From Caracus, Venezuela to the west side of Santa Barbara, El Sistema music program is nurturing young musicians around the world while dramatically changing the life trajectory of children in need. Founded over 30 years ago on the streets of Caracus, El Sistema—or “the system”—is an afterschool program designed to empower children beyond the classroom, breaking the cycle of poverty and effecting social change through the pursuit of musical excellence. El Sistema is now modeled in over 25 countries and 30 cities in the United States, including Santa Barbara.

Philanthropist and Santa Barbara resident Jim Kearns was inspired by the program’s ability to create a safe place where children were motivated to success. Passionate about making this program available to children in Santa Barbara, Jim founded the Incredible Children’s Art Network (ICAN) at the Santa Barbara Foundation to bring transformational art and music education to those least likely to receive them. Now in its second year of growth, ICAN music program provides after-school music classes to 40 elementary school students, five days a week.

The program does three things for these children: teaches them to succeed in a collaborative environment at the highest level, builds their personal confidence and self-worth, and encourages them to recognize that they exist as an important piece of a bigger picture. Each of these facets is crucial to developing healthy children who will contribute to the future of our community.

Adam Johnston, ICAN’s music program director, was recruited by Kearns after graduating from Yale and spending time studying El Sistema in Venezuela. He explains that ensemble-based music education is limited, as the American system of education tends to focus on building content-based skill sets such as reading and arithmetic. “While immensely important to the success of our society, these skills do not require children to work together,” said Johnston. “Ensemble-based music, on the other hand, involves collaboration at the most fundamental levels.”

El Sistema was additionally created to support and develop core values and character traits in students. The program utilizes musical performance and talent to build confidence, compassion, tolerance, and patience. Such facilitation is particularly crucial for children who may not receive the same support in their homes. “If there is no opportunity to cultivate a safe social environment where a child is able to grow, then there is very little hope for them to have a model for healthy social interactions,” said Johnston. “And as a program, we are learning from both the children and their parents that our students greatly benefit when we provide this foundational support on a daily basis.”

Two weeks ago, a collaborative music performance called a seminario took place in Pasadena, Calif. Three programs from separate cities in the state came together for a day of joint musical performance and integration. For the first time on the West Coast, this seminario took “the big picture” to the next level.

More than 200 students made up the ensemble and performed the musical pieces that they had been practicing on their own. “The other schools had programs that were older than ours, so naturally their students were a bit more advanced,” said Johnston. “However, what we saw happen that day was a form of immersive learning. Our students began to pick up on the advanced harmonies being performed by others and started to mimic the tunes. It was inspirational to say the least.”

As a whole, El Sistema can be described as a transformational experience. But in every facet, it works to foster a sense of community in children. “When you are on a stage with a group of performers whom you trust, a common bond is formed,” said Johnston. “Within that bond there is room to invite an audience to share it with the performers. This experience is immensely community building, especially in the context of our community’s children.”

ICAN is focused on spending the next year strengthening their current programs. Their visual art program currently operates at five local elementary schools. Together, the visual arts and music program serves over 2,200 Santa Barbara students in kindergarten to sixth grades. ICAN is a supporting organization of the Santa Barbara Foundation, a community foundation serving the county of Santa Barbara since 1928.

The Incredible Children’s Art Network is a supporting organization of the Santa Barbara Foundation. It serves as a fiscal partner and provides administrative support to the nonprofit. Through this partnership, ICAN is given opportunities to collaborate with community leaders, nonprofits, and donors working towards the same goal of enhancing the quality of life for all throughout Santa Barbara County.

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