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EL SISTEMA USA! The documentary film

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Joanna Rabiger


Can 85 disadvantaged West Philly kids go from zero to Mahler’s First Symphony in six months? Can a young African American trumpet player and his team ignite the same passion that produced Venezuelan superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel? Risk, heartbreak, harmony – watch what happens in our film documentary EL SISTEMA USA!

El Sistema USA! is a close-up study of the participants in a unique urban cultural experiment. In a Title One West Philadelphia school, an idealistic young African American trumpet player from Georgia starts a free afterschool program that attempts to replicate El Sistema, the groundbreaking Venezuelan orchestral education/social rescue movement which, among other things, produced today’s superstar conductor, Gustavo Dudamel.

An unexpectedly high number of parents sign their kids up for Tune Up Philly, which meets after school hours at the St. Francis de Sales School. Gentle, thoughtful Stanford and his diverse team of teachers have taken on a tremendous challenge: Can they generate the same spectacular results that the world has witnessed in Venezuela? Is there a Gustavo Dudamel waiting to be discovered in West Philadelphia?

As Tune Up Philly starts up each afternoon, fourth grader Clinton Mills sits tiny and silent amidst the raucous whirlwind of school kids letting off steam. He responds to questions in a barely audible whisper. Clinton’s mother describes how her battle with MS has added to her son’s constant worrying. Clearly there’s a lot going on behind Clinton’s soulful gaze. Will the flute give him a voice?

Six-year-old Covann Walker is in perpetual motion – and in perpetual trouble. We see her older sister Caitlin attempt to soothe their stressed-out single mom, who sweeps into the school auditorium like a storm front, wearing hospital blues, her 10-month old son balanced on one hip. Covann’s teacher quickly figures out that drumming provides the hyperkinetic first-grader with an outlet for her unfocused energies – as does setting up and putting away the plastic buckets and drumsticks.

Gangly third grader Khloe Blocker excitedly explains that she's made a deal with Sister Mary, the school principal: if Khloe can stay out of detention, she can sign up for Tune Up Philly mid-semester, with just enough time to learn her violin part for the December holiday concert where her father, soon to be released from prison, will hear her play.

At the crowded holiday concert in December, parents, children and teachers alike are all taken by surprise at the near-magical intensity of the event. The kids of the newborn Tune Up Philly Orchestra gape with astonishment at the powerful roar of their families’ applause. Stanford and the teachers furtively wipe their eyes.

And now it’s on to the second semester.


As recession in the United States deepens, Philadelphia children and their families are among the hardest hit. Philadelphia has one of the highest child poverty rates in the US; one child out of three lives at or below the federal poverty level. More than a third of the city’s kids never graduate from high school.

The Philadelphia Inquirer observes that Venezuela's El Sistema is “social rescue disguised as music lessons.” At Tune Up Philly, we see the children transforming before our eyes: their skills, their sense of self-worth, their ability to connect as a group -- and with their parents -- all steadily increase as Stanford Thompson and his devoted teaching team work relentlessly, five days a week throughout the school year and on into the summer months, to build their youth orchestra.

In 1975, El Sistema's founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, came up with the ingenious idea to use the structure of an orchestra as a template for a successful social environment. Once implemented, it became not just a model for the youth in impoverished neighborhoods, but a living expression of harmony and grace created by the children themselv



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