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The Gift of Notes: El Sistema Greece
Athens, Greece
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The Gift of Notes: El Sistema Greece

Authors: Rose Martus (USA), Sandra Rivera (El Salvador), Natalia Bohorquez (Colombia), Emily Davis (UK)


In 2016, Anis Barnat was walking through one of the many refugee camps of Greece, and noticed that children there lacked any structure to their lives. He phoned his friend Elisa Sologni, and they spoke about the problems that he saw. Migrant children in Greek refugee camps do not receive enough support, education and opportunity to recover from challenging backgrounds and navigate society and culture in their new host countries. They created El Sistema Greece (ESG) to address this with a three pronged approach: provide sustainable education for children, promote social inclusion, and change the narrative surrounding migrants. This allows them to work toward their mission, which is to seek inclusion and peace through free music education for migrant children in Greece. 

Over the years, they have been able to provide over 2,500 students ages 3-26 access to music learning. Currently, they have a team of three board members, six administrators, and thirteen teaching artists. Together they work to bring music learning not only to youth in refugee camps, but to youth across Athens and beyond. This takes form by way of music theory and literacy classes, choir, orchestra, and individual lessons. Unfortunately, they cannot predict how long a child will be in a refugee camp–it could be days, it could be years–so they structure each lesson so that a child has a meaningful interaction with music no matter how long they are a part of ESG. They also cannot predict if the refugee camps will even remain open, and have learned to adapt to these kinds of changes.

For funding, ESG relies upon Friends of El Sistema Greece, outside foundations, earned income from concerts, and private donors directly to ESG. The Friends program is their US philanthropic branch used as a conduit for donations. 

As our group conducted interviews with Anis, Elisa, and Teaching Artist Francis Gagliardi over the course of the semester, we were in awe with their dedication to social change and the people they support. Elisa had an abundance of stories about children who came to their program full of emptiness and sorrow, but left with hope and a newfound sense of passion. Anis would speak about international guests such as Joyce DiDonato who would come and build spectacular relationships with students. Francis relished in the joy that these students brought her. Their passion was contagious and each interview left us excited to move through our work and connect with them again. 

Part of our studies has been to examine potential weaknesses in the organization. Our first conversation about this was hard–we did not want to find anything wrong with ESG, and had a difficult time identifying weak points. As our time has continued we noticed things that we would like to see improved. After searching through their website, we noticed their mission statement was more of a mission story. Anis and Elisa quickly cleared this up for us, and gave us very concise wording. We hope they continue to use their clear language for conversations with future donors and partners. El Sistema Greece’s biggest problems, however, are nothing that they can control: the COVID-19 Pandemic, the unstable nature of those living in refugee camps, and the closing of camps are what could cause ESG to be unable to complete its mission. They have succeeded thus far in adapting, branching out to serve students throughout Athens with choirs and orchestras. However, we think there could be another possible way to continue supporting their beneficiaries under such variable circumstances.

“Over the years, they have been able to provide over 2,500 students ages 3-26 access to music learning. “

Photos courtesy of El Sistema Greece


Taking into account the ever-changing and uncertain circumstances that El Sistema Greece operates under, we would like to propose a concept that gives certainty and hope to every single young musician, regardless of how long they are a beneficiary of the organization. This will be in the form of a guided journal with accompanying videos, designed to prompt self-led musical games and activities for the young people to do with their families, peers and fellow community members. Introducing the ‘🎵Young Musician’s Note-Pad🎵’. Designed with core values of teaching artistry, the Note-Pad will be written in a way that caters to a broad age range, each page prompting artistry and creativity from children and teenagers alike. 

Contents of the 🎵Young Musician’s Note-Pad🎵

It will have a designated space for taking notes in the style of a journal, to capture information learned from lessons with ESG teachers, with prompts asking, “What did you learn today?”

There will also be a selection of easy-notated activities, supporting the learning of music notation. These pages will correspond with youtube videos that support the exercises with visual and audio guidance utilizing teaching artistry that eliminates the need for spoken word. We understand not everyone will have access to the internet and mobile devices, but hope this can promote sharing within students to collaborate on these exercises together. We would like to note that as this is a complex layer of our proposed value added concept, this could also be an additional development further down the line in the future of the Young Musician’s Note-Pad.

The majority of the Note-Pad will have pages that go through stages of suggested activities that the young people can instigate in their own home environments. All activities will be designed in a way that encourages them to collaborate among their individual circles of people, building their own skills to lead others and teach, without the need for specific instruments. We believe this can share El Sistema’s mission even further to more young people, while allowing the existing students to develop confidence in their own abilities to teach and demonstrate creative ideas. 

