The El Sistema Expedition

I’m Hannah, a third-year student from Memphis, Tennessee. I’m currently pursuing a Dual-Degree in Music Education in the Bienen School of Music and Social Policy in the School of Education and Social Policy, with minors in Arts Administration and Religious Studies. I’m incredibly thankful to have been chosen to receive this year’s Circumnavigators Travel-Study Grant, and soon I will be traveling to eight different organizations in six different countries to study cultural approaches to music education pedagogy through a program called El Sistema. This past summer, I had the opportunity to conduct a case study on The People’s Music School, an El Sistema-inspired program here in Chicago. Since then, I have continued working with this organization as an administrative intern and am inspired each week by the impact that this program has had on the lives of thousands of children since its origination. While I never had the opportunity travel internationally before coming to Northwestern, I’ve had the chance to visit a handful of countries through different Northwestern programs over the last two years. I look forward to this new adventure and challenge of thirteen weeks circling the globe. This is my first blog (ever!), and I hope you enjoy this small glimpse into my research and travel experiences as I navigate six countries, thirteen different airports, and four different languages, all while meeting some incredible people along the way.

From the balcony of my Greek Airbnb:

Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? Sweltering heat, mosquitos galore, and blistered feet—but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. This past week in Greece has been quite the adventure. Honestly, it’s been the exact same kind of adventure I’d hoped for ten months ago when I began applying for this grant. One full of sweat, sunburned skin and some sleepless nights, but also full of profound personal development, intellectual growth and new friendships.

El Sistema Greece is doing some incredible things here in Athens. I understand that can be said for many organizations around the world, but what I’ve witnessed thus far throughout my visit with ESG has really been life changing. The mission of ESG is “to provide free music education to all children who have lived the experience of leaving their homes in search of a future.” The organization has worked with children in six núcleos—including three different refugee camps—for the last two years. ESG aims to give these children social and educational experiences in order to improve their lives in the refugee camps and beyond, while also striving to prepare children for their integration into Greek and European society as a whole.

There are currently more than 60,000 refugees in Greece—20,000 of which are children. The three camps that I’ve been visiting this week represent individuals from several nations, but I’ve most commonly worked with Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghani children. The average stay at the refugee camps is at least 1 year and 8 months. At this point, most of the refugees currently in Greece arrived after the 2016 EU-Turkey deal. As a result, these families can only apply for asylum in Greece; however, they may be denied and deported to Turkey, which is considered a “safe country” for those families. (If you’d like to learn more about these facts and figures, please reach out! I’d be happy to share with you what I’ve learned about the refugee crisis in Greece.)

With its first class held in November of 2016, El Sistema Greece is a relatively new organization. Today, ESG has 18 musicians that regularly teach around 250 children at 6 different sites. Throughout the week, I’ve observed 20 hours of classes filled with children ages 2-18. Here’s a list of some of the things that’ve stood out to me thus far:
-In the violin group classes, students have been playing their instruments anywhere from 5 months to 1 year. That being said, children in the advanced classes have made some -serious- progress in that one year. While the aims of ESG are obviously rooted in addressing social issues, ESG does not sacrifice the delivery of high-quality musical instruction.
-The suburb teaching techniques exhibited in the choir classes I’ve visited have been breathtaking. I’ve witnessed excellent pacing, seamless transitions, and learned some incredible educational strategies that I will most definitely be employing in my own teaching when I return to the States.
-Across the board, ESG strives to provide a musical experience that encompasses a variety of repertoire from all across the globe. Teaching songs from Mexico, Russia, Japan, India, and more—the choir classes expose children to a variety of tunes that not only develop their musicianship, but also widen their worldview.

Four girls in an advanced choir class learning the lyrics and tune to a new song from Mexico

To conclude, another list (I love lists) of things I’m thankful for:
1) Bug spray—lots of mosquitos in Greece.
2) Literally all of the people I’ve met this week—El Sistema Greece staff, visiting pedagogy students from Paris Conservatoire, Josephine the marketing volunteer, and many more. They’ve all transformed what I thought would be a quiet stay in Athens into a great deal of fun.
3) The unmatched privilege of being born in safe country—while there have been many instances throughout my recent years where I’ve questioned just how safe I am going to class or a night out on the town with friends, I can easily say that I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve genuinely feared for my life. I will not hop onto my soapbox on this Northwestern* blog, but I begin to fathom the hostility and resulted heartache that must lead people to pack up their families, entire lives, and seek refuge in an unknown land.

A mural found in one of the classrooms at the Apostoli núcleo

*If you look to the bottom right of your screen you can see that Northwestern doesn’t endorse any of my views anyway—so we’re all good.

