Not too long ago I was described as someone close to the el Sistema movement as a “hardened skeptic.” I found the attempted insult or condescension interesting. I’m not sure if my “hardened skepticism” manifests in my blog, but upon further reflection I think it might actually be something of a compliment.
Musicians are an odd breed. For us, music is not an embellishment of life, but a condition of it. It’s a wonderful, privileged state of being, but in many ways it disconnects us from the rest of the world. We can’t imagine a life without music, but in so doing we lose our ability to relate to those who simply and legitimately don’t share our perspective. Those involved in advocacy for the arts, particularly in the USA, probably understand this dilemma better than anyone else. There’s a sense that the general public, to say nothing of politicians, are tired or uncomfortable with the abstractions we habitually offer in support of arts education, and clamour for hard data. Drawing direct links has its own drawbacks too – as pleasant a thought as the Mozart Effect might be, the risk is that Mozart might one day be rendered obsolete by something non-musical that raises IQ levels just a point more.
It’s probably my appreciation of this dilemma that renders me, in the eyes of the dreamers, a “hardened skeptic”, although I think the term “pragmatist” might be more accurate. But whatever you call me, I’d say I have a lot of company within the Fundacíon. I recall a particular moment of discussion when a senior executive was asked why parents signed their children up for the program. His response was simple and utterly honest: “Free babysitting.” No glorious optimism, no unfounded dreams, no pretense at noble and honorable motives, just simple recognition of the base practicalities of life in Venezuela, but referencing the need for two parents to be working to make ends meet, rather than disinterest.
I see nothing wrong with this. In Good to Great, Jim Collins calls this “confronting the brutal facts” and describes it as a step necessary to achieving what he calls greatness. So what if parents just want free babysitting? Regardless of parental motives, the result is that Fundacíon has an opportunity to change lives. Venezuela is as complex socially as it is diverse, and the Fundacíon has achieved its incredible national presence not through dreaming idly, but by addressing the reality it faces, thus surviving six governments over 35 years, and becoming a truly national movement with youth orchestras from the smallest mountain towns at 10,000 ft above sea level to the Símon Bolívar in Caracas.
Call me a hardened skeptic then. If it puts me …closer …philosophically to these people who have accomplished so much, it’s definitely a compliment.