Sistema Tulsa Notes

Sistema Tulsa to Perform at Ravinia  

Music students from Sistema Tulsa and Tulsa Public Schools Booker T. Washington, Memorial High School, and Mingo Valley Christian School will perform with renowned conductor Marin Alsop at Seminario Ravinia Festival, a national gathering of students from El Sistema-inspired organizations in Chicago. The four-day workshop of orchestral training, mentorship, and fellowship culminates in a concert on Saturday, July 8th featuring the students in a side-by-side orchestra with the renowned Chicago Philharmonic.
The Tulsa students and their teachers are also supported by the Tulsa Rotary Crescendo Awards.
Marin Alsop who is the Chief Conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Orchestra and the first woman to serve as the head of a major orchestra in the United States, South America, Austria and Britain, said of the event:
"The opportunity to work with students so dedicated to boosting their life skills through the universal language of music is as important to me as leading any orchestra. I'm thrilled to have time over these four days to also meet with the educators who are such crucial mentors for these young people, supporting their personal growth and affirming that they are welcome and, in fact, already a cherished part of this national community of musicians."
Jose Luis Hernandez, the director of Sistema Tulsa said, “Sistema programs serve students with free instruments, music lessons, and life-affirming opportunities. After many years of dedication and practice, they have earned the honor to represent our program and the Tulsa arts community at the national level."
Sistema Students attending are:
Amaya Harbin – Booker T. Washington High School
Lamya Smith – Booker T. Washington High School
Victor Fischer – Mingo Valley Christian School
Solomon Williams – Memorial High School
Sistema Teachers attending are:
Amy Van-Vleet – Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy
Eric Noble – Preston Music Schools

From the Tulsa World - Editorial by Jose Luis Hernandez 


It is thrilling for a fourth-grader to hold a new and shiny trombone for the first time. Brass instruments are beautiful to look at and daunting to play.
Over time, you can play notes with perfection, but that is not what most children aspire to. They relish in the awe of the experience — pulling the slide, blowing the air and making a joyful noise. As players concoct and flex the sound, they discover that they can be masters of a small musical universe.
They start to care so much about their instrument that even the simple task of opening the case and putting it together with grace becomes a ritual that says, “I am a musician.”
At Sistema Tulsa, every fourth- and fifth-grader gets an opportunity to try every symphonic instrument after a year of fundamentals instruction where they learn the basics of musical language.
We are often asked how a student chooses their instrument. The real question to ponder is how the instrument chooses them. After doing this for hundreds of students, it is still a mystery to me how it happens. I know sometimes a child will hold their instrument with such natural proclivity that it seems to smile at them. And their eyes sparkle when it sounds a note, sweetly, at the first try. I suppose this is the sign — the instrument loves them.
As an educator, I am interested in observing how students learn music and what they can learn as a result. The idea that music education can provide additional life skills is one that my colleagues and I have spent a great deal acting upon.
Last year, Sistema band students at Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy told us they would recommend that students learn a musical instrument. They said it is a means to prove oneself and makes them curious about learning in general.
They warned us that it takes a lot of effort to learn music, even more difficult than math or reading. Yet, the practice of music with their peers is fun, motivating them to continue participating and gaining skills over time.
Thus, the practice of music becomes an exercise in resilience.
Recent research shows resilient people have better grades, lower dropout rates, more overall academic success and greater life satisfaction.
In addition, learning music affects executive functioning by strengthening the brain and framework for working memory, mental flexibility and self-control.
Here is what a student must do in a symphonic rehearsal: remember fingerings and bowings in a violin part, count measures and beats, anticipate changes in tempo, manage different information and feedback from their teacher, listen to the surrounding interdependent parts, be patient and behave calmly.
As we have worked on our program, it has become more obvious to me how musical instruction and practice can promote the development of these crucial skills.
The late Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, my mentor and creator of the El Sistema teaching philosophy, once said that an orchestra was meant to be understood as more than a group of people playing music together. He envisioned it as a framework where people would support and care for each other in the midst of difficult artistic challenges.
This thinking clearly resonates with the ideals of democracy. How is my part helping build the masterpiece that we all can become together?
The American jazz great Wynton Marsalis explains further, “The art form itself is designed to create a balance of rights and responsibilities … and allows you to express yourself and co-create things with other people.”
When our students tell us they care about the success and feelings of others here, I become more hopeful about our future.
I am confident that students who choose to learn music with the support of their teachers, parents, schools and after-school programs like ours will grow up to be productive citizens in our community.
I have already noticed Sistema students who care about setting up voter registration drives, volunteering at nursing homes, writing children’s books to discourage bullying and asking to help younger students learn their first notes. This is not an accident; it is the work of music and the gifts it provides.
Like them, I have come to realize that music and all the arts beget a yearning for excellence, a renewal of the spirit and a calling to believe in yourself and others.

First published in the Tulsa Word on April 27, 2023 as “Music Education Resonates with Ideals of Democracy”

Solomon's Story  


This year has been such a blessing for our students and families. I was so proud when we performed the Joy Concert a few days ago and our youngest students recited the Sistema guidelines. They are learning that their journey of learning music involves taking the initiative to learn, being a performer, celebrating and being understanding of each other. When new students join, we welcome them in this culture and we can help them to grow as productive (and caring for each other) citizens. 

