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Shawn Earle

Sistema Toronto is an intensive, non-profit social development program that uses music to inspire positive social change. We aim to transform the lives of children in Toronto’s underserved school communities through barrier-free, ensemble-based music education. Sistema Toronto provides this programming with no auditions and no cost to our students or their families. Our students develop social and music skills and have a safe and positive place to go after school – and opportunities which are not always accessible to all students.

Tell us about yourself?

I am a professional clarinetist and music educator. I have worked as a high school music teacher, university music professor, administrator, and freelance musician. I first started working in the Sistema-inspired music education at the Saint James Music Academy in Vancouver, where I taught clarinet for four years. Additionally, I worked as Director of Artistic Administration and Education and Outreach for the Regina Symphony, where I made significant updates and changes to their Sistema-inspired music program.

Advocating for equity in classical music has always been a motivating factor in my work as an educator and musician. This is largely influenced by my own experiences as a performer; I am typically the only Black person in an orchestra, and the repertoire I play rarely if ever, represents my experience. Sistema-inspired music education is a foundational way of creating opportunities for those in equity-seeking groups, which will ultimately have an impact on professional music institutions in the future.

If you could go back in time a year or two, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

If I could go back two years in time, I would tell myself to dig deeper into gaining new skills. My current role requires a well-rounded person with experience and expertise in a lot of different areas. While I feel like I have diverse skill sets, the more versatile skills a person has in this role, the better.

What problem does your business solve?

Sistema Toronto works to solve social issues around access to opportunity for students in Toronto’s underserved school communities. We work to inspire transformative social action by providing musical and intellectual opportunities to children in these communities. Our goal is to build stronger communities by enabling students to overcome poverty, grow, and thrive as engaged citizens and future leaders.

What is the inspiration behind your business?

Sistema Toronto is inspired by the El Sistema movement, which began in Venezuela. El Sistema in Venezuela is a state-sponsored after-school music program that serves as a way for students to be positively engaged after school. Sistema Toronto borrows key elements from the Venezuela program: our programming is intense, there is no cost or barriers for participants, and the goal is transformative social action. However, Sistema Toronto, and other Sistema-inspired programs, adapt these values to meet the specific needs of the communities we serve. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to Sistema, but rather a community-centric and individualized approach to meet the needs and demands of each student and family.

What is your magic sauce?

Sistema Toronto takes a unique approach to social development and music education. Our program is intensive: students receive 2.5 hours of instruction four days per week from a curriculum that emphasises social and emotional growth alongside the development of musical skills. Providing our program at no cost to schools or families and without auditions or barriers sets our program apart from other music programs.

What is the plan for the next 5 years? What do you want to achieve?

Sistema Toronto has ambitious plans for the next five years: we have plans to reach even more young people by expanding our student body from 300 to 1,000 students. Additionally, we plan to strengthen the programming we offer for high school students and deepen our music and social/emotional curriculum. A lot of our centres are currently at capacity with waitlists, so expansion is necessary for us to meet the needs expressed by the communities we serve. Ultimately, our organization aims to reach all students who are interested and would benefit from what we have to offer. Our vision is that through the global language of music, children grow to realize their full potential as engaged and responsible citizens.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

In the short time that I have been with Sistema Toronto, we have encountered a number of challenges, including the November 2023 Education Workers strike, which left us unable to run programming for a number of days; an over 50 per cent turnover in our teaching artist staff post-pandemic; and managing student well-being after returning to in-person programming. Through all challenges, we maintain a family and student-centred approach. In pursuit of offering the best possible program, we regularly conduct consultations with the communities we serve in order to change course to best meet their needs.

How can people get involved?

The best ways for people to get involved are to donate to our program, follow us on social media @SistemaToronto, and tell others about our program.

Our organization provides a safe and enjoyable experience for our students, and doing so is directly tied to the financial resources we have. With more support, we are able to reach more young people.

Donations can be made through the Sistema Toronto website: