Music Education as an Instrument for Youth Development

Sep 21, 2018

Don’t try and tell Isabelle Tuncer that El Sistema is just a music program. The Founder and Executive Director of El Sistema Santa Cruz has worked for more than six years to show that music classes can be an effective instrument in improving kids’ grades, confidence, and sense of values and social responsibility.

Isabelle considers El Sistema a social program, albeit one rooted in music. Like other El Sistema-inspired programs across the country, the goal is to improve access to music education for underserved children while sparking positive, community-wide social change. The free after-school program operates in communities that wouldn’t otherwise have access to orchestral education and provides intensive music education from the best teachers they can find. While El Sistema uses music to reach out to children, they acknowledge not every young musician is going to join a symphony one day. Their goal is to help turn kids into responsible and confident citizens by using the unique community that is an orchestra.

Performers from Watsonville's Radcliff Elementary El Sistema program

The Music, and the Program, Swells

After successfully launching the orchestral and choral education program at Santa Cruz’s Gault Elementary in 2012, the program has expanded to Watsonville’s Radcliff Elementary, and as of this year, Mintie White Elementary. That steady growth has been fueled in part by $70,000 in grants from the Foundation’s donors and Community Grants program. El Sistema has plans to expand into more schools in coming years.

Growing the program has been some of the hardest work. By expanding to South County, El Sistema faced the challenge of scaling up without watering down the very things that fueled the successful growth of the program. They came at the issue with a variety of solutions. They’ve laid out a clear partnership model with school districts that shares funding and responsibilities. They’ve expanded their staff capacity by creating the dedicated positions of music director and executive director. They’re developing advancement pathways for the students, opportunities that connect school-based and out of school learning, and chances to perform on new musical stages as they grow.

Performing on Stage and in Class

The strong relationships between students, their peers, and teachers are what makes it an excellent social program. For many students, the program offers something they may not have had: a chance to commit to a goal, feel supported by peers and teachers alike in their hard work to reach it and to celebrate success as part of a team. Grades and student progress evaluations bare evidence that El Sistema kids are excelling. Recent data shows fifth-grade students in the program not only making strong gains in their grade-level reading and math but outperforming their peers by 16% in math and 30% in reading.

When you ask Isabelle about other evidence of the program’s impact on students, a few memories stand out. There was the time an extremely anxious student with a social disorder not only performed on stage but introduced one song during the last concert of the year. Another time a “disruptive” student beautifully led the Orff orchestra when his teacher was stuck in traffic and could not be there. A disengaged student now wants to come to school because of music, takes great pride in knowing how to set up and store all the instruments and even asks for extra work.

Isabelle spoke about the rewards she gets as an audience member during performances. “It never gets old and I love every minute of it: chatting with the students, their parents and the teachers on the way to the concerts, taking in the venue, whether new (like the Monterey Bay Aquarium) or old (school auditorium), seeing how focused they are while getting on stage and how happy, proud and confident they become when performing, and, finally, celebrating with them, their families, their teachers and the community.” For Isabelle, El Sistema kids and their families, that number will never get old.

To learn more about El Sistema, visit their website at

Written by

Kevin Heuer