“Putting the Fun in Fundamentals” or “Schroedinger’s Clowder” – Report from London

Onstage at Royal Festival Hall - photo credt: Severine Robitaille, Askonas Holt

The suitcase is unpacked, the business cards filed, the hundreds of emails responded to… I’m back.

It was a fantastic trip, not just for the wonderful performances of the Orquesta Teresa Carreño, but for the opportunity to meet and share the stage at Royal Festival Hall with five extraordinary individuals. From left to right, in the photo above: Marshall Marcus, head of music at Southbank Centre; Dick Hallam, the National Music Participation Director (filling in for Julian Lloyd Webber, who had to run to give a performance after leading off the afternoon); Nicola Killean, head of the Big Noise program in Scotland; Shirley Apthorp, journalist extraordinaire and Director of the Cape Festival, South Africa; and Ricardo Castro, Director of the Neojibá Núcleo in Bahia, Brasil. All in all, four continents represented, four (I forbear to include my own) very interesting perspectives shared with a surprisingly large audience, one which included Maestro Abreu in the front row, just to the right of the podium. (Talking about el Sistema in front of Maestro Abreu is like lecturing on relativity in front of Einstein.)

It would be impossible to reproduce the scope of the discussion here, but there was a point of personal interest. During the question period, I was asked to elaborate on the Five Fundamentals I had outlined both in my blog and in the Strad article, after which Nicola Killean suggested two additions: Outstanding Leadership, and Intensity. I had in fact considered both, among others, but ultimately discarded them. Still,  the rationale behind omissions is as important as that for inclusions. I promised her a response online, and here it is.

With regards to the first, great leadership is absolutely a quality of el Sistema in Venezuela. The administration of Fesnojiv, as led by Maestro Abreu, has inarguably distinguished itself over its 35 year history – but I would still exclude it as a fundamental. Simply put, it’s not a differentiator. It’s one of a  number of characteristics that distinguish all well-run organizations, be they charitable or profitable, such as:

Passion for the mission

Good governance

Strong, ethical and responsible financial management

Political neutrality

Commitment to innovation and learning

Quality of product

Any endeavour will ultimately flounder and fail if these are not present at all times: whether you’re a Devonshire dairy farmer or a Fortune 500 Enterprise, these should be a part of everything that you do.

As for the second item, Intensity, this is something to which I’ve devoted a great deal of thought lately. Firstly, definitions. In this context I would describe Frequency as the number of times per week a group meets, and Intensity as the rigor with which musical excellence is pursued.

Understanding the interaction between the two is key, and I would postulate that the relation should be inverse. Simply put, when frequency increases, intensity should decrease. Music making in Venezuela is enjoyable and relaxed, precisely because the frequency allows participants and faculty to approach the craft with more patience and humour, and far less stress. Now, stress and intensity can be healthy, which is why 3-4 times a year nucleos have “Seminarios”, which are high-pressure periods, rarely exceeding 2 weeks, in which they prepare in a very focused, rigorous way for a special concert. High frequency with lowered intensity allows the process to be fun, allows the musicians to spend a lot of time playing, and enjoying the rehearsals – it maintains their motivation and differentiates the program strongly from the “nose to the grindstone” approach in schools. If there exists one single key to the success of el Sistema in Venezuela, I’d say this is it, and it’s the hardest one for non-Venezuelans to understand. Our “once a week” mindset is deeply ingrained, and if we bring a “once a week” intensity to rehearsals or classes three or even five days a week, the children simply burn out.

Finding that balance between frequency and intensity was one of the toughest lessons I had to learn as a conductor in Venezuela. I’m far too accustomed to the “too little time, too much to learn” working environment here, and had to take several steps back to figure this out. But like most concepts in el Sistema, while it may be counter-intuitive on the surface, it is in fact logical and ultimately produces better results.

So perhaps Intensity should be included, just not in the way one might expect. Once again, I’m not trying to be proscriptive, only move the dialogue forward. Nicola runs one of the oldest and most carefully considered programs outside of Venezuela, so I’m sure she has a rationale too. Discussion is good. The comment form is below.

Blah blah blah. Photo credit: Severine Robitaille, Askonas Holt

7 thoughts on ““Putting the Fun in Fundamentals” or “Schroedinger’s Clowder” – Report from London

  1. Hey Jonathan…
    Thanks so much for sharing this information about the inverse relationship of intensity and frequency. I’ve read/heard a lot about El Sistema, but I’d never heard about what you discuss here; I’d always thought that the programs were both rigorous (in terms of time) AND intense….but what you say about intensity + rigorousness = burn-out/stress totally makes sense. I definitely did not realize that that núcleos are more laid back and relaxed, and I’m really happy that you shared this with everyone as it’s important to remember that you can still expect high-quality work without putting too much pressure on students and causing stress.
    Thank you.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Anne. I’m on something of a personal mission to restore some of the common sense to the dialogue about el Sistema, so I appreciated your remark all the more.

  3. Pingback: in a big way… «
    1. I don’t see the causal relation here: expansion does not signify quality or lack of quality. What percentage of children leave the program? And what many programs consider “intensity” is nothing more than the status quo for educational programming in any discipline.

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