U of T Music and Sistema Toronto foster self-expression, creativity through focus on composition

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article by Sami Anguaya, recent Bmus Composition graduate; photo courtesy of Sistema Toronto

Music education in early schooling can be essential to developing a budding interest into a lifelong passion. Taking part in activities such as lunch time choirs and after school programs expose children to unfamiliar music and sounds and provide a safe space to explore this new world.

More and more we hear of resources for the arts dwindling. Whether it is a school's lack of funding for music classes or access to important musical tools, it is becoming increasingly difficult for young people to engage with music education. While this trend is troubling on its own, removing music from schools disproportionately affects students in some communities more than others. Often, extracurricular programs, camps, or private lessons are expensive, creating a further barrier to providing essential music exposure to all.

Thankfully, there are groups like Sistema Toronto that are working hard to remove such barriers, and people like recent graduate Shreya Jha (BMus 2020) who are dreaming of how it could be even better. Sistema Toronto, founded by Robert Eisenberg and based off the similar Venezuelan group El Sistema, is a non-profit organization providing music education and intellectual opportunities to children in vulnerable communities. Sistema Toronto aims to foster transformative social change, building strong communities by enabling children to grow and thrive through access to education and music. The students of Sistema Toronto have completely free exposure to classes in strings, percussion, choir, and much more, with lessons focusing not only on the technical aspects of music but on creating positive lifelong learning habits.

Having worked with Sistema Toronto since 2013 as a volunteer accompanist, Shreya was inspired to expand the music program by creating a partnership with the Faculty of Music's Composition Division. She saw an opportunity to begin fostering a sense of personal creativity with each student, translating the musical knowledge they were receiving into a tool for further self-expression. Jha's idea for Sistema Toronto was met with excitement, enthusiasm and with generous funding from the Jordan Family Foundation. With these supports, the inaugural Sistema Toronto Composing Program began production.

“I think there is something so special about showing students they can exercise their own voice in the music making process. By teaching composition at this early stage of music lessons, we reframe music as something internal – an outlet that students will always have to express themselves.”

- Shreya Jha, recent graduate and Sistema Toronto's Parkdale Composition Teacher

When asked why she felt so inspired to add composition to Sistema Toronto's successful roster of available programs. Jha responded, "So often in early music education, students are asked to work on things already laid out for them. While this is an excellent starting point, I think there is something so special about showing students they can exercise their own voice in the music making process. By teaching composition at this early stage of music lessons, we reframe music as something internal – an outlet that students will always have to express themselves."

The program's first semester, run by Jha and fellow composers Sami Anguaya (Bmus Composition 2020) and Jahred Warkentin (Bmus Composition 2020), focused on songwriting and melodic creation. Students explored creating tension and release in their melodies, as well as producing graphic scores for short percussion pieces. The U of T composers then used elements written by the Sistema Toronto students to compose three original choral pieces for their end of year concert in the spring of 2019. The following school year saw more U of T composers joining the faculty team (Ricardo Ferro, Tristan Zaba Mmus 2020, Ben Zhang, Evan Tanovich, Kevin Mulligan Bmus 2018, and Colin Sandquist), expanding the scope of the program and culminating in original choral and orchestral collaborative pieces which were performed in December 2019.

The power, resilience, and importance of music education was further demonstrated by the Sistema Toronto Composing Program when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. This was the beginning of the program's second year, and Sistema students were eagerly preparing to perform their own string compositions when the lockdown began. Both school teachers and U of T Composition students didn’t hesitate to quickly and efficiently adapt their lessons so the students wouldn't "miss a beat" of their music education.

While U of T students worked on shifting their lessons to focus on melody, ostinato, and rhythmic patterns (which concluded with two "Lockdown Raps") teachers were delivering instruments to students' homes so they could immediately resume their string lessons via Zoom. U of T Composition students and the Sistema Toronto team successfully organized the program's first online concert (funded by Dr. Amol Verma and Dr. Reema Shah), in which they premiered string compositions and "Lockdown Raps" performed by both Sistema and U of T students. Sistema Toronto also used the unique circumstance to bridge a collaboration with the COC and the Scarborough and Yorkwood Sistema centers. Through this partnership, Sistema Toronto students had the opportunity to create and perform an original opera, focusing on generational differences, gender identity, and mental health.

Moving into 2021, both Sistema Toronto and its composition program show no signs of losing momentum. Students have been excitedly finishing their first film composition projects, and are moving on to exploring minimalism and cell based composition. Both Jha and her colleagues have big aspirations for the continued growth of this program in the coming years, including hosting masterclasses and expanding the base of technology in the students' composition palettes.

More information about Sistema Toronto can be found on their website:

You can also check out the inaugural Sistema Toronto Composing Program online concert here