- by David McLeish

I along with several other stalwart volunteers have been working for several years to keep this little charity we started about a decade ago afloat.

It’s called El Sistema Grey Bruce (The Big Sound) and it was established to contribute to social change in Grey and Bruce counties by providing children with the opportunity to be involved in a positive, safe, and healthy activity three to four times a week that fosters their creativity, nurtures their potential, and hopefully alters the trajectory of their lives towards happier and healthier lives. To summarize – Social Change Through Music.

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I gaze in awe at the terrific work of all the local organizations working to help the less fortunate in our community. Grey County for instance, manages 997 rent-geared-to-income housing units and their new transitional housing project at 396 14th St. W. will see the addition of 12 new supportive studio apartment units.

And then there’s the YMCA Rural Housing & Homelessness Outreach Program, which assists people in need of emergency shelter and provides advocacy and referrals to community services.

Let’s not forget Grey Bruce Health Services’ conversion of the previous Bayview Public School at 6th Street A East into a new wellness and treatment centre.

And, there’s OSHaRE’s tireless effort to feed the hungry, serving 123,623 meals in 2022.

And, of course Safe n Sound’s Poverty Advocacy and Residential Supportive Housing Program, which now operates 7 days per week.

And, the Owen Sound Salvation Army Food Bank which distributes hampers to about 360 households a month.

The list goes on.

And yet, people continue to suffer. A quick visit to the Opioid Alerts section on the Grey Bruce Public Health website reveals a litany of disturbing statistics. There have been 20 Alerts issued since July 2020 with the most recent regarding fourteen overdoses, including one fatal overdose, from Friday, March 31, to Sunday, April 2, 2023.  This problem is so grave that I had to up-date these statistics while writing this article.

So, I asked myself the question (alternatively attributed to “the public health parable” and Desmond Tutu): 

        “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river.  We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” 

I don’t think there is any question as to the cause, the answer lies in poverty.

If you need more evidence, consult Statistics Canada or read the Grey Bruce Public Health Unit’s report on this topic.  In short:

25% or 1 in 4 of the children in this community live in poverty. That means food insecurity, constant worries about accommodation, etc. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Looking upstream led me to contemplate how to stop people from falling in the river. This is not easy, as Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander and his colleagues Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson discovered in their decades-long study of 790 children growing up in a variety of Baltimore neighborhoods. The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood (Russell Sage Foundation, 2014), observed that:

“Kids born into poor families grew up to be poor themselves. Nearly half of the children in the study had the same income status as their parents; and only thirty-three children of families in the lowest-income bracket moved to a high-income bracket by their twenties. The education picture isn’t any sunnier. A mere four percent of those from low-income families had a college degree at twenty-eight (compared to 45 percent of their higher-income peers).”

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Some will say, Owen Sound isn’t Baltimore.  Really?  Do we actually need another study?  I don’t have the power to invoke a Living Wage or construct enough places for the 600+ people on Grey County’s waiting list for affordable housing or the 70+ with no fixed address, to live.

The search for something that we could do locally that could actually make a difference, led me to a conversation that in turn took me to Venezuela, figuratively, not literally.

There, they initiated a program called El Sistema back in 1975. In short it was about Social Change Through Music.

To quote Josie Antonio Abreu, the founder of this program, “Music has to be recognized as an … agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion.”

In other words, it is a system that gives children a route out of poverty.

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I’m generally skeptical of big promises, so I did more research.  

What is it? 

It is an intensive youth music program that seeks to effect social change through the ambitious pursuit of musical excellence. El Sistema focuses primarily on children with the fewest resources and greatest need.

How does it work?  

Children attend a free after-school music and social development program where they learn together for 2.5 hours per day, 3 to 4 days each week.

They learn how to read music, play an instrument, sing in choirs, have fun, AND most importantly, they develop self-esteem, personal agency, empathy, and how to support each other. There are no “stars,” there is a team.

Students can attend this program from Grade 1 to the end of high school. By the time they graduate they have learned not only music, but how to work together, the sense that they are the subject influencing their own actions and life circumstances, empathy, a sense of community, and that they are not alone.

As noted by Sistema pioneer and participant, Gustavo Dudamel, "art is a universal right and that inspiration and beauty transform irreversibly the soul of a child, making it a more fully, healthier, more complete human being, happier and, therefore, a better citizen."

Does it work?

Yes. Dozens of scientific studies of Sistema inspired programs have concluded that participation in this program results in all kinds of benefits to
participants. Here the results of just 6 of these studies:

  •  improved self-control
  • reduced behavioural difficulties
  • enhanced reading and pitch discrimination abilities in speech
  • improves behaviour and influences the development of neural process
  • short periods of training have strong consequences on the functional organization of the children’s brain
  • enhanced performance on a measure of verbal intelligence, with 90% of the sample showing this improvement
  • children in the music groups exhibited greater increases in full-scale IQ
  • increased learning opportunities, perceived benefits of discipline, perseverance, positive attitude, and hard work
  • a degree of musical growth that was not only statistically significant (p <;.0001), but substantial
  • significantly higher levels of growth mindset (Growth mindset refers to the belief that one’s capacities – such as intelligence or musical ability – are due in large part to one’s actions and efforts rather than to a fixed trait or talent).
  • students in the music education program scored higher on standardized tests; earned better grades in English language arts; and exhibited superior performance on select tasks of executive functions and short-term memory.
  • Music education is important to build the basic cognitive and behavioral skills necessary for success in nearly every domain of school and life.

The Big Sound provides participants with a healthy snack, thanks to the students in the Culinary Arts program at OSDSS who prepare one for each student each day, a chance to unwind, and then they learn music (notes and note names, theory, harmony, rhythm, how to sing and how to play instruments) AND how to cooperate, share and empathize with their peers.


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So, is The Big Sound actually for sale?

Well, no. That was just a devious plot to pique your interest.

Running a charity is much like operating a small business in the sense that revenues are essential, employees need to be recruited and paid, an inventory must be managed, and there are numerous bills to pay; however, they cannot be sold like a small business.

The other thing that a charity like this needs are volunteers to help keep it operating by taking minutes, managing our finances, chairing our meetings, and of course, raising funds to give children a route out of poverty. 

In conclusion, many people and families in Owen Sound live below the poverty line. Yes, they need immediate assistance like food and shelter, but can we stem the tide?

The Big Sound is a registered charity that delivers a long-term investment in our children and youth that has been proven to help give children a route out of poverty.

The program we are offering is currently oversubscribed (i.e. more applications than there are spaces). Yet, we struggle to recruit people to help deliver this program and help raise the funds necessary to ensure it continues.

Maybe you can help.

You could be a program volunteer serving up a delicious snack, a Teaching Artist, a Director on the Board, or a fund-raiser.

Give us a shout if you are interested:  [email protected]



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