Sistema Aotearoa is using music to transform young lives.

Based on El Sistema, one of the world’s most successful music and social development programmes, Sistema Aotearoa works with primary schools to deliver free, inclusive, and culturally relevant music education.

El Sistema, Venezuela

El Sistema was born when, in 1975, the musician and economist Dr Jose Antonio Abreu gathered 11 children together in a Venezuelan garage to play music. Dr Abreu believed that communal music-making could change the path of children’s lives.

The movement has spread, lifting the aspirations of young people all over the world. It is credited with reducing crime, increasing school attendance rates, and preventing anti-social behaviour. “From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, she is no longer poor,” Dr Abreu famously said.

Sistema in the New Zealand context

Sistema Aotearoa

Sistema Aotearoa, a partnership between the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, has been operating in Otara since April 2011. Officially aligned with, and deeply inspired by, El Sistema, New Zealand’s version is having positive results in the South Auckland community.

Dr Joe Harrop is programme director of Sistema Aotearoa and would like to see the programme rolled out to other regions.

“We think of our work in Otara as providing a template for similar programmes to be created across New Zealand,” he says.

The Otara programme, which began in 2011, involves around 240 children from seven decile one primary schools. Local schools are an important starting point, says Joe.

“We can’t run this programme without the schools,” he says. “They’re our biggest supporters, and we work closely with them.”

Together with a group of education and music experts, as well as a paediatric development therapist, Joe delivers an immersive programme that sees the Sistema students receive over four hours of tuition per week, and an instrument, free of charge. The lessons take place three times a week after school and during the school holidays.

Because this tuition takes place in a group setting, the children are involved in a collective teaching process. More than instrumental technique, they are learning cooperative behaviour and team work.

Culturally responsive

Joe, who is of Samoan descent, left his esteemed position as music programme leader at the University College Falmouth to lead Sistema Aotearoa, and he says its culturally responsive nature is of deep significance.

“What we are doing here is creating a safe and familiar place for our children and their whānau,” he says.

“The children are playing music with us after school three times a week and in the holidays, too, and their parents are allowed to come in whenever they can, so it’s very much a community programme.”

While the students are being taught to play the violin and cello in the classical tradition, their burgeoning repertoire is by no means limited to Mozart and Beethoven.

“Sistema students do learn the traditional classical pieces,” says Joe, “but we’re also playing familiar pieces they really enjoy, like nursery rhymes for example, and we teach waiata and Pasifika songs, arranged for strings, too. We hook in to our Māori and Pasifika community every opportunity we get.”

Joe describes the programme as a little like a blend of junior orchestra and cub scouts.

“We don’t have any silly names for each other or anything like that. We speak to each other respectfully and calmly. It’s all about modelling good, cooperative behaviour and creating a safe environment,” he says.

Parents of the young musicians have reported positive changes in their children’s behaviour, school progress and attitude.

An initiative including toddlers and their caregivers, Sistema Aotearoa Puoru Pepi, began this year, further extending the programme’s positive community outreach.

A child-centred starting point

Sistema Aotearoa’s approach considers all aspects of a child’s development. This holistic philosophy results in an educational programme that extends beyond musical technique to a child’s greater wellbeing and personal development.

In El Sistema tradition, emphasis is placed on a supportive, respectful community for the child. Because participation is open access, children from all backgrounds learn and play music together, encouraging empathy and cooperation.

Sistema Aotearoa has been independently evaluated by both AUT’s Institute of Public Policy and the University of Auckland’s Woolf Fisher Institute. Both reports concluded the programme was offering positive social and educational outcomes.

A sound investment

Sistema Aotearoa is funded primarily through the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, together with some philanthropic support, and run by the Auckland Philharmonica Orchestra. Former Arts Minister
Chris Finlayson said he would like to see the programme, which is in its pilot phase, extended.

“I’ve received much interest from other parts of the country to join the Sistema programme. It would be of huge benefit to make Sistema Aotearoa a nationwide project, and while the fiscal environment is tight I’m working hard to see what can be done,” he wrote on the Ministry website.

Dr Joe Harrop agrees that it would be good to see the programme extended to other parts of
New Zealand. There are several communities with Sistema-inspired programmes already operating within them.

