El Sistema is a global initiative that aims to transform children’s lives through music. Pianist Anna Mikaelian Meschian has founded the Armenian chapter of the program, called Sistema Armenia. In an interview with the Weekly, Meschian discusses the new project, its objectives, and how others can help contribute.
Lilly Torosyan: Please explain what Sistema Armenia aims to accomplish.
Anna Mikaelian Meschian: Sistema Armenia is a new music initiative focused on social change through musical collaboration. Through the power of music, we aim to equip Armenian youth with 21st-century skills, to unite small and large communities, and to strengthen our cultural identity.
If we want our youth to become active citizens, then we must provide them with opportunities to learn to contribute in ways that matter. Being members of the orchestra or choir gives children the chance to learn how to be productive members of a community, showing them the important roles their individual voices play for the good of the whole. Awareness, concentration, perseverance, the ability to lead and to follow, and many other important skills become daily habits in the orchestral family. In practicing these skills day after day, year after year, participants transfer these habits of mind to their communities beyond the orchestra.
The repertoire used in the program will include classical music from around the world, with a special focus on Armenian music, allowing youth to really get to know our amazing culture.
Although our home base will be in Yerevan, we will work closely with communities all around Armenia, allowing youth in all parts of the country to benefit from the program.
LT: How did you have the idea to spread El Sistema to Armenia?
AMM: El Sistema, which started in Venezuela 38 years ago, is a huge inspiration for people around the world. I think musicians everywhere are looking at Venezuela and thinking, “That’s what I’ve always dreamed of having.” There are close to 400,000 children playing music in ensembles every single day after school, creating a new reality for themselves and for their society, through a shared love of music.
I was discovering all this for myself at an El Sistema program in Boston, where I was working with kids on music interpretation, when I got invited to do a presentation at the American University of Armenia (AUA) about El Sistema. I think they really just wanted to hear from me on why I was so passionate about this. I did the presentation with zero expectations, and received an overwhelming response from the audience, urging me to bring the program to Armenia.
I think one of the reasons El Sistema is an incredible fit for Armenia is because we already have such a strong foundation in music education. There are so many world-famous Armenian musicians; amid all the weakness we complain about, music is a definite strength of ours. Through Sistema Armenia, we want to build on this tradition of music education, by creating youth orchestras around Armenia, taking music out of the concert halls and music schools, and integrating it into communities around Armenia.
I may be biased, but I really don’t know a better way to uplift and inspire people than through music. I think by seeing beyond the professional solo musician model, we can bring all kinds of joy to the youth of Armenia, while empowering them to achieve unlikely goals in their lives.
LT: What creative endeavors has Sistema Armenia taken on thus far?
AMM: Right now, we’re in the middle of an instrument donation drive. We’re trying to find 40 string instruments for the children of our first orchestra. The response has been tremendous. Within a week, we have gotten seven violins, three guitars, and other instruments that will serve in our program. At this pace, we should be able to put together a string orchestra within a couple of months!
In Armenia, we have also organized community outreach trips—to Talin and Shnogh, running workshops with the kids there and presenting joint concerts for their communities. These trips were the foundation for a new program through which we will continue to reach out to communities all across Armenia.
But you know, it’s been hard to live in Boston while starting an organization in Armenia. I really can’t wait to be back there in a month or so to continue the work on the ground.
LT: Where do you see this project heading?
AMM: We’re currently working on four aspects of the program. The High Note Music Festival will take place at the end of August. It will focus on the choir and orchestra as musical communities, and train close to 40 teachers from around Armenia. The Center for Collaborative Musicianship will be the home base in Yerevan, focusing on building a community through children’s orchestra and choir, and serving as a training facility for teachers interested in bringing social change through music. The Creative Nation Program we’ve started is a call to musicians all around the world to participate in building civil society in Armenia. Anyone interested in sharing their passion for music with children can contact us and we will work together to create appropriate workshops and performances all around Armenia. The Talin Music School is currently undergoing some major changes, and we’re working closely with them in developing an El Sistema program for their community. Much like other models in the future, the vision for Talin is up to the members of that community. At this point, we’re discussing incorporating special needs music education for the children of Talin. On top of everything else, El Sistema is an incredible model for inclusive education and we hope to transfer those practices to Armenia. I know there are about 100 disabled kids in Talin, and giving them access to music would be a great source of joy, I’m sure.
Beyond these four programs, there are big ideas and dreams for the future. Once we have built the foundation, we can dream big together.
LT: Several organizations have agreed to collaborate with Sistema Armenia. Describe the response.
AMM: In a word—overwhelming. Just eight months ago, I was standing on stage by myself, talking about a distant vision. Since then, I have met incredible people in all parts of the world. People have reached out and helped out in all kinds of ways—I can’t even being to describe it. We have also established some partnerships, with UNICEF, Youth Orchestra of the Americas, LUYS Foundation, MIT Media Lab, the U.S. Embassy, and many others. They are providing us with in-kind support, greatly reducing our out-of-pocket costs. The Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) is our fiscal sponsor, which means it is providing its tax-exempt status for our donors. They are also providing instrument shipment to Armenia and have been an incredible resource for advice, helping us deal with the local government, etc.
LT: How can others who want to help with the success of Sistema Armenia get involved?
AMM: We really mean it when we say we are driven by the idea of collaboration. If individuals or organizations see themselves as having a role in our programs, we will always do our best to incorporate them. At this point, we are very actively looking for funding for the Center for Collaborative Musicianship, so financial contributions would be truly appreciated. Once we are fully established, we hope that everyone will consider participating in our programs—as guest musicians, observers, and volunteers. There is really no limit.
Also, please visit our website www.sistemaarmenia.com and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you!