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Santa Cruz County’s El Sistema celebrates ‘quite a journey’ after coming up just short of big music prize

El Sistema Radcliff Elementary.jpeg
Scott Cohn
Members of the El Sistema Santa Cruz/Pajaro Valley music program at Radcliff Elementary School in Watsonville perform at a school assembly on December 2, 2022.

A Santa Cruz County music education program that was a finalist for a $500,000 national prize will not take home the top honors. But the organizers of El Sistema Santa Cruz/Pajaro Valley, and the 1,000 students who take part, still have plenty to be proud of.

El Sistema was one of only ten finalists for The Lewis Prize for Music, which honors music education programs that foster social change. The organization said 249 programs from 47 states applied.

Isabelle Tuncer.jpeg
Scott Cohn
Isabelle Tuncer, Executive Director of El Sistema Santa Cruz/Pajaro Valley, founded the program in 2012.

While El Sistema did not win the top prize, it is one of four programs to receive a $50,000 Catalyst Award. The program’s founder and executive director, Isabelle Tuncer, said the money and the experience will go a long way.

“There is no losing. It was quite a journey,” she said.

Tuncer said going through the Lewis Prize selection process, which includes a written application, video submissions, and a virtual site visit, caused her and her staff to carefully evaluate their ten-year-old program and to refine its goals. Now, in addition to music education, El Sistema will begin training students for other roles,such as stagehands. The $50,000 prize will allow El Sistema to recruit and train more teachers.

“The future of our program depends on having more teachers,” Tuncer said. “We want to train more people living in Pajaro Valley to become music teachers. So, we’re going to focus on doing just that.”

The Lewis Prize, now in its third year, was established by philanthropist and investor Daniel Lewis. This year’s top prizes went to Hip Hop Into Learning based in Louisville, Kentucky; Mana Maoli in Honolulu, Hawaii; and the Memphis Music Initiative in Memphis, Tennessee.

At El Sistema, they have no plans to rest on their laurels. Students will be playing in holiday concerts in the coming days, with plenty more events planned in the second half of the school year and over the summer. They are also not giving up on the Lewis Prize.

“We’re already thinking about next year,” Tuncer said.

Scott Cohn is a nationally recognized journalist who has been based in the Monterey Bay Area since 2014. His work for KAZU is a return to his reporting roots. Scott began his career as a reporter and host for Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Contact him at