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Sistema students succeed on national stage

Sistema Winnipeg students picked up third prize in a national music class competition.

Sistema Winnipeg's rendition of Oscar Peterson's Hymn to Freedom finished third in the Junior Instrumental category of CBC's 2020 Canadian Music Class Challenge.


Sistema Winnipeg is a partnership between Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Winnipeg School Division and Seven Oaks School Division.

In its 10th year, the after-school program provides free musical training to students every day, with participants starting in Grade 2 and continuing until their high school graduation. 

WSD's Sistema program is based out of King Edward Community School, with training also happening at Isaac Newton School and St. John's.

"We are really pleased with the results but also with the project and the process that the students underwent to make it even possible," said Brent Johnson, WSO's education, Sistema and community engagement manager.

"I think it was a great experience for them and our team as a whole."

It's been a year full of challenges for Sistema Winnipeg. Normally, older Sistema students attending Isaac Newton or St. John's would be bussed to King Edward for the program, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the WSD bus drivers' strike made that an impossibility.

Also, keeping students in their day-time student cohorts at King Edward had to apply to Sistema too, so Sistema students couldn't all play together at once

Johnson said the compromise was to operate four nights a week at King Edward, with Isaac Newton and St. John's students tuning in remotely. On Wednesdays, Sistema teachers visited Isaac Newton and St. John's to work with the older Sistema students.

COVID-19 restrictions also prohibit singing and the use of wind instruments in school. While the foundation of Sistema is such stringed instruments as viola, violin, bass and cello, some Sistema students who would normally play flute or trumpet have had to switch to string or percussion instruments.

When it came time to submit for the Canadian Music Class Challenge, Sistema teacher Anastasia Geras came up with the idea of telling that story of Sistema's struggles in the video.

"The only way we could really explain it was to tell the story. We decided to use everything that happened along the way," Geras said. "It doesn't just speak to what has happened with Sistema. It speaks to every music program. They've all went through something similar. Everybody is trying to figure out how to do it."

Amelia Isfeld, a Grade 9 student, in in her fifth year of playing double bass in the Sistema program.

"I enjoy the mellow sound it makes. It calms me. When I'm stressed out, I Iike to play my bass," Isfeld said.

"The Sistema program is important to me because I've been in it for so long and it's the reason for my success on my instrument. I wouldn't be in the position I'm in today without the Sistema program."

Ryza Rueda, a Grade 10 student, plays the viola. She has participated in the Sistema program since she was in Grade 2.

"I enjoy Sistema because I love making music and playing the viola," Rueda said.

"Aside from that, I like Sistema because it's always been a constant throughout my education. Even after I moved onto middle school and high school, I'm still connected with many friends from my childhood through Sistema."

Johnson said it's the communal aspect of Sistema that makes the program so special.

"One of the biggest things that is so important is a sense of belonging and a sense of community, and that happens so naturally in the music environment because everything is a shared experience," Johnson said.

"I think that's so important, particularly now when we're so limited in the ways we can share in community."

While Sistema is an intensive music program that produces some top-notch musicians, Geras said its students don't have to become viola or violin virtuosos to benefit from the program.

"They don't have to become famous musicians," Geras said. "They don't have to do anything but understand that the ability to play an instrument and the ability to express yourself through music is a lifelong skill. It will always be there in your life."


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