Examples of the prompts within the Note-Pad are as follows:

  • Explore the different sounds that you can make using your body. How many effects can you make? Can you challenge two other people to a body percussion competition?
  • Using any items, can you find two things that sound like drums, and two things that have pitches? What can you do with these to make up a piece for one minute?
  • Can you create a song or rap that would teach a friend how to count to 10 in your language?
  • With your song or rap, can you use your body percussion to make it catchy? Share it with someone, and teach it to them. What did you learn from this experience?
  • Look at this music notation, and search for *corresponding YouTube video title*. What words can you create that match the pattern?
  • Can you take a song you know from your childhood, and share it with someone who doesn’t know it? What did they think of your song, and how did it feel to teach it to someone for the first time?
Photo courtesy of El Sistema Greece

We believe this concept stands out as a way to engage with young people from a number of different countries and cultural backgrounds. The Note-Pad invites them to express their own cultural identities through creative activities, giving each young person an opportunity to explore their unique voices. Initially, it can be written in both English and Greek, going towards supporting their language and literacy development. We would design the Note-Pad in a way that is accessible and easy to understand at a wide-range of literacy levels, using graphics and images to support this. We recommend that El Sistema Greece teachers introduce the Note-Pad with some additional support to those who need extra guidance.

Taking into account the incredibly challenging and complicated backgrounds that many of the migrant children have experienced, we felt that another crucial element in designing a concept would be to create something that supports their sense of identity by giving them a possession that truly belongs to them. ESG founders Anis and Elisa described to us the incredible reactions from the young people when they are given their own instruments to play on. As a response to understanding how vulnerable and short lived the teaching situation can be for some of the children, we wanted to find a way of creating an item they can keep, that will continue their musical journeys regardless of their geographical location. 

We have also been immensely moved by stories of positive development in the migrant children’s confidence and senses of self-worth as a result of their involvement with ESG. We wanted to explore an idea that allows for continuation of their positive developments, regardless of changes to their living circumstances or the organization’s capacity to work within the refugee camps.

Photos Courtesy of El Sistema Greece


Quantitative Information

In order to measure the effectiveness of the 🎵Young Musician’s Note-Pad🎵, we recommend creating an initial survey asking students and their families how they think music classes are going to impact their lives.  Another survey is recommended when they leave the camp, and a follow up survey year after the intervention (if possible). Our aim is that all the children that leave the camp can keep music education in their lives from one way or another. Due to the varying destinations of students who leave the camps is unknown, it will be difficult to measure the impact. However, since the book is also meant to be used with children that live on site, metrics are going to mostly be from the children living at the camps. See appendix for examples of the survey. 

How is the experience going to improve the experiences of beneficiaries?

The Young Musician’s Note-Pad is intended to serve as a souvenir, and aims to create fond memories, letting the students know that someone cared for them while at the camp. It is also meant to help children heal, which they can accomplish by writing or drawing their feelings. One of the challenges El Sistema Greece faces is that some children stay at the camp for a short period of time (as little as a month or even a week). By having The Young Musician’s Note-Pad, children will have an opportunity to keep practicing/learning music at their own pace with their families. We believe it is part of the learning journey for students to be inspired in order to keep practicing outside of the classroom; therefore, The Young Musician’s Note-Pad will provide the opportunity for the students to lead suggested activities with their family members and/or other people that surround them whether is at the camp or otherwise. That way we can envision them holding jam-style sessions with the people closest to them, enjoying the creative activities whilst also building a support system for shared learning. The bond with their family members and community will become stronger, and widen the reach to more beneficiaries. Giving the opportunity for children to lead, is a way to empower them, making them feel that they are capable of doing anything that they can set their mind into. 

How is the experience going to improve the experiences of customers?

  • Customers have a visual idea on how the classes are structured.
  • Customers (outside of those who already benefit from ESG) can buy the book for their own families and have fun at their homes. When a family outside of ESG buys a book, the proceeds support children in El Sistema Greece. (This idea of creating profit from the Note-Pad and selling it elsewhere is a concept that could be explored separately down the line). 

How is the experience going to improve the experiences of administrators?

  • By giving children The Young Musician’s Note-Pad, El Sistema Greece will now have a way to retain music instruction in the lives of children and their families at a level where they can offer the same education opportunity to all. 
  • Administrators can sell the book to other programs and people around the world, helping the concept to be financially viable.

