Pre-Order Playing For Their Lives:The Global El Sistema Movement For Social Change Through Music

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About The Book

In some of the world’s bleakest places, young people are creating new life possibilities by playing in orchestras and singing in choruses together. From the favelas of Brazil and the slums of Kenya to remote hamlets in Rumania and Maori villages in New Zealand, musicians with strong social consciences are leading these unlikely initiatives, convinced that the joyful, rigorous pursuit of ensemble music-making can be a powerful force for positive change in the lives of children, their families and their communities.


  • "Playing for Their Lives affirms the power of music to change lives and communities.  This is a book every orchestra lover must read, but also every community organizer, every school board member, and every citizen artist who is ready to change the world."
    - Joshua Bell, violinist
  • "Playing For Their Lives is the inspiring story of how a social justice movement founded on music education is changing lives in the poorest communities of the world. Anyone looking for evidence of the transformative power of the arts should read this important book.”
    - Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind
  • “Maestro Abreu has created a way of teaching and playing music that realizes the highest aspirations of our greatest composers and performers. Unlike many “social arts programs” that patronize students and families with very low level activities to keep kids “off the streets”, El Sistema creates an extended family that functions in the most natural and practical way to inspire them to reach for the heavens. This book tells that compelling story and encourages us all to broaden our concept of the achievable.”
    Wynton Marsalis, musician, educator, composer, Managing and Artistic Director, Jazz at Lincoln Center
  • “Playing for Their Lives tells the story of remarkable accomplishments by children who, although challenged by poverty and social stress, learn how to succeed in life through intensive musical engagement.  Our Congressional District in Baltimore is fortunate to be the home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids, the largest such musical ensemble program in the United States – and I am hopeful that this inspiring book will encourage more communities to launch programs like OrchKids so that all of our children can have this beautiful opportunity."
    – Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland, 7th Congressional District
  • “Tunstall and Booth provide a beautifully textured exploration of the intersection of child development, social justice and the orchestral experience. Their book should eliminate any doubt about the global relevance of the orchestral canon and its transformative powers.”
    - Jesse Rosen, President and CEO, League of American Orchestras
  • "Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth are writers I admire and respect.  I am very enthusiastic that they share the story of the international growth of El Sistema in such an accurate and engaging way for readers across the world who care about helping children in need."
    - Dr. José Antonio Abreu, Founder of El Sistema
  • “This is an amazing story that has meaning for all us in education.  Plus, there’s a blueprint for how your own school can duplicate the remarkable success of El System. You’ll love the book!”
    - Eric Jensen, PhD, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind
  • “Playing For Their Lives brings us the news that not only is it possible to change the lives of children through music -- it's already happening on a worldwide scale.  El Sistema shows firsthand that in some of our planet's most destitute places, children are finding hope and possibility through music.  This book is an important call to action, for people everywhere who care about using music to remake our kids' future.”
    - Quincy Jones, music producer, arranger, humanitarian
  • “Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth have lucidly and thrillingly brought to life the achievements of Venezuela's El Sistema approach as it is adopted around the world. Not only do the authors show us the children on multiple continents gaining the strength and confidence to rise above the constrictions of their environments; they share the equally exciting news about the worldwide emergence of a new kind of musician: the "citizen artists" who teach at the Sistema sites, day by day forging a golden link between making music and making our world a better place. Tunstall and Booth's global report would have surely gladdened the heart of my father, Leonard Bernstein -- the original Citizen Artist.”
    - Jamie Bernstein, writer, filmmaker
  • “Having had the privilege of seeing El Sistema at work in Venezuela and experiencing its influence here at home through YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles), I can attest to the power of its philosophy that an inclusive, high-quality orchestral education can effect profound social change. El Sistema and the movement it has inspired are transforming the lives of young people worldwide. Playing for Their Lives is an insightful introduction to El Sistema, helping to clarify its identity, outline its key elements, and inspire the advocacy necessary to ensure its future.”
    - Deborah Borda, President and CEO, Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
  • "This book is an eloquent and indispensable guide to how a world famous Venezuelan program of music education designed to promote social change works and can be adapted to differing local contexts. The book is an inspiration about the power musical culture and practice possess in the task of improving the human condition."
    - Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, Principal Conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra


May 12, Florence, Italy: Eric's keynote speech at the annual conference of the European Federation of National Youth Orchestras, on teaching artists in creative youth development programs like El Sistema.

July 22, Los Angeles, CA: Tricia's presentation at Take a Stand Symposium:  "Imaginative Models for El Sistema: A Global Perspective"

July 30 - August 2, Athens, Greece: Eric and Tricia's presentation at Summer Residency of the Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra, hosted by El Sistema Greece.


Blog: On the Sistema Road

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About The Authors

Tricia Tunstall

Tricia Tunstall is the author of Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music (W.W. Norton, 2012), which won a 2013 ASCAP Award and the 2016 Prix Des Muses. Changing Lives has helped to catalyze the global El Sistema movement, and has been published in five languages.

 Also the author of Note By Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson (Simon & Schuster, 2008), Tunstall is a leading advocate for the seminal importance of music and arts education in children’s development. She researches and consults with El Sistema programs around the world. A graduate of Yale, Columbia and Boston University, and a lifelong writer and music educator, she has taught music at every level, from elementary school general music to college music history. She maintains a piano studio in the New York area.

Eric Booth

Broadway actor, businessman (his company became the largest of its kind in the U.S. in 7 years), and author of five books, Eric Booth has been on the faculty of Juilliard, Tanglewood, and Lincoln Center Education (for 26 years).

He serves as a consultant for many arts organizations (including seven of the ten largest U.S. orchestras), cities, states and businesses around the U.S., and as Senior Advisor to the El Sistema movement in the U.S. and abroad. 

A frequent keynote speaker, he founded the International Teaching Artist Conferences, was given the first honorary doctorate for a career as a teaching artist, and in 2015 was given America’s highest arts education award.


About El Sistema

El Sistema begin in Caracas, Venezuela in 1975. It is now Venezuela’s largest public education project, engaging over 700,000 children across the country in daily intensive music learning. Over the last decade, the El Sistema vision has spread to over sixty countries on every continent except Antarctica. Free of charge and with no audition requirements, El Sistema brings the world of music learning to children who would not otherwise have access to it. Its pedagogical foundation is music learning through ensemble and cooperative endeavor; its vision is that such learning can support children’s social and emotional development as well as their musical skills.  José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema's visionary founder and leader, has said, "From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he becomes a child in progress, who will become a citizen.”

Learn more about El Sistema at the website of The Ensemble Newsletters.

Go to to subscribe free to The Ensemble (monthly, covering the U.S. and Canada) and The World Ensemble (quarterly, covering the world), which carry the latest news of Sistema movements. The website also offers a wealth of information about El Sistema, including directories and resources.

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