El Sistema in Cuba

I just returned from ten days in Cuba. The official purpose of the trip, according to my general license from the U.S. Treasury Department, was to research music education for children and roles for community musicians in Cuba.

It was easy to find music in Cuba. In clubs, restaurants, hotels, and on the plazas and street corners of Old Havana a visitor hears the intoxicating rhythms of Afro-Cuban jazz. Percussion—an amazing variety of drums, bells, sticks, and instruments I couldn’t name—drive the music

and dancing like the erotic and energetic rhumba often accompanies the music.

We visited an afterschool program for students in elementary and what the Cubans call secondary (equivalent to our junior high) schools and every boy there told us he wanted to be a musician. The older boys sang for us, what they called fusion music, which to my ear was Cuban Hip-Hop.

Younger boys played percussion with a teacher who sang.
We found an Institute of Music but did not find any classical music performances.

The Borowsky family from Baltimore, who bill themselves as The American Virtuosi, were traveling with us, carrying a cello and violin and searching out pianos and keyboards.

They arranged to play Beethoven, Chopin, de Falla, and Gershwin in the Havana cathedral, at a senior citizens center, at a home for young children from troubled families, and other venues, and found enthusiastic Cuban audiences. At clubs, Emanuel Borowsky had only to take his violin out of its case and the local musicians would invite him to improvise with them.


Still, I was eager to learn about music education for children and careers for community musicians, and I visited the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) the Cuban conservatory for advanced students in music, dance, theater, visual and media arts. Fidel Castro had such high priorities for the institution that he personally selected the campus, a luxurious former country club on the outskirts of Havana. The onetime golf course is now grassy knolls where students and visitors can relax, and famed architects were commissioned to build the facilities for each of the schools. ISA trains the dancers who go on to the  famed Ballet National de Cuba, the players for the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba, and the actors for the Teatro National de Cuba. The schools were not in session so we did not hear a student performance, but we had an audience with the director of ISA and were able to ask questions.

Venezuela is Cuba’s largest trading partner—supplying crucial oil and gas in return for doctors, literacy experts, and biotech—so after hearing an introduction to the ISA, I asked whether El Sistema, the Venezuelan program of music education, had also been imported from Venezuela. The director was familiar with El Sistema, and answered that no, Cuba did not follow the Venezuelan model, but instead had its own El Sistema. She explained that all education in Cuba is free, from elementary and secondary schools which are compulsory through high schools, universities, and graduate programs. Alongside the regular schools, Cuba also has a second parallel school system that is exclusively for the arts. These schools are available not only in Havana and the provincial cities, but in the countryside. Admission at every level is by audition, and is highly competitive. The enrollment, she explained, is a pyramid, with many students admitted at the elementary level, and fewer at each succeeding level. The system culminates with ISA, which provides conservatory-level training to the very best students in each of the arts. No other area of education or achievement, not even athletics or sciences, are recognized with special schools like the system of arts schools. The music students in these schools, and at ISA, study only classical music, though some may later end up in careers in jazz or other genres.

I asked about music for students who were not at the level to attend the special schools, and she explained that the regular schools include some music at the elementary level. She did not elaborate, and I did not pursue the question. Cuba is a highly productive society with some remarkable achievements: free education and health care, the highest literacy (99.8%) in the western hemisphere, life expectancy and health statistics that dwarf those of the U.S., and remarkable achievements in biotech, agriculture, and other fields. But it remains a poor country, hampered by the long-standing American embargo and the bureaucratic restraints of a centrally planned economy, dependent on outside suppliers for essentials like fuel, and with a narrowly-based economy that is vulnerable to external events like the collapse of the Soviet Union. The limited resources of Cuba cannot afford universal education in the arts, and they have chosen to concentrate their arts education efforts on elites—dancers, actors, musicians, film-makers, and artists who will perform with the national companies and teach at the highest level.

There are few young children playing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on violins, but the streets and schools in Cuba are still full of music, and a lucky visitor can be treated, as my wife Heather was, to a serenade by one of the original members of the Buena Vista Social Club.


-Ronald Florence, treasurer, CMW board

Fellows Quartet retreat

Last weekend, the intrepid Fellows Quartet ventured through driving snow and icy roads to the Berkshires for a cozy, productive weekend of rehearsing and bonding. Liz Hollander (former CMW board president) and her husband Carl Kaestle were kind enough to offer their lovely vintage farmhouse in the scenic foothills—a perfect retreat from our urban environs.

We hunkered down to decipher and prepare Bartok’s second string quartet, which we will perform in Rhode Island in early February. We cooked together, laughed together, relaxed together, and unraveled some of Bartok’s musical mysteries. Thank you, Liz and Carl!

-EmmaLee Holmes-Hicks, Fellow

Invite from Jessie Montgomery

American Composers Orchestra – Composers Out Front Presents:

Jessie Montgomery, composer/violinist and former member of the Providence String Quartet, in a recital of her most recent works including live music for film. PUBLIQuartet spearheads the performance and will be joined by a dazzling cast of NYC new music natives!

Program to include Standing/Forward for String Quartet (2011), 3 Scenes for String Quartet (2008), and Strum for String Quartet (2006)

February 25, 2012 at 8:00 pm

University Settlement, Speyer Hall
184 Eldridge Street (Lower East Side)
New York, NY

January 27: Public Spaces, Forbidden Places

A conference for artists and activists, presented by Lesley University (Cambridge, MA)

This is the second annual conference focused on how the arts are used as social action and as acts of courage and vision. This year’s conference will look at the concept of public, private and community space and how the arts can be used to transform public, private and community space into thought provoking catalysts to address a wide range of social, political, and psychological issues.

This conference will feature local, national and international artists, activists, educators, and mental health care professionals presenting the important work they are doing to bring about change and awareness. Speakers will address issues such as violence, healthcare disparities, and other social inequities, to promote civic engagement, advance the health of whole persons and whole communities, address the healing of trauma, and utilize the arts to educate, to examine our world, and to envision future possibilities.

Registration information available here.

RISCA grant awarded

Close to 1,500 artists will be employed and over 117,000 individuals will benefit from the latest round of grants awarded by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, according to information released by the state arts agency in December. The Arts Council announced its second round of grant awards for the current season, supporting projects by individual artists, arts organizations, schools and educational organizations in communities throughout the state.


In announcing the awards, Arts Council director Randall Rosenbaum said that it was important to remember, particularly in challenging times, that the arts employ people and help communities. "The arts are an important part of the Rhode Island economy", he said. "Each grant we award helps to employ an artist, even for a short period of time, and those artists – our neighbors – help support local businesses by paying rent, buying groceries, and by providing cultural programs in our communities."

CMW was awarded $6,950 for its spring semester programming. Thank you RISCA!

From Eric Booth: A newsletter and a book about El Sistema

The January edition of Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth's monthly publication about the growing El Sistema-inspired movement in the United States can be downloaded here.

A message from Eric Booth:

The first major book on El Sistema is now available from and in bookstores. Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, from WW Norton, is written by Tricia Tunstall, music educator, author, Editor of The Ensemble newsletter, and speaker on behalf of El Sistema.

Changing lives

The book tells the story of El Sistema in Venezuela and in the U.S., in an inspiring, readable way that will engage a wide audience. This book presents a unique opportunity for expanding awareness and support for the El Sistema movement. Please help get the word out, and get the book into the hands of people we might turn on to the remarkable story that has impacted so many lives.