El Sistema for Choruses

The El Sistema movement has swept the American orchestral world, with a considerable number of the almost 120 after-school programs affiliated with a professional symphony orchestra. Polyphonic has written frequently about some of these orchestra-sponsored El Sistema programs. The Baltimore Symphony’s OrchKids program and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s YOLA program are perhaps the best known, but many orchestras, large and small budget, have created such programs to service their community’s at-risk children, including the Allentown Symphony, El Paso Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, Juneau Symphony, Kalamazoo Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic, New Jersey Symphony, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Seattle Symphony, Waterbury (CT) Symphony, and Yakima Symphony.

When I’m not writing for Polyphonic or playing viola with the Hartford Symphony, I am Executive Director of CONCORA, a professional chorus based in Hartford. The latest edition of Voice magazine (Chorus America’s counterpart to the League’s Symphony magazine) has a cover story about “El Sistema for Choruses.” Intrigued, I looked up the current El Sistema programs in the US on the El Sistema USA website, and yes indeed, choruses are beginning to populate the list: Sister City Girlchoir in Philadelphia, Pacific Chorale in California, and ComMUSICation Choir in Minneapolis/St. Paul, to name just a few.

The choral programs share a similar mission as the orchestral ones: to create social change in under-served communities through music – in this case, through singing. However, according to Sarah Grogan, director of a new El Sistema choral program in Cincinnati to launch this month (January 2016), “One reason choral El Sistema programs make so much sense is you’ve eliminated a huge cost when you eliminate the need for instruments.”

Much of the approach taken by these choral-based programs is similar to orchestral-based programs: intensive rehearsals during the week, help with homework, nutritious snacks, and encouraging the children to be “unusually ambitious with their aspirations,” according to Eric Booth, a major figure in El Sistema USA. The programs make use of teaching artists, many with a background in music education. According to Molly Pontin, Director of the Pacific Chorale Academy, “You get kids who love to sing alongside kids who come because they hate their after school program and don’t want to do their math homework.” As with all such programs, patience and creativity are key, as well as working effectively with the local school system.

The “El Sistema in Choruses” article can be found on the Chorus America website.

— Ann Drinan

About the author