About The Book

This unprecedented worldwide phenomenon is the subject of Playing For Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music.  El Sistema, a program that began over forty years ago with eleven struggling music students in an abandoned parking lot in Caracas, has grown to include 750,000 children in Venezuela and has sparked one of the world’s most remarkable social initiatives.  The brilliant celebrity conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who became the leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 27, is El Sistema’s most famous representative; but for authors Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth, the heart of the El Sistema story is in the programs that have sprung up in over 60 countries across the world, inspired by the vision of its founder, José Antonio Abreu.  “When you put a violin in the hands of a child,” Abreu has said, “that child will not pick up a gun.”

To research Playing For Their Lives, the authors visited El Sistema-inspired programs in 25 countries, on every continent except Antarctica. “In some cases,” they write, “we saw poverty so brutal that it overwhelmed our senses and jolted our understandings of what societies can tolerate and humans can survive.” They found that in such surroundings, El Sistema programs are oases of safety, energy and beauty.  The book is filled with vivid reports of children’s orchestras, bands and choruses flourishing in Nairobi and Manila; in Bethlehem and (equally improbably) in Kabul; in the stressed immigrant communities of Gothenburg and Vienna; among traumatized young people in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Fukushima, Japan; and in the ghettos of London, Istanbul, Paris and many U.S. cities.  Embedded in these stories are profiles of the activist-artists who lead Sistema-inspired initiatives – people like Karis Crawford, a Michigan native who founded a program in Nairobi’s Kawangware ghetto, and Ricardo Castro, who suspended his career as a concert pianist to bring El Sistema to the children of Salvador, in Brazil. 

Tunstall and Booth describe the creative variety among these programs, as different cultures adapt El Sistema practices in different ways.  But they also highlight the constancy of the central idea:  all of these programs give rise to mini-communities where young people help one another develop trust, confidence, discipline and hope through making music together.  The goal of all programs, they explain, is not to create musicians but to enable the development of healthy, ambitious, thriving citizens.Their lively reporting is interwoven with reflective discussions of the key elements of El Sistema learning environments, as they explore why these elements are so effective and connect them with contemporary concepts in the social and psychological sciences.

Though their story brims with the optimism of past and current success, the authors never lose sight of the considerable challenges facing this growing movement. They emphasize that no social program can be an absolute cure for poverty and other kinds of social distress.  But they are heartened by the growing receptivity of leaders in civic and corporate life to the idea that immersive experience in music and the arts is a powerful way to foster youth development.  In the words of Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank:  “When a violin enters a home, the family rises to it. It’s the beginning of change.”

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