For me, it is very easy to make the case for how music education should be a part of every young person's life, because I've seen what happens to students when they work at something they love - diligently and carefully. 

I've known Solomon for 8 years now. When he was at Burroughs Elementary he rode the bus to Sistema each day to start with trumpet lessons and he met Wynton Marsalis when he was our special guest here. Fast forward to now, he is a Senior and teaches in the program, and gets paid to do so. On his first day, he came prepared and brought his own rhythm materials to teach the students. He was patient and kind in how he related to the younger students. Solomon is practicing to audition for state and national festivals. He is considering joining the military and playing music to represent our nation. Throughout all this time, he has had successes and also setbacks, but Sistema has always been a constant and a place where he can always call home. 

Five hundred students have already been part of this program and they have all learned the value of perseverance through music and most importantly, love and care for this community and for each other. I am so thankful that we can offer this gift to everyone free of cost. And that we can be part of this meaningful journey to improve young people's lives. 

By Jose Luis Hernandez

Remember, music learning is a process! 

A Note from our Director, Mr. Hernandez. 

My biggest hope is that our Sistema Tulsa and all students can discover an intrinsic motivation for music. This is the kind of playing that happens not because they are told to do so, but because they want to and can't wait to get to their instrument to polish a song or exercise. How can this happen and can parents help? This is tricky because you don't really want to push your student, but you can gently guide them to the idea that this work can do several things for them: 

1. Create order and independence: playing their instrument allows students to organize their space, time; and control over what and how they practice. 

2. Build shared ownership: remind students that the quality of their playing will positively impact a full ensemble performance when they play in a concert, the better and more confident they sound, the better the ensemble! 

3. Create beauty and new material: beginner sounds are not as pretty as we would like them to be, but every time students play a note, it gets more polished and shinier. Most importantly, everyone has the opportunity to embed their personality into the music and that is an amazing thing to do! Ask them to come up with new melodies with just a few notes. (Hint: most of the great melodies are built with these 5 notes, do-re-mi-fa-sol). 

Remember, music learning is a process. 

Photo: 2019 (Elementary Strings)

Growth Mindset Key to Success 


Our Director of Education, Kelsey Rooney-Dorst, shares how a growth mindset is a key to student success. 

Over the last 6 years, I have had the privilege of teaching and working with over 350 students at Sistema Tulsa. One of those students is Iyana, a flute player. She’s been with the program since its inception in 2015. I distinctly remember many of our flute students in the first year getting frustrated with the instrument. It is a difficult instrument to learn, especially for 4th graders. 

I recall them saying that they would “never be able to play this passage” or that they “should just give up” if they made mistakes. This is what educators and researchers call a “fixed-mindset.” The belief that failure limits our abilities or that one’s potential is predetermined. Part of a teachers’ job is to help students believe in themselves, trust that their potential is limitless, and understand that they can do anything if they work hard, practice, and make a commitment to improve. 

Iyana is still taking lessons at Sistema. She now plays First Flute in our advanced symphony, CYO. During a lesson the other day, we were practicing one of our pieces for our Spring Performance Series. In this particular lesson, Iyana was learning 4 new notes in the highest range of the flute. While we were practicing, I asked her to play a scale that was written in the music that included the 4 new notes. She played it and made a few mistakes. 

I looked at her and said, “Try again, you can do this.” 

She looked back at me and said, “I can do this.” 

Is it okay if I practice it for a minute on my own?” she asked. 

She practiced and played it perfectly, and we moved on with the lesson. 

Something like this seems so small: A student makes a mistake and the teacher says, “try again.” What stood out to me was how confident Iyana was that she would be able to learn this passage. She believed in herself so much, that she took something she had just made mistakes on and said, “I can do this.” This is what educators and researchers would call a “growth-mindset.” The belief that failure is an opportunity to grow and that you can learn anything that you want. 

Six years ago, I guarantee that none of my students were saying “I can do this” immediately following a mistake, but during that lesson, Iyana did. It shows how much she has grown as a lifelong learner and musician. 

My hope is that all students at Sistema understand that mistakes are a part of the process of learning and feel this growth-mindset as they advance. 


Dweck, C. S. (2007). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34–39.

Consistent practice is the key to musical proficiency 


A February note from our Director, Mr. Hernandez 

Our students are continuing to learn music virtually and some in-person through small chamber music groups. Every day, I get to talk to students and hear about their progress. They enjoy learning their method book exercises and figuring out tunes that they like; we heard someone playing Star Wars! We have a student who is learning two instruments (violin and saxophone) and joins us for 4 lessons a week and doesn't miss a beat. Many others have perfect attendance! 

While the pandemic has been a difficult and stressful time, I am amazed at our young peoples' resilience. They are going to learn so much from this time: diligence, patience, responsibility, and much more. 

