Playing for Their Lives

The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music

Eric Booth (Author), Tricia Tunstall (Author)


An eye-opening view of the unprecedented global spread of El Sistema—intensive music education that disrupts the cycles of poverty.

In some of the bleakest corners of the world, an unprecedented movement is taking root. From the favelas of Brazil to the Maori villages in New Zealand, from occupied Palestine to South Central Los Angeles, musicians with strong social consciences are founding intensive orchestra programs for children in need.

In this captivating and inspiring account, authors Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth tell the remarkable story of the international El Sistema movement. A program that started over four decades ago with a handful of music students in a parking garage in Caracas, El Sistema has evolved into one of classical music’s most vibrant new expressions and one of the world’s most promising social initiatives. Now with more than 700,000 students in Venezuela, El Sistema’s central message—that music can be a powerful tool for social change—has burst borders to grow in 64 countries (and that number increases steadily) across the globe.

To discover what makes this movement successful across the radically different cultures that have embraced it, the authors traveled to 25 countries, where they discovered programs thriving even in communities ravaged by poverty, violence, or political unrest. At the heart of each program is a deep commitment to inclusivity. There are no auditions or entry costs, so El Sistema’s doors are open to any child who wants to learn music—or simply needs a place to belong.

While intensive music-making may seem an unlikely solution to intractable poverty, this book bears witness to a program that is producing tangible changes in the lives of children and their communities. The authors conclude with a compelling and practicable call to action, highlighting civic and corporate collaborations that have proven successful in communities around the world.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • September 2016
  • ISBN 978-0-393-24564-6
  • 6.6 × 9.6 in / 432 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Endorsements & Reviews

Playing for Their Lives brings us the news that not only is it possible to change the lives of children through music—it’s already happening on a worldwide scale. This book is an important call to action for people everywhere who care about using music to remake our kids’ future.” — Quincy Jones, music producer, arranger, and humanitarian

Playing for Their Lives affirms the power of music to change lives and communities. This is a book every orchestra lover must read, but also every community organizer, every school board member, and every citizen artist who is ready to change the world.” — Joshua Bell, violinist

“I am hopeful that this inspiring book will encourage more communities to launch programs on the El Sistema model, so that all of our children can have this beautiful opportunity.” — Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland, 7th Congressional District

“This is an amazing story that has meaning for all of us in education. Plus, there’s a blueprint for how your own school can duplicate the remarkable success of El Sistema. You’ll love the book!” — Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind

“Tunstall and Booth provide a beautifully textured exploration of the intersection of child development, social justice, and the orchestral experience. Their book should eliminate any doubt about the global relevance of the orchestral canon and its transformative powers.” — Jesse Rosen, president and CEO, League of American Orchestras

“Anyone looking for evidence of the transformative power of the arts should read this important book.” — Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind

Also by Tricia Tunstall All

  1. Book CoverChanging Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music


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