Defining Social Change through Music with El Sistema USA (2020-2021)

El Sistema is an evidence-based system of music education for social change. Founded in Venezuela in 1975, El Sistema creates opportunity through ensemble-based instruction as a model for youth development.

El Sistema USA (ESUSA), the national alliance of programs inspired by El Sistema, has over 110 member organizations in 34 states and a strong presence in the Triangle.  Building on three years of collaborative research, this project team sought to understand how different ESUSA organizations define social change through music and identify and query these potential areas of social change through analysis and recommendations for organizational support.

Team members studied the variety of meanings of social change through readings and presentations and then analyzed the 2020 ESUSA National Census, a comprehensive, 97-question survey that collected information on organizational demographics, programming, finances and staffing.

Focusing on analysis around program budgets, changes to programming as a consequence of COVID and staff and student demographics, the team found that over 35% of member revenue came from foundations; the majority of program spending and investment is on program staff and teachers; and the pandemic required a pivot to increased virtual or hybrid programming around individual instruction, composition and leadership. Importantly, the team also found a demographic discrepancy between students and teachers, which can inform the future recruitment of ESUSA teaching artists.


Fall 2020 – Spring 2021

Team Outputs

Dataset for further research

El Sistema USA National Symposium & Seminario

This project team was originally part of the Education & Human Development theme of Bass Connections, which ended in 2022. See earlier related team, Youth, Music and Social Change: Building the Evidence Base with Kidznotes and El Sistema USA (2019-2020).


Image: El Sistema USA, Transformation through Music, Illustrations by Collective Next, by TedxBoston, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

El Sistema chart.

Team Leaders

  • Lorrie Schmid, Social Science Research Institute
  • Jessica Sperling Smokoski, Social Science Research Institute
  • Kathryn Wyatt, Arts & Sciences-Music

/graduate Team Members

  • Michael Sheehy, Masters of Public Policy

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Julia Henegar
  • Alexander Leo-Guerra
  • Pataraporn Smitasin, Sociology (AB)
  • Ziyue Zhang
  • Brennan Zook, Public Policy Studies (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Megan Gray, Social Science Research Institute

/zcommunity Team Members

  • El Sistema USA