No, I didn’t think this particular cat “was a goner“, but it seems my previous posting has been more than a little controversial. (Note to readers: please use the comment form below rather than e-mailing me directly, otherwise it looks like I’m censoring, which I’m not. The debate isn’t just healthy, but necessary, and I invite it. Using the comment function also saves me the trouble of transcribing/transporting comments when I try to respond.)
In my last posting I started providing some context and explanation for my criteria, but conscious of the length at which I’d written, ultimately desisted. I shouldn’t have: this is a topic worth exploring in some depth. In short, every point reflects some combination of both differentiation and adaptation – not differentiation from Venezuela, but from the plethora of highly sophisticated, very worthwhile musical activity already taking place in Western Classical pedagogical traditions, and the evolution or transformation required to represent the ideals of el Sistema accurately.
1) Mission – there’s a very clear differentiation here. The Western classical pedagogical tradition is geared exclusively to the production of musical excellence, something it does extremely well. The idea of advancing social change to a point of equality with musical excellence at the level of mission represents in and of itself a radical shift in thinking.
2) Method – here’s another major point of divergence. Music education in the developed world focuses on the training and advancement of the individual, with ensemble music a very distant second. El Sistema inverts this entirely.
3) Frequency – Perhaps the most clear-cut of all differentiators, classical music education right now is structured almost universally to a frequency of contact once a week: one private lesson a week, perhaps one orchestra or choral rehearsal a week, and no more. While it may seem unduly black and white, requiring a frequency of anything more than once a week basically doubles the existing level of musical activity and contact, and represents a major step forward.
4) Affordability – Let’s face it, classical music instruction is extremely expensive, and thus is the near-exclusive purview of the financially privileged. Most of the existing conservatory, youth orchestra and similar programs operate on tuition-based models, and what financial aid is available is always awarded based on competitive audition. Ironically, winning those auditions requires significant financial investment before the fact, creating something of a vicious circle. I don’t think everything has to be free, however. It isn’t in Venezuela, and we have to be conscious of North American financial realities too. Basing fees on the ability to pay is one of a few ways this could be addressed, but the bottom line is that no one should be turned away because of lack of means.
5) Non-selectivity -back to those auditions again. For many orchestras or musical programs, if the musician doesn’t pass the audition, that’s where it ends. Note that I didn’t say that it’s incumbent upon el Sistema organizations to accommodate every applicant, only to facilitate the process of finding an appropriate outlet in which they can play. This is a reflection of the fact that there is an existing, highly sophisticated music education industry in America, wonderful in its own right, rather than the vacuum in which Dr. Abreu built the program in Venezuela, and that the creation of connections is one of the most powerful ways in which our organizations can support these ideals without departing from their artistic missions or ceding autonomy.
I don’t expect this elaboration to resolve the issue entirely, nor is my position on these immutable. All I’ve attempted to do is set the bar, and set it high but also realistically, in relation to where we as an industry currently stand. Once we’ve met the standard, I sincerely hope and expect it will rise again.