Inspired by Venezuelan composer, pianist and activist José Antonio Abreu, the Sistema approach to music education came to Canada a dozen years ago, inspiring organizations across the country, both new and old, to offer free, intensive, ensemble-based lessons to children living in underserved communities.  

Students often start playing as soon as they can hold instruments, and classes, which typically total around 10 hours a week after school, can range in size from a handful of kids to 40 or 50 for an orchestral group. The program is rooted in the idea that children need community and connection, and that music can be a conduit to developing a host of important skills, leadership potential and transformative social change.   

There are now nearly 20 Sistema-type organizations in Canada, and many were able to weather the early days of COVID-19 by sending instruments home with children and pivoting to online lessons. But when staff and instructors talked to one another, about small issues such as which software platform to use, or larger concerns like how to best support their students amid challenging circumstances, they saw the benefits of information sharing through a national network.  

The Azrieli Foundation saw potential in these early informal gatherings. Beyond providing financial support, it played a hands-on role in the development of the Sistema Canada Network, which officially launched with 14 members in January 2022. “The pandemic was a real catalyst for us to start working together more frequently,” says Christie Gray, the former Executive Director of Sistema Toronto. “With limited resources, we never had the time or energy to do this. Now we can help each other thrive, and more established members can help new chapters form and grow.”  

This will ultimately help Sistema programs reach more children, but Gray has already seen the fruits of the collaboration. By banding together, the network’s members were able to commission two works by composers of colour, something they could not have done individually. “This will allow our students to perform a piece created by somebody who looks like them,” says Gray, “and that kind of representation really matters.”