I think I’m suffering from a proximity effect, mentioned before – I’ve become so close and so invested in the el Sistema movement that I forget that the ideas and concepts behind it aren’t well known… or aren’t universally agreed upon, for that matter. There’s confusion and misunderstanding, and we’re not helping. We’ve started throwing all kinds of other ideas into the mix, such as leadership development, peer-based instruction, etc, all of which may be true in isolated instance, some of which may be products of good management practice and smart program structure, none of which are necessarily fundamental qualities. That’s why I originally referenced Schrödinger’s reductio ad absurdum to describe the multiple states of being within el Sistema, the idea that all conditions of the program’s existence and operations, even those contradictory, could be true at the same time. It was an effort to acknowledge the multi-dimensional outcomes and avoid the glib, facile quotations, the platitudes or bromides that seem to be increasingly common in the el Sistema lexicon.
Standing in opposition to the soundbites are the as-yet unsuccessful attempts to define or even agree upon what constitutes the fundamental qualities of el Sistema. These generally impose artificial constructs on the program, or read like pretentious re-writes of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The consequences of this indecision are that the well-intentioned but ignorant or opportunistic (or both) describe their music education initiatives as el Sistema when in fact the programs are nothing of the sort. I recently received an email from a conductor of an elite youth orchestra, a group which is extremely selective in admissions, only pursues musical excellence, rehearses once a week, and charges vast sums of money in tuition, in which the conductor described his work as the “local version of el Systema” [sic]. I also had recent correspondence from the head of a music school who expressed his disinterest in el Sistema because the institution “already gave some $200,000 in scholarship money to needy children”… granted after audition, and for private lessons only. These clearly are very far removed from el Sistema, although that is not under any circumstances a value judgment on the quality of the work they accomplish.
These misinterpretations, leading to misstatements, are what makes this exercise important. There are only a few ideas relating to el Sistema that can clearly and simply expressed, with the remainder being high-falutin’ philosophy, over-complication or over-extrapolation. I know this because I’ve been repeatedly asked of late by many different organizations how to go about starting a program, and what it would look like – and I have to have an answer. Here’s what I say.
1) el Sistema organizations seek social change through the pursuit of musical excellence. One happens through the other, and neither is prioritized above the other.
2) el Sistema organizations are centered around ensembles. Musicians come together to rehearse and perform, because these are the acts that yield social benefit.
3) el Sistema ensembles meet at least twice a week.
4) el Sistema programs are accessible- not free, necessarily, but based on the ability to pay.
5) el Sistema organizations are not selective. This doesn’t mean that everyone gets a chair in the top orchestra automatically, but that the organization finds an appropriate outlet within its programming or within a partner’s for every person who comes to the door.
I believe these criteria are the only ones which could be applied without exception or modification to every single núcleo in Venezuela, and thus form a reasonable benchmark. These definitions exclude many, many of the musical activities already taking place around the world, and that is intentional. For example, point 3 only requires more than once a week, because once a week is our current norm. They exclude the elite youth orchestra and the music school of afore-mentioned infamy. They’re general and yet specific.
My answer might change… in fact, I assume it will, as national programs grow and develop, but we collectively need some kind of benchmark now. There’s no consequence to following or ignoring the above, nor any value judgment, but if there are no guidelines there’s no unity and no movement.