Sistema NB – children making music together in a transformational journey
Saturday, November 4, 2017
Sistema NB – children making music together in a transformational journey
The Sistema NB Children’s Orchestra performing with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Shelley, at the Wesleyan Celebration Centre in Moncton this past April. PHOTO: SUBMITTED

BY LINDA HERSEY -- Focus on Education supplement to the Times & Transcript -- Saturday, November 4, 2017

A trip to South America led to a special music program being put in place for students across New Brunswick.

Sistema NB, a free after-school music program, was founded by Ken MacLeod, chief executive officer of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, following a fact-finding visit to Venezuela. That country is the home of El Sistema (the system), and the NBYO subsequently decided to partner with El Sistema to operate the program in New Brunswick, a program which sees students get an instrument and provided free musical instruction.

Ken MacLeod, Chief Executive Officer of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra and founder of Sistema NB. PHOTO: SUBMITTED

However, Sistema NB is about much more than the joy of making music, it’s about wanting to enrich young lives, to effect social change and develop good citizens of tomorrow.

“Our object is to engage kids who otherwise would be left out, and when kids are left out in society it has damaging effects on their life,” said MacLeod. “The biggest thing is that if there’s no engagement, there’s no achievement and there’s no sense of opportunity.”

As explained on the Sistema NB website,, following the visit to Venezuela, a one-year prototype program was completed and a four-year plan to “expand and replicate” the program was adopted. The end result was the launch of Sistema NB in September of 2009 at Beaverbrook School in Moncton.

Now in its ninth year, Sistema NB is now not only in Moncton but Hillsborough, Saint John, Richibucto, Tobique First Nation, Edmundston, Miramichi and Elsipogtog First Nation.

The program - which operates for three hours a day, five days a week during the school year - has some key principles at its core to effect social change: discipline, respect for others, teamwork, intensity via children’s investment of time and effort and excellence.

“Our philosophy is that good enough is not good enough,” MacLeod explained. “We are interested in excellence in terms of behavior and learning and performance … and the exciting thing that we’ve seen with the focus on excellence is that the children rise to the challenge.”

Added MacLeod: “It’s absolutely amazing what they achieve. So those things together become literally transformational for kids in our program and what we’ve noticed is so many positive outcomes. Kids attend school more regularly…. better behaviour, improved academic performance, higher levels of confidence and self-esteem. If kids can play an instrument and be in an orchestra they can do anything.”

MacLeod said the Sistema NB program is conducted in both official languages and includes singing, rhythm work and sounds, and reading music. Children also create their own cardboard and paper maché instrument as part of the paper orchestra - painting it in their choice of colours.

That very special artwork is theirs to keep, but the purpose of these preliminary pieces is to learn the proper handling of an instrument until they receive the real thing at the highly anticipated and meaningful instrument presentation ceremony. Actual instruments are the property of the NBYO, and remain at the centre for the child’s use.

Sistema NB lessons are given as part of a group in the spirit of mutual support

– just as it would be in an orchestra – and life. All Sistema

NB performances are free of charge, attended by the children’s families – and anyone else in the community who would like to attend.

More than 50 teaching artists work with children enrolled at Sistema NB centres, including Angela Phi who teaches flute to six and seven-year-old youngsters at the Moncton Centre. Originally from Musquodoboit Harbour in

Nova Scotia and now living in Moncton, Phi has been playing the flute for 30 years and teaching with Sistema NB for eight years.

“This is my dream job,” she said. “This is the thing that I was meant to do. I feel so strongly about it. You’re making such a huge impact on children’s lives, and music has an incredible way of reaching deep into the whole child…. I like to see them (children) succeeding and surprising themselves with something that maybe they never imagined they could do. I love this place. It’s awesome!”

Eleven-year-old Kaitlyn Elliott, a student at Queen Elizabeth School in Moncton, has been part of Sistema NB for four years.

“What I like best about Sistema is you do fun stuff, and you actually get to perform and it builds your confidence level.” said Kaitlyn, who plays the trombone. “It helps you become more social. A lot of people don’t believe this, but before I joined Sistema I wasn’t very social and now I’m always making friends at Sistema. It’s really fun.”

Trey Parker, 11, is another Queen Elizabeth student. He plays the oboe and has been with Sistema NB for four years.

“I’ve learned a lot of stuff,” he said. “I’ve learned really challenging repertoires and how to care for instruments. It’s a lot of responsibility. I’ve learned that once you commit to something, you’ve committed to that and stick with it. One thing I really like about Sistema is the teachers, because they’re really nice.”

MacLeod remains committed to the success of Sistema NB, as are its community partners such as the Province of New Brunswick, which he describes as “absolutely an incredible and pivotal partner – this would not have been possible without their support.”

Finance Minister Cathy Rogers, the former Minister of Social Development and Minister of Healthy and Inclusive Communities, said in a statement that Sistema is an important initiative given its goals for young people.

“If we want to improve the quality of life for New Brunswick families, some of the best investments we can make are in education, training, and programs for youth,” she said in a statement.

One of the young musical participants in Sistem NB. Conducted in both official languages, the Sistema NB program includes singing, rhythm work and sounds, and reading music. PHOTO: SUBMITTED

”Sistema NB is an excellent illustration of an upstream initiative that has a direct influence on New Brunswick’s youth,” said Rogers. “Sistema NB teaches valuable skills, plays a role in educational success, and it helps young people to believe in themselves, understand that what they do impacts others, and learn the values they need to make a positive mark on society.”