Challenges of Implementation

Implementing this project is divided into two stages.The first one is creating the content and graphics in English. The second stage consists of translating the book to the languages spoken at the camps.  

Human Resources: Stage 1

  • 2-4 Teaching Artists that create the content of the book
  • 1-2 Graphic Designers
  • 1 psychologist to make sure the book is feasible for children and families living in difficult circumstances. 

Human Resources: Stage 2

  • 1 Graphic Designer
  • 5-10 Translators (to translate the book to all the languages spoken at the camps)
  • 1 Lead Teaching Artist
  • Marketing advisor to help sell the book 

Financial resources required

  • Means for making copies and binding a book. About $3-5 USD per child.
  • Payment of professional services provided by the designers of the book.

One way to avoid designing costs is to find volunteers from universities that are studying majors related to the human resources needed. Internships can be created as compensation in college credit.

How long it would take to implement: Approximately 3 months

For the creation of this book, these are the initial ideas that we would suggest. As it is a complex and multi-layered proposal, if ESG would be interested to consider it further, we would be motivated to collaborate over the ideas, as we know there would be valuable suggestions that would come from Teaching Artists working on site. This would ensure the project is as impactful as possible.

We recommend the following timeline to implement the project:

  1. Teaching artists plan the content of the book divided in three sections: a journal component, music activities for the family, and some content that can be approached during classes, (1 month)
  2. Psychologist review the content, and add healing interventions that go along with the activities (2 weeks)
  3. Content is given to the graphic designers and work in collaboration with Teaching Artists (1 month)
  4. Print the English version book and distribute to the students (2 week)
  5. The English version of the book is ready to sell and the marketing advisor is ready to take the lead on this. (If the sales route was explored)
  6. Book is translated to the different languages spoken at the camps. (1 month per language)
  7. The book is ready to be distributed in different languages
Photos courtesy of El Sistema Greece

“In-person group teaching has become ever more challenging due to global pandemic restrictions. Similarly, the lack of a uniform training model for ESJ Fellows – potential future Teaching Artists – and their recruitment is cause for concern. At this crossroads, ESJ has to decide on the scope of their future growth.”

Photos courtesy of El Sistema Greece


It has been a deeply enriching experience to have the opportunity to delve into an organization with such a strong and valuable mission. This learning process would not have been possible without the generosity of Anis and Elisa, who provided us with detailed information about El Sistema Greece. They walked us through their process of founding and developing the organization to the point where they are now. They opened their door for us to explore their challenges, their success stories and their administrative and business structure. It is inspiring to see how after visiting a refugee camp where children had nothing to do, they took the necessary steps to create something to make a positive contribution to those lives, using music as their main tool. Not only have they improved the quality of life of the refugee and immigrant communities but also created bridges between them and the local community in Greece. As a result they have promoted inclusion, collaboration, and appreciation for cultural diversity. 

We also want to acknowledge the help we received from Francis, one of their Teaching Artists. She volunteered her time to interview with us and tell us more about the organization from a teaching perspective. This helped us understand more about the needs of the students, their curriculum, and day to day activities. Thanks to this interview we were able to imagine and design an interactive concert suitable for their students and the people around them. We hope to see this happening sometime in the future. 

After analyzing and evaluating the operations of El Sistema Greece we have worked on finding ways in which we can contribute to their evolution. One of the main challenges we find is the ever changing situations in the refugee camps. This sometimes does not allow Sistema Greece to continue their operations in them, leaving many students without access to music and continuity in their process. For this reason, we thought it would be beneficial to create an accompaniment material. Our suggestion is a workbook or journal with games, reflections and activities that the students can use to remember what they have learned, to reflect on their individual processes, and that can help them learn on their own in case Sistema can not operate in their camps. This will serve as a tool for self empowerment and self agency, and as a reminder that change is in their own hands. 

Finally we would like to share some of the valuable insights this project has made us reflect on. These have transformed our lives and impacted us in different ways. We have learned how to communicate and collaborate with each other, we have developed a sense of commitment regardless of what is happening in our lives, we have realized the importance of asking instead of making assumptions,  we have learned to trust the value of our criteria and our ideas,  we have become more open to listen to other ideas, to compromise and find a common ground, and last but not least, to overcome the challenge of managing different time zones and always find a way to meet and work together. We want to thank the Global Leaders Program for allowing us to access this transformative experience and connecting us with a group of like minded people to support, learn, and succeed together. 

Photos courtesy of El Sistema Greece

“We wanted to explore an idea that allows for continuation of their positive developments, regardless of changes to their living circumstances or the organization’s capacity to work within the refugee camps.”


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