“Communities need to take up the challenge of a Sistema-inspired programme being about child development first and music second,” he says.

“When priorities are put in this order, the social outcomes follow on from each other – into the family and wider whānau, and on into the community.”

Te Roopu El Sistema (TRES) is an advocacy and awareness network for the movement in
New Zealand. Member groups are in regular contact, share resources and instruments and keep each other informed about their work.

Arohanui Strings

One such group is Arohanui Strings, a Sistema-inspired programme in the Lower Hutt region, currently supported financially by private and corporate donations. Director
Alison Eldredge says students of all abilities are welcome to join the group, and those with social or economic barriers are actively recruited.

Arohanui Strings runs two holiday programmes a year, sponsored by Orchestra Wellington, as part of its outreach programme. This year, the Orchestra has also sponsored an in-school programme in two schools in Taita.

Based at Taita Central School and Pomare School, these programmes are bringing free music tuition to over 100 students per week. In addition, Alison teaches an in-school beginner violin class at
St Michael’s School, also in Taita.

The Arohanui Strings model works closely with participating schools to make time for the lessons. “We go in to the school twice a week, for half an hour, and teach an entire class. The teachers stay in the room and are incredibly helpful. In the after school programme, we teach about 45 students, from seven different schools,” says Alison.

These lessons form the basis of the music education programme at the participating schools, where private music tuition is not an option for many families. Arohanui Strings offers tuition on violin, viola, cello, and double bass. It also relies on volunteer help from local musicians.

“We’re just doing as much as we can in our community. It’s inspiring, and it’s very fun.”


El Sistema founder:

Jose Abreu, she says: “People need beauty in their lives. And if you help give them beauty, they’ll figure out what to do next.”

A tutor’s view

Violinist Rosa Yates volunteered as a tutor for Arohanui Strings during her Year 13 school year, an experience she says left her feeling quietly proud of the students. A classically trained musician, her duties initially involved supervising and helping to keep order during the lessons.

“But as the year passed, the group also became my project and I began preparing the kids to perform solo – doing work in small groups or individually to prepare them for the spotlight,” she says.

Arohanui Strings provides an environment where students strive to achieve something different,
says Rosa.

“It’s a space where they can concentrate on themselves and their music and not on anybody else. It always amazes me how hard that first step is (letting go of embarrassment, not looking across at friends), but as soon as they are immersed in playing, the students very quickly become proud of, or excited by, what they have learned.

“Unlike the classical training I had, where execution was everything, Arohanui is about the process, the life skills learned as well as the music. The music is one thing, but how the kids feel about being there is paramount. In looking at lessons in that way, we have a lot of success.”

Parental feedback about Sistema Aotearoa

“We see the programme as a starting point for our children at an early age to certainly bring the community together as one.”

“My girls are learning more than just music. They are learning responsibility, what it is to be part of team, and building confidence as they learn.”

“There is evidence of a growing awareness beyond the local community of the really good things that are going on in Otara.”

“I love Sistema because I have fun with my friends”.

“I’d like to see them, as a whole PI and Māori orchestra. It’s not often that you see a PI and Māori orchestra!”

“They said it … mana and pride … for their kids … something magical because of its high standard.”

“Ae rā, e mīharo ana e whakahī ana ki ngā pūkenga kua whakatōnga, kua whanakehia ki rato i tā mātou tamaiti. E tino kaingakautia ana e ia tēnei Kaupapa. I te timatanga, e haututu ana ia, e porohianga ana, engari inaianei i runga i ngā mahi whanake a ngā kai whakaako kua anga pai i ia ki ngā tohutohu, kua taau tōna āhua i waenga I te roopu.” (“I am amazed by the abilities that have been developed within our child. He loves this programme. At the beginning, he was mucking around a little and being slightly naughty, but now due to the development work of the teachers, he is carefully following instructions and has become a settled part of the group.”)

Student views

Students from Arohanui Strings recently gave feedback about the programme in a locally made short film:

“I used to be really shy, but now I know I have something to offer: I’m a musician.” – Lupe.

“It’s fun to play the cello, and I’m really good at it.” – Jamie.

“It’s about love and happiness.”

“It makes me feel like a different person inside, and I can teach my brothers and sisters how to play too.”

“I love music so much, I’ll never stop.”


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