From baggage claim at Athens International Airport:

I know what you’re thinking: “There’s no way that she can be writing this blog post from baggage claim. She’s making all of these locations up!” False. Downloading the Google Docs app to my iPhone has changed the game. Anyway, I’ve been standing here for thirty-two minutes, so I figured I’d exert my energy into something at least mildly productive.

While I expected my travels today to be relatively quick and painless—I was so wrong. Here’s a little travel advice for that I wish I’d known circa 12 hours ago:

  • Aegean Airlines actually weighs all of their carry-on bags. I’ve taken nearly one-hundred flights across about a dozen airlines in my short lifetime, and somehow, I’ve never come across an airline that actually. weighs. carry-on. bags. Evade the $97 fee that I faced for being 2 kilos over the maximum.
  • – Three-hour flights can turn into five-hour ones when an airline insists on weighing everyone’s carry-on items (but still doesn’t begin the boarding process until, what was supposed to be, twenty minutes before takeoff).
  • – Don’t eat the food on the Aegean flights. I generally hate airplane food, but having not eaten all day, I attempted to down a room temperature (or plane temperature) mush that was ultimately not worth the tummy ache.
  • – Expect to wait at least 45 minutes before the baggage claim belt even begins to distribute luggage. I should have grabbed a cup of coffee…or started this post half an hour ago.
  • This blog post is turning into a roast of Aegean Airlines. Yikes. If I were a Yelp person, they’d be in for quite the treat.



So, my bag came. Rather quickly compared to everyone else’s actually. And last night, after hopping on two wrong busses, I finally made it to the Airbnb where I’ll live for the next fifteen days.

I’ve now got a three-day weekend to spend exploring Athens, catch up on interview transcriptions, and document remaining field notes to my computer. On Monday, I’ll begin working with El Sistema Greece and their orchestra and choir programs across three different refugee camps. I’m very excited to get back in the field and learn more from this organization over the next two weeks!

Thankful for…
1) The fact that I got here safely—regardless of how annoyed/exhausted I was throughout that entire travel experience.
2) Modern day technology—being able to FaceTime and Skype my family several times throughout the last two weeks has made all inklings of homesickness disappear; being able to Google “nearest grocery store” or “Top 10 Cutest Coffee Shops in Athens” has really made this trip so much easier…and Instragram-able; being able to stream the entire first season of This is Us has made all this time alone feel much less lonely (but don’t worry Northwestern–I’m getting my work done first!).
3) Sunshine—while it’s over 100 degrees in Athens today, and I’ve been profusely sweating since I left my apartment this morning, my trip has been nothing but sunny thus far, and I wouldn’t want it any other way!

From a hellish hostel in Liverpool:

Imagine this: it’s 3:30am on a Monday morning. You’ve been lying in bed for five hours, but still haven’t managed to fall asleep. Why, you ask? Because your fifth-floor hostel room’s thermostat reads “30 C”, and the pub directly below your window has been blaring music since the late afternoon. Ever heard the dance remix of John Denver’s “Take me Home, Country Roads”? I hadn’t either until that morning.

After lying in a pool of literal sweat and tears that night, I caved and rented a hotel room for my remaining two days in Liverpool. While my budget hotel had some life changing air-conditioning, it didn’t have many other perks. So, like any college student on a budget, I’ve been returning to the Hellish Hostel each morning for free breakfast, lots of coffee, and speedy Wi-Fi.


A pretty street in downtown Liverpool, taken outside the not-so-hellish hotel

Here in Liverpool, I’ve been working with an organization called In Harmony. With four different sites across England, In Harmony strives to provide accessible music education to students in underprivileged areas. In Harmony Liverpool, in conjunction with the Liverpool Philharmonic, works in three different schools in a neighborhood called Everton. Over the last three days, I’ve had the opportunity to visit In Harmony Liverpool’s sites scattered throughout the neighborhood, chat with teachers and staff, observe lessons and rehearsals, and even do some teaching.

Many of the children involved with In Harmony Liverpool are preparing for their final orchestra concert this coming Sunday at Philharmonic Hall. Titled “Stars and Stripes” the concert features all American-inspired music in celebration of America’s birthday. While observing a rehearsal yesterday evening, I (introduced as a real-life American) was asked to discuss what the 4th of July is and why we celebrate it.

A bulletin board put up by teachers at a nursery that In Harmony-Liverpool serves

Tonight, I take the train for a four-hour ride back to London. Tomorrow, I fly to Greece. These last ten days have been a whirlwind of fun and excitement, sweat and exhaustion, and lots and lots of learning. I look forward, though, to the remaining seventy. Farewell, England!

