Sistema New Brunswick Continues to Grow in Reputation and Reach

Ken MacLeod--President & CEO of NBYO and Sistema NB (submitted)

Apr 25, 2017 (Source: Huddle, April 24, 2017 online edition)

by Cherise Letson

A New Brunswick program that provides disadvantaged kids with a chance to achieve their full potential through learning and performing orchestral music is garnering some international attention. 

Ken MacLeod, president and CEO Sistema New Brunswick, will be speaking at the First International Music Education Conference of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra next month. Sistema is a program of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra (NBYO) that promotes social change and improvement of the lives of kids through orchestra music lessons.

Though New Brunswick is being considered a leader in this type of programming, Sistema wasn’t an original idea. The program is closely based on El Sistema, a program that got its start in the barrios of Venezuela. MacLeod remembers his visit with two NYBO board members to see the program in action in 2009. 

“The first [orchestra centre] we visited was right on the edge of the slums in Venezuela. As we drove up to it, I think the image in my mind was ‘this is what a war zone would look like.’ It was a very sobering sight,” MacLeod says. “There were crumpled buildings, derelict cars, graffiti on walls, obvious signs of gangs. The building itself, if it had been in North America, I’m sure it would have been a condemned building.”

That building served about 3,000 kids.

“But when we opened the door and went inside, I could only describe it as an Alice in Wonderland moment. It was like you entered a different reality. Every hallway was full of kids and music,” says MacLeod. “Door after door we opened was full of kids and orchestras, all engaged with a sense of joy and passion and meaning. It was literally an overwhelming experience to see that. In the midst of incredible hardship and poverty was this incredible centre of music, joy and passion. It was a remarkable sight.”

It was so remarkable that MacLeod says they knew New Brunswick needed this program.

“In fact, we were so moved by what we saw, that literally halfway through our visit we said ‘we can’t wait,'” says MacLeod.

The NYBO then partnered with El Sistema and completed a one-year prototype program in New Brunswick starting with an orchestra of around 70 kids. Today, Sistema New Brunswick now operates eight orchestra centres in Moncton, Saint John, Richibucto, the Tobique First Nation, Edmundston, Miramichi, Hillsborough and Elsipogtog First Nation and works with more than 850 students daily. The organization employs 70 people, 52 of which are professional music instructors who were recruited from both at home and internationally.

Like the El Sistema in Venezuela, MacLeod says Sistema NB prides itself in embracing three core principles: social change, intensity and excellence. Kids learn discipline, respect for others, teamwork and cooperation. All are essential for any orchestra to work. 

“But they are also foundational values if you’re going to have a successful life,” MacLeod says. “So when we think about social development as one of our key principles of operation, those are the kinds of concepts and ideas that form the foundation.”

Though El Sistema is considered the world leader in this type of program, New Brunswick is being viewed as one of the best when it comes to adopting that program into their own communities. MacLeod says this is because New Brunswick has the perfect climate to implement such a program.

“I think New Brunswick is the perfect environment to be innovative and to succeed at a significant level. First of all, our size is actually an advantage,” he says. “People are close to the ground, so to speak. It’s possible to talk to your school superintendent, with the mayor, with a cabinet minister, with the premier. People are accessible and that matters.”

Though a lot of great causes and programs can often get tied up in politics, Macleod said the people Sistema has worked with to get the program where it is today were all “mission-oriented” and willing to help.

“Over and over again the response of elected people, business leaders and community leaders was ‘how can I help?’ There’s a leadership community that’s engaged, that’s innovative, that’s willing to roll up their sleeves and get the job done in order to deliver something of value to people, communities and the province,” he says.

Sistema is currently in the middle of a four-year plan. When the plan concludes in 2019, the program should have 10 locations in the province with around 1,200 kids and 62 instructors. MacLeod says the next phase will be to find ways for the program to continue to scale-up.

“There are 25,000 kids in New Brunswick who live below the poverty line. There are thousands and thousands more who are in families of the working poor. So how do we provide opportunities to even more kids?” he says.

“It’s not a matter of talent or capacity, it’s a matter of opportunity. If we [don’t] want kids to be left out, but instead to be contributors, to achieve their potential, how can we provide opportunities for even more? That’s what we’re currently working with.”