Hispanic Studies professor Victoria Wolff believes music has the power to enrich this community and profoundly improve the lives of its disadvantaged children. That concept is at the heart of London’s El Sistema Aeolian program, run through the Aeolian Hall, a historic concert venue on the east side of London.
El Sistema offers free after-school musical education to disadvantaged youth from across the city, aiming to build teamwork and mentorship skills. Participants range in age from 6 to 16, and are given free access to a range of musical instruments.
The primary focus of El Sistema is having the children learn and perform together, Wolff says.
“You cannot play your violin unless you have a consciousness of those around you, and of those who are working with you,” she said. “Music and society are really intimately related in so many ways that it becomes the perfect medium for dealing with social issues, and with community issues.”
El Sistema was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu in Venezuela as a means to promote human opportunity and development for impoverished children.
Over the past four decades, the idea has transformed into a worldwide movement.
El Sistema Aeolian was launched as a pilot program in November 2011 with just 20 children. It was the fourth such program in Canada, and still works closely with affiliated programs in Toronto and Ottawa. There are currently more than 20 El Sistema programs in Ontario.
Abreu was awarded Canada’s Glenn Gould Prize in 2008 for his lifetime contributions to music and communication.
El Sistema Aeolian coordinator Minerva Figueroa is no stranger to using orchestral and choral music to educate children about the value of teamwork. Before the establishment of the program here in London, Figueroa spent four years with El Sistema in Mexico City as a teacher, conductor and coordinator. She now works with Victoria Wolff and a number of Western students and volunteers through the school’s Community Engaged Learning program.
“The financial needs are different in various places,” Figueroa said. “However, social needs don’t change. All kids need attention – all kids need to be fed – all kids can benefit from working as a team.”
An ability to feed the children as part of a built-in dinner program is unique in North America to El Sistema Aeolian. London’s program provides its participants with a warm meal, in addition to the initial two hours of musical education, three times per week. This is a point of great pride for Figueroa.
“This is something specific about the Sistema program,” she said. “The music is the means; it’s not the end result or the end product. The idea is through the music, the kids develop other skills. They contribute to the ensemble and the group. All of them are equally important. They learn to help each other, and to acquire some basic mentorship skills. It’s a big confidence booster.”
Wolff agreed. She emphasized the need to generate awareness of the program in London. She said it’s vital to highlight the advantages it brings both to the children who are involved, and to the wider community.
“One continual problem, although the program is very new, is publicity, and maintaining awareness of the program, and the good that it’s doing in the community,” Wolff said. “Part of the idea of collaborating with Western students is that doing so would assist with publicity. Some of the projects which my students worked on were specifically publicity-oriented. Making brochures, videos and also educating our students about the possibilities offered by El Sistema.”
The involvement of Western students through Community Engaged Learning, with programs such as El Sistema Aeolian is vital at a time when the arts and humanities are under fire, Wolff said.
“When people question the value of arts and humanities, we’re able to demonstrate the ways in which students at Western can truly connect with the community, and change lives through programs such as El Sistema.”
Despite funding challenges faced by arts and humanities programs across the country, Wolff is optimistic about the future of the program. “I really think it’s something that’s just being born, and just coming to fruition. I view it as something that’s opening with endless possibility. This is a vital time for El Sistema in Canada, and in our London community.”