Seeing (la) red

It’s been just under three weeks since my last post, and more air miles than I’d care to remember right now. I’m back in Caracas for the moment, after a whirlwind North American tour that included auditions with two major orchestras within the space of a week. I’m happy to say I made the final round both times – no, I’m thrilled to say that, because I had a scant three days to prepare for each, rather than the three weeks or more that each deserved, this timeline  representing the horrid compromise between focusing on the present while being mindful of the future.

And I’m in Caracas for but five hours more, as I will be returning to Boston later today. The experiences here are a little too recent, too fresh to be placed in perspective, even with my temporary absence from the country, but some peripheral thoughts are worth a mention.

I’m going to stop using the phrase el Sistema. The Venezuelans don’t use it either: when they speak English, they say “the system”, which suggests that the continued use of the Spanish by anglophones is merely a pretension or conceit. This change is partly motivated by Dr. Abreu’s own distaste for the term, which he described as the result of the bureaucratic labeling concomitant with the receipt of federal funds, but also my personal sense of the inaccuracy inherent in the title. I stand by my previous entry stating that there are “systems” within FESNOJIV, but again draw the  important distinction between operational systems and educational ones. Clearly the organizational culture is a fundamental part of FESNOJIV’s activities in Venezuela, and plays a large part in its success, but if that is the “system” then such a title is a tremendous misplacement of emphasis.

If one thing is clear from my time in this country, it is that there are standardized philosophies, but no standardized curricula. There are operating principles, but no pedagogical frameworks. Every single núcleo I visited approached teaching in a different way, depending upon what resources were available.  There has been some standardization of repertoire, but this was explained as a function of what was available, as opposed to what was desirable. Ultimately, there’s no teaching “system”. Sorry.

Being North American, I understand the vogue of searching for or generating documentation. It’s a function of our standardized philosophies and operating principles, but to apply our rulers and our benchmarks to our Venezuelan counterparts is to do them a disservice and fundamentally misunderstand what has been accomplished here. Everything that was done in Venezuela, for better or for worse, seems to derive from one single  overriding directive: to make maximum use of minimal resources. Instead of cogitating for decades, building a perfect program with complete documentation, they acted under the simple idea that it’s better to do something now than everything much, much later. As the program grew compromises were made, with access prioritized over sophistication. It was more important to do something for everyone than everything for a select few.

And that, if anything else, is the key lesson from Venezuela: do something with what you have, but do it now.

But that doesn’t resolve the issue of the name. There’s a second lesson from Venezuela: in building this organization in a complete vacuum, Dr. Abreu and his team were able to build it with an extraordinary degree of inter-connectivity. There’s always a path for a musician, another place to play depending on their motivation and work ethic. Modulos feed into núcleos, núcleos into regional orchestras, regional orchestras into state orchestras and state into national orchestras. There’s always a next step right up to the Símon Bolívar Orchestras, something to aim for. And as musicians feed up, ideas feed down, as higher-level training begets more experienced and capable teachers that can return to state orchestras, the regional ensembles, the núcleos and the modulos. It’s the connectivity here that is the extraordinary achievement and strength of the organization. And so I propose, instead of el Sistema, another Spanish word: La Red. The network.

La Red. It’s worth seeing.

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