I would like to encourage everyone to practice daily. 15 minutes a day for beginners and 30 minutes for intermediate to advanced students. Consistent practice is the key to musical proficiency. The musical arts are fun, yes, but they are also a discipline. This means that on some days your student may not want to open their instrument case, but they must be reminded and encouraged that personal discipline will take them very far in music and in life. I practice piano every day (even on days that it feels cumbersome). It keeps my musical mind moving. 

Please reach out to our staff and teachers for ways to create structures for daily practice time. Everyone is willing to help!

Jeri Strange Farewell  

We would like to announce that our Operations Coordinator, Jeri Strange, has accepted a new and wonderful job with the YMCA in Texas. She will be serving at Sistema Tulsa until May 23. Jeri has been an incredible asset to our program since its inception. We will miss her dearly. She has always been optimistic, compassionate and a great champion of our students. We are all grateful for having had the opportunity to work with her. “I have been blessed beyond measure to be a part of Sistema Tulsa for the first 4 program years,” Jeri said, “Please allow me to be your biggest fan from afar!” Please join me in thanking Jeri for her service during her last few weeks with us.  

We expect to post a job description on our website, Facebook page and other human resources channels. If you know anyone who would be a good candidate for the position please feel free to forward the job description. We would like to interview as many qualified people as we can and hire someone in time to experience the regular academic year. I feel it is important that our new operations coordinator work alongside with us and Jeri to ensure a smooth transition. We are  very optimistic about the future.  

Again, let us thank Jeri for her wonderful work – we are very proud of her! 

Sistema Tulsa Recognized at the Capitol  

Sistema Tulsa students and teachers traveled to Oklahoma City to participate as a featured ensemble of “Oklahoma Arts Day.” The event was sponsored by the non-profit Oklahomans for the Arts and brought a group of 40 young musicians to perform classical masterworks including the official state song“Oklahoma!” by Rogers and Hammerstein. The Capitol’s south portico was filled with music and the atmosphere was festive. Students served as ambassadors for the advancement of arts education across our state. “This was our first tour performance, Mr. Hernandez said, “Our students shined not just as musicians but as citizens.” The visit was championed by the Tulsa area Representative Karen Gaddis who also formally introduced the program before the House of Representatives. A citation of commendation and congratulations was presented on the House Floor to students and leaders for their artistic and educational contributions to the city of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma. The event was a milestone for the social change through music program of the Boston Avenue church. 

A Sistema Tulsa plan for after April 2 


Welcome back!  We hope everyone had a very good Spring Break. We remind you that on Monday, April 2nd Sistema Tulsa will be closed due to the church being closed that day. 

Please take a moment to review this announcement: 

  • Sistema Tulsa supports the efforts of teachers and school leaders statewide to pursue fair pay and working conditions. We hope that their appeals will be respectfully acknowledged and that together with the State Legislature they may find shared understanding and a plan for success.  Teachers are instrumental to build a better future for our students and we stand with them. When and if schools close during the statewide teacher walkout we will follow this plan: 
  • All Sistema Tulsa activities will continue to operate as scheduled – it is our goal to operate as normal as possible to provide musical instruction, mentoring, and healthy snacks to all. 
  • Transportation will not be available from our current bussed schools – we work with the district to arrange transportation and this would not be available. 
  • All Elementary age students are welcome to arrive as early as 3:00 p.m. – we will include them in our normal electives schedule. 
  • We will practice flexibility throughout the walkout period and we might create additional rehearsal opportunities as time and resources allow. Each ensemble might be notified. 
  • Our final all-Sistema performance for the year will still take place on May 11 as other scheduled concerts in our calendar. 

As we work through this together, please refer any questions and feedback to Sistema Tulsa Director, Jose Luis Hernandez.

The Sistema Tulsa Team

Sistema Tulsa to lead worship service October 15  

The Sistema Tulsa Community Youth Orchestra and teachers will perform at Boston Avenue on Sunday, October 15, during the 11 a.m. service. The group will lead in the televised (Channel 8) worship service under the direction of Dr. Joel Panciera and Jose Luis Hernandez. 

The musical directors have chosen a menu of beloved hymns with orchestral accompaniment plus the breathtaking Stephen Schwartz song "When you Believe" sung with orchestra by the dynamic BA Chapel Choir. This piece comes to us from the soundtrack of the Prince of Egypt. "There can be miracles, when you believe," is the driving message of the song. An additional anthem will feature Richard Meyer's arrangement of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." 

"This is a wonderful learning opportunity to collaborate with a choir of voices," says Mr. Hernandez, "and to showcase the promise of our musical youth." 

The high school level Sistema Tulsa CYO began almost two years ago and they have made great strides as musical performers with students having performed at Quartz Mountain Festival, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and at Oklahoma State University. 

The Chapel Choir is the flagship youth choir at Boston Avenue and they have excelled as musicians in worship and as servant leaders when touring nationally to major US cities each year. 

"Ever since we started the Sistema program, I've been looking forward to the time when we could work together to collaborate with our church ensembles and form special musical and spiritual bonds," says Dr. Joel Panciera, "this dream is starting to come into focus."

About the blog

This Blog will include notes from our Director, teachers, and volunteers to showcase the progress of our program and highlight special news and events.