The YONA-Sistema Program

Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta – Sistema (YONA-Sistema) is a program offered by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. This program is modelled on the ground-breaking El Sistema project in Venezuela, which uses music for social change and teaches the values of unity, harmony and mutual compassion. Five days a week, for almost three hours each day, these students are provided a caring, dynamic learning environment with music at its core, at no cost to their families. This is a tremendous help in priority neighbourhoods of Edmonton and the greater Edmonton area where out-of-school care and extracurricular activities may be difficult for families to afford.

YONA is based on four core values:

  • Inclusivity refers to the selection of children into the program based on economic needs, support needs, and interest in music
  • Community refers to the program’s desire to develop a sense of community among students, within their families and neighbourhoods, and among the broader general community
  • Peer Mentorship is held in high regard in the program as older students mentor younger students
  • Intensive Instruction is shown through the program’s design as a 15-hour weekly participation commitment

Why Music?

Time and again, music has been shown to catalyze brain development, social and emotional capabilities and countless other skills and abilities. Music brings students together and gives them a sense of belonging, an outcome that has been reported by the families of YONA students since the program’s inception. YONA is unique among both after-school programs and music programs in that it aims to provide wholistic care for all students.

Students receive group instrument lessons, singing and general music instruction from qualified teachers. First-year students entering the program begin on either a cardboard replica of a string instrument or a miniature pool noodle acting as a wind instrument. Students learn proper care and handling and become familiar with each part of their instrument and how it will make sound. Once the class has mastered their starter instruments, YONA celebrates with an Instrument Graduation Ceremony, during which each student receives their own REAL instrument to play for the remainder of the year.

Over their years attending the program, students explore a range of orchestral instruments and musical experiences that open their minds to endless possibilities for their futures. Frequent activities include expressive arts time, roots of music classes, movement classes and visits from ESO musician ambassadors or other special guests, such as Tommy Banks, Natalie MacMaster, Meaghan Smith, Orford String Quartet and Cris Derksen.

Students also receive multiple performance opportunities each year, which builds their skill musically but also builds confidence and creates memorable experiences as they bring joy and pride to their communities. Events include school Christmas concerts, Light Up the Winspear, YONA’s Winter Concert, and YONA’s year-end celebration called Road To Joy, among other special events. YONA has also been invited to perform with various local musicians from time to time, including members of the ESO.

YONA provides social curriculum that scaffolds the students in their lives beyond music, contributing to the personal growth of each individual. The curriculum evolves year over year and includes topics such as self care, making choices, teamwork, leadership, identity, community care, getting along with others and identifying growth. Students are given the opportunity to share their own ideas and are encouraged to consider the ideas presented by others, and they learn ways they could approach areas in which they may feel challenged.

YONA supports students and their families through a snack program, which seeks to look after the nutritional well-being of the students. On this front, YONA is incredibly grateful for the support of Cameron Corporation for YONA’s Nutrition Program. YONA also occasionally provides food baskets to families experiencing food insecurity.

Academic support is offered to students at YONA by allowing them time and space to use for homework assignments. Staff and volunteers help ensure students understand what is required and help students work through materials they are having difficulty with. Staff will often read to the students and work on comprehension skills or provide time for students to read to themselves. This way, YONA supports the students intellectually and has a touchpoint with school administrators and teachers, providing a seamless integration of the caring adults involved with YONA students. Arts and crafts, games and free play are other ways that YONA staff and volunteers build relationships with students and allow students the space to be creative aside from music, to make gifts for friends or family and to enjoy relationships with other students in the program.