My stay in England has left me feeling thankful for lots of things. Here are twice more than my usual three:

  • 1. Friends that fly to London to watch three musicals with you in one weekend—shout out to Tynan (who probably hasn’t read any of these blog posts).
  • 2. Organizations that have welcomed me with open arms—In Harmony has been filled with some of the nicest, most inspiring people I’ve met in a while. I’m filled with gratitude for such great hospitality that has been shown to me over the last few days, in addition to the whole Sistema community in England.
  • 3. Liverpool One Church—after spontaneously walking in for a Sunday nice service (at which I planned to sit in the back, talk to no one, and leave promptly after worship was over) I was greeted by some lovely gals who introduced me to numerous young adults and invited me out for pizza after the service!
  • 4. Air-conditioning—no explanation needed.
  • 5. The World Ensemble for reaching out to learn more about my summer adventures and publicize some of my writing in their biweekly newsletter. You can learn more about it here.
  • 6. The U.S. of A.—while I know it seems as though I leave the country every chance I get, I’ve got a big, big heart for the USA. I don’t get homesick often, but it’s hard not to feel a little lonely when I’m out of the country for the 4th.

From a bench on the second floor of the British Library:

I’m just a little over three days into my journey, and I’m filled with a whole slew of feelings. Here are three:

Jet lagged: I made the treacherous mistake on Monday of taking a nap when I arrived at my Airbnb. After sleeping for nearly six hours, I was up all night. And then the next night. And now it’s Wednesday. Luckily, I woke up relatively early this morning and should be back on track for the rest of my stay.

Revitalized: I had an interview over lunch today with the lovely Fiona Cunningham, CEO of Sistema England. For more than two hours, we discussed her El Sistema journey, the ins and outs of her organization, and the upcoming SEYO 2018 Residency that’s being hosted by Sistema England this August. This interview—the first of my summer research—reminded me of several things: why El Sistema is important, the hard work that goes into creating and upkeeping effective El Sistema programs, and the inspiring network of individuals that make up the El Sistema community.

Independent: If you know me, then you know that I’m quite the people person. However, over the last three days I’ve done just about everything by myself. Aside from striking up conversation in the supermarket line and asking my barista where the bathroom was located, I’ve had very little socialization or plain human interaction (aside from my interview with Fiona) since my arrival in London. While at times this has proved challenging for me, I’ve really gotten to think more about my own research, goals, and life aspirations.

Besides, there are a lot of perks to taking on London solo. I wanted sushi for lunch? I got sushi for lunch. I wanted to see a play at the Globe? I saw a play at the Globe. I want to take a cute picture in front of Big Ben? Too bad, because it’s currently under construction.

Tomorrow, I’m headed to Lucy McGuire’s Sistema organization, The Nucleo Project. I’m excited to finally get on the ground with students and teachers tomorrow, and I look forward to what the remaining week in England has in store!

Feeling thankful for:

  • 1. My navigational abilities—while all my friends know that I pride myself in being an expert at getting around Memphis or Chicagoland, I’ve really been challenged while trying to navigate an entirely new city, pushing my way onto those pretty, red double decker busses, and not getting hit by cars when crossing the street because they drive on the opposite side of the road here.
  • 2. Whoever created fish and chips—I tried them for the first time yesterday and would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to buy them again for dinner tonight (but I didn’t, because self-control…but I was close).
  • 3. All the free/cheap things to do in London—I’ve been to the British Library, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, Westminster Abbey, Old Spitalfields market, and so many other cool places over the last few days!

From the (very cluttered) guest bedroom in Meemaw’s house:

Don’t get me wrong, my grandmother’s home is generally free of clutter. Every square foot of the house is just about as tidy as can be—except her person clothing closet. (But don’t tell her I said that.) However, I’ve managed to make a mess of her guest room this week. Dozens of skirts and dresses, a twelve-week supply of toiletries, and almost every over-the-counter medication you can think of are scattered across the bed, floor, and both dressers.

Packing for this adventure has been quite an adventure in and of itself: How often will I have the chance to do laundry? Will I really read the three novels that I’m packing? Do they sell Dramamine in the Philippines? I’ve spent the week creating and referencing several unorganized packing lists, and I’ve been to Walmart more times than I’m comfortable sharing.

Today I will embark on a journey that I’ve been planning for over six months. While I’m beyond grateful for the special opportunity to travel all over the world, labelling the planning process “stressful” would be an absolute understatement. The pressure has taken a toll on my health, academics, and relationships. I’ve lost sleep, skipped some meals, and even missed an assignment (or four…). Although the work that I have put into planning this trip has at times felt endless, the day of departure has finally arrived. I’m eagerly awaiting the moment when I finally board the plane from Atlanta to London. I hope that these months of preparation, worry, and exhaustion will culminate into excitement, curiosity, and adventure.

My first stop: England. On the ground, I will be interviewing leaders of Sistema England in London as they continue to prepare for the Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra (SEYO) residency this coming August. At this event, hundreds of students and teachers from all over Europe will gather at the Birmingham Conservatoire for ten days of music making and networking. Also, while in England, I will be travelling to Liverpool for four days to visit In Harmony Liverpool—an El Sistema program frequently identified as one of the most important of its kind. There, I will observe programming, conduct interviews, and help out in any way that I can during my short visit.

As promised in my last post, here three more people/places/things that I’m thankful for:

  • 1. Sarah Bartolome and Eric Booth—two incredible mentors that have guided me through this entire process. Without them, I would not have even been awarded this opportunity, yet alone gotten through the last six months of planning it.
  • 2. Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) and the Bienen School of Music—through their additional generosity on top of my original grant, I was able to make this trip a reality.
  • 3. The unnamed big-box store in Millington, just a short ten-minute drive from my home—many trips and a couple of hundred dollars later, I’m completely packed and ready for the next three-ish months.

From a Norbucks booth mid-spring quarter:

It’s the end of April, but the windchill here in Evanston today still hasn’t managed to creep past a balmy 40 degrees. I’m in the midst of midterms, teaching practicums, the Waa-Mu show, and countless meetings that are all beginning to weigh me down. While burdened with the spring quarter struggle–that every Northwestern student knows all too well–the enthusiasm I have for my summer travel adventures only increases. It’s hard to believe that I’ll be abroad in just less than two months. It should go without saying that a trip of this duration takes some meticulous planning. I’ve applied for visas and received my shots. I’ve continued to work out housing plans and packing lists. I’ve finalized site visit dates and secured some interviews.

Since my last post, though, I reached quite a milestone in my newfound love of traveling: I flew internationally solo for the first time. This past spring break, I travelled to Jerusalem to visit an old friend and celebrate Easter. Over the course of my trip, we travelled throughout Israel to sightsee, visit her friends, and eat some tasty food. Though I was slightly anxious as I awaited my flight’s departure at O’Hare International, I ran into no trouble in Warsaw, Krakow, and Tel Aviv airports. By the time I arrived home after a long ten days, I was remarkably more comfortable and confident to take on whatever challenges may arise when I navigate thirteen new airports this summer.

Dipping my toes in the Mediterranean Sea

Sitting on the steps of the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Ein Karem

Since I’m terrible at wrapping up my thoughts, the rest of these blog post things will end with three things that I’m feeling especially thankful for:

1. The Circumnavigators Club of Chicago for making this entire trip possible

2. Northwestern University, a world-class university that gives me opportunities to travel and research issues that I’m passionate about

3. A loving family that’s not thrilled I’m traveling around the world alone, but fully supports my anyway

From a seat aboard Copa Airlines’ flight 229 to Panama City

A journey has begun—not the journey—but a journey nonetheless. It’s a Friday evening eight weeks deep into my third winter quarter here at Northwestern, but I’m not studying in Kresge, attending a student group meeting in Norris, or participating in my sorority’s big-little reveal. I’m sitting in seat 20A embarking on a trip to the summer music camp of FUNSINCOPA: Fundación Sinfonía Concertante de Panamá. For the next six days, I will live and work alongside music education specialists from numerous locations across the globe, teaching violin and viola to young students, and piloting the methodology for my summer research.

Exactly four months from tomorrow, I will begin the journey around the globe. I will soon be travelling to six countries—England, Greece, Kenya, India, the Philippines, and New Zealand—over a period of thirteen weeks. Flights have been purchased, so it’s officially official. I’m going. I’ve got numerous logistics to work to out between now and then, though, associated with housing and budget finalizations, visas, and countless other things. While it feels as though there’s a mountain of work (not to mention winter finals and all of spring quarter) standing between me and my journey, before I know it I’ll be abroad and researching what I love.

If you know me, you’ve most likely heard about El Sistema. If you don’t know me, here’s your chance to learn more: El Sistema originated in Venezuela in the 1970s with the goal of promoting social change through the medium of music education. Since its origination, hundreds of programs have been developed all across the world. Over the course of thirteen weeks this summer, I will examine multiple approaches to El Sistema at eight different organizations in order to learn more about best practices in music education, advocate for a more culturally understanding pedagogy, and ultimately promote social change through music.

Hopefully some of that sparked your interest, and I welcome you follow my blog and join me on this El Sistema Expedition!