Monday, March 1, 2010

Week 17: Montalban - Witnessing Support Every Step of the Way

After visiting the El Sistema nucleos of La Rinconada and Montalban, I feel as though I have witnessed the power of what Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone terms the "conveyor belt" strategy. This strategy focuses on providing children with a continuous network of support from infancy through high school so that progress made in one program is not lost in a gap of service between the next.

From La Rinconada's Baby Vivaldi program for parents and their 2-year olds to the many nucleo youth orchestras varying in age range and skill, the goals among staff at all levels were quite clear: meet the children where they are and provide opportunities throughout their time in the nucleo to develop tools for life and to feel a sense of advancement through hard work.

At Montalban, we moved from one room to the next, listening to the incredible performances of the different ensembles and experiencing first hand how each orchestra built and expanded upon the skills of the previous one. In just a matter of one hour, we had traveled through the musical life of a child attending Montalban from ages six through seventeen!

Here is a short iMovie I created to document this progression:

On Saturday, we returned to Montalban to watch the early childhood classes for ages three through six, a component of El Sistema that many of us are convinced is largely responsible for the high level of discipline and musical skill we are seeing in the older grades. As Frank di Pollo, one of the founding members of El Sistema put it, "That is the system - teaching 3-year olds. That's what is most important."

James Heckman, Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago Economics Professor, couldn't agree more. His research is referenced in Whatever It Takes, an account of the Harlem Children's Zone and validates many of El Sistema's objectives. He found that social skills such as persistence, attentiveness and impulse control when combined at an early age "help create capable and productive citizens."

Much like we saw at La Rinconada, these young students were developing those same skills through play: waiting for the right moment in the song to shake their egg maracas, listening to the first few notes of a piece played on the recorder to see who could guess it's title and always making music together as a group. We saw all of these skills played out in more sophisticated ways in the older grades as intense focus on the music and conductor, waiting quietly for considerable amounts of time for another section to rehearse and playing passionately together as an orchestra.

El Sistema has hit the mark on so many levels: from investing in early childhood and instrumental music to offering a consistent "conveyor belt" of services through after-school hours and ensembles that encourage children to advance.

After gathering research from economists, sociologists, psychologists and neuroscientists for Whatever It Takes, author Paul Tough writes in the afterword why a program like the Harlem Children's Zone is so promising:
To change the trajectory of a poor child in an inner-city neighborhood, this research shows, you need to: intervene early in the child’s life, continue to intervene throughout adolescence; give him extra time in school and extra support outside of school; involve his parents if possible but be prepared to compensate for their absence; focus on improving his cognitive skills but also nurture his noncognitive, social and emotional skills.
This quote could very well be about El Sistema.

Thank you, FESNOJIV, Rodrigo Guerrero and the staff and students from La Rinconada and Montalban for opening your doors to your classrooms, curriculum and our questions!


  1. At what point do students start learning wind and percussion instruments? M

  2. This has been a question in all of the fellows' minds and we get varying answers. I'll dedicate my next blog posting to this topic. Thank you for your question and interest!

  3. “Wow” you are a genius for sure what great ways to get ranked high and obtain good traffic flow from your article. Thank you for sharing your information it was very good reading for sure. I am looking forward to any more of your articles you produce in the near future.
    examine home

  4. you're getting my vote from s korea until the 31st M

  5. Loved reading thiis thank you