds learn to work together and find that they have things in common.
The MCC program is called SerHacer (from the Spanish, “to be, to make”). Its funding includes a study into how music helps children develop skills like focus, planning, and problem solving. Part of what distinguishes SerHacer programs from private music lessons or standard conservatory training is that the ultimate goals transcend music. Creating professional musicians isn’t the point. SerHacer program coordinator Erik Holmgren said that the program “reimagines a culture of music making so that we’re not measuring it in ticket sales, but in children.” Arts educator Eric Booth, author of “The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible,” has written, “El Sistema develops citizens, not musicians — responsible, joyful, contributing citizens.” In that sense, the new SerHacer is a model not only for music education, or even arts education, but of an approach to weave underserved kids more tightly into the social fabric and have a lasting impact on everything from educational achievement to future career paths.