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Can U.S. Orchestras Translate Overseas Programs into Local Successes?

I have recently been conducting research in connection with the New Jersey Symphony’s efforts to develop a strategic plan for their arts education programs. In looking to identify effective educational programming offered by other orchestras, it is nearly impossible to avoid the influence of El Sistema, Venezuela’s highly successful youth education program that provides free musical training to hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s poorest students. A number of U.S. orchestras are working to adapt the El Sistema system in their own cities, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Baltimore Symphony, and the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio. New England Conservatory has established a fellowship program, (which Tom Wolf wrote about in his article in the April 16th On Our Minds) for those interested in establishing El Sistema programs outside of Venezuela. And an El Sistema USA network has been set up to support those interested in the program. A conference was recently held in Los Angeles at which both the successes and the challenges of translating the program to the United States were discussed. Not surprisingly, the current need for “proof” of the effectiveness of the program in order to generate funder support is one of the challenges that U.S. implementers are facing. In Venezuela, financial support, which happens at the national level, is based on qualitative evaluation only. Will U.S. programs be able to model their evaluation efforts on the same foundation of qualitative research? Is collecting stories enough to convince funders to step up and contribute?  I can only hope so, as these programs introduce young people to a lifetime passion for music, and help develop future orchestra audiences.


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