Bruce Randolph School

Teaching music for social change

Posted 01/06/2016

El Sistema Colorado at Bruce Randolph was featured in the North Denver Tribune for its music program. The article is copied below and can be read at this link.

Teaching music for social change

December 16, 2015 by

Globeville, Swansea-Elyria kids learn the power of playing music together |

By Laurie Dunklee | |

“Children who pick up a violin will not pick up a gun,” says Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of the El Sistema music education program for low-income kids that began in Venezuela and continues to spread around the world.

Here in Denver, more than 700 students benefit from free music instruction and ensemble playing at Garden Place and Swansea elementary schools, in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, and Bruce Randolph Middle and High School in the Clayton neighborhood.

“The philosophy is that allowing kids to experience the power of making music together influences their choices for the rest of their lives,” said Jamie Wolf, El Sistema Colorado program director and choral teaching artist. “Kids grow in self-confidence and go from shyness to speaking out. The program engages them physically, emotionally and intellectually. It gives them a safe place to be, someone who cares about them and something to be passionate about.”

El Sistema’s program is a model for social change, says Wolf, a Northwest Denver resident. “Our music teachers don’t just teach music; they help with homework and are mentors for the children. They get to know the children’s families and that starts a ripple effect in the community. The kids become strong, kind, hard-working people who go back to serve their communities after high school and college.”

El Sistema began in Denver in 2012 at Garden Place Academy and spread to Swansea Elementary and Bruce Randolph Middle and High Schools. In-school programs at the elementary schools serve early childhood education, Kindergarten and first-grade students, including general music education and instrumental music training. After-school programs engage second-through-fifth graders in instrumental and choral ensembles. Summer camps serve first-through-12th graders.

Instructional responsibilities are shared between the school educators and an El Sistema Colorado Teaching Artist. “The schools already have general music teachers; we’re not there to take over for them,” said Wolf.

Denver’s El Sistema staff of just under 30 is comprised of degreed music educators and professional musicians with teaching experience. “We have a wonderful, passionate staff,” said Wolf.

Music instruction often presents financial barriers for low-income families, so El Sistema is free for students in the three Denver Title One schools, where more than 75 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches. This year, 220 Garden Place students participate in the beginning and intermediate orchestras and the tutti [everyone] chorus. Swansea’s program numbers 250 little violinists, while Bruce Randolph has 130 in the concert band and drum line.

Kindergarteners start out on paper violins made out of cardboard and paper mache, mastering basics of the instrument before graduating to real violins. “The paper violins started in Venezuela because they didn’t have real ones,” said Wolf. “Now it’s a powerful tool because students’ families are engaged. The first thing they do is make the paper violin together. After two months, the students get real violins, which is special. They learn how to take care of something special.”

She said all the children start on violin because “playing the violin is a technical challenge that builds self-discipline, perseverance and patience. Also violins come in small enough sizes so even the tiniest kids can play.”

Children can switch to other instruments as they grow, so they can participate in various ensembles as well as choral groups. “The difference between El Sistema and other music education is the emphasis on ensemble playing,” Wolf said. “Most kids learn a solo repertoire through private instruction, but our goal is ensemble music. It teaches social-emotional skills like teamwork and mentoring.”

El Sistema students perform often. “Frequent performance is a core value,” said Wolf. “It builds self-confidence and teaches kids what it feels like to work hard and achieve success.” Students have performed at venues including Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the Denver Art Museum and the History Colorado Center.

Abreu, an economist and musician, founded El Sistema in 1975 to reach young people living in poverty. The system was designed to improve their life trajectory and as a paradigm for social change. Abreu was awarded the TED prize in 2009. “The Venezuelan government supports El Sistema because of its huge benefits in reducing violence. We hope it can lead to peace in our communities as well,” said Wolf.

Perhaps the most famous graduate of El Sistema is Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, appointed as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, when he was just 28. Dudamel’s enthusiastic, infectious conducting style attracts new fans to classical music. “A hallmark of El Sistema is bringing the joy into music,” Wolf said. “Dudamel’s players express the joy of performing side-by-side, of making music together. His fame caught the attention of people in the U.S. and Europe and sparked interest in El Sistema. Now new programs are popping up all over the place.”

Wolf estimates there are 237 El Sistema programs worldwide in 55 countries, with more than 100 in the U.S.

El Sistema was started in Denver by Monika Vischer, an on-air host at Colorado Public Radio. “She interviewed someone connected with the program and was inspired to start El Sistema here,” said Wolf. “She and her musician-colleagues, Carol Rankin and Susan Probeck, met with the schools and got it going.”

El Sistema is funded by grants and individual donations, including donations of musical instruments. Its annual budget is about $500,000, according to Wolf. “We do a lot with a little,” she said, adding that the donated instruments help a lot. “All our instrument repairs are done by Flesher-Hinton Music on Tennyson.”

El Sistema is looking for an executive director to lead the Denver organization. Information about the position, the program and how to donate can be found at