Last week the Fellows watched a short documentary on el Sistema, filmed and released in 1999 by a European production company. The content itself was largely unsurprising, presenting a nominal snapshot of the organization as it existed 11 years ago, with the most intriguing element coming from Dr. Abreu himself. He was featured fairly prominently on camera, speaking at length with all the characteristic intelligence and focus we’ve come to expect, but without the eloquence that has become his hallmark. I refer to eloquence in the Oliver Goldsmith sense, that of the utmost of simplicity and directness, rather than mellifluous prolixity or the employ of sesquipedalian verbiage. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
The Dr. Abreu of today is a supremely quotable man. I don’t think his ability to provide soundbites is a trick of rhetoric, rather the product of his decades of practice, experience, research and above all, thought. It’s not surprising that his understanding of his own mission has grown and evolved since he started 35 years ago; it’s entirely natural, in fact, that through years of reflection he has been able to reduce many of the fundamental concepts of his movement to the most pithy, potent of statements.
But in reading the compilations of his various quotes , I find that there’s a real danger that through the best intentions of his followers, “Maestro”, as he is known, could eventually be regarded a modern day Confucius at best, or caricature thereof at worst. The comparison is not necessarily invidious: like Confucius, Dr. Abreu speaks with tremendous wisdom, insight and humanist warmth. The danger, such as it is, lies in the temptation to reduce his decades of thought and contemplation into a number of aphorisms or analects bereft of context and impinging on the spiritual. I’m not suggesting a theological degree of analysis and interpretation is required to appreciate them, just a healthy dose of common sense.
Take for example his oft-repeated statement that “The only system to el Sistema is that there is no system.” I don’t believe that Dr. Abreu was lying or over-simplifying when he said this, but referring only to a fundamental pedagogical value , one that most teachers worldwide share – that there’s no single right way to instruct a child. This value is part of a system (I use the word deliberately) of closely-related fundamental precepts that define the practice of FESNOJIV today. Certainly there must be a system: a system for identifying those individuals who understand, respect and practice these values, and for retaining them. There must be a system for building an organization culture in which the needs of the students are placed first and foremost above all else, including (shockingly) the egos or petty political squabbles endemic in most music institutions. These particular systems must exist, or in visiting San Juan de Los Morros on Monday we would not have heard a young conductor say over and over, before a large audience and the combined performing forces gathered from across the state of Guarico, that he and the faculty were there only to serve the children.
I believed him. There is a system to el Sistema, just not where you think it might lie.