This article appears in the latest issue of La Scena but in French only. The English version is reproduced below, and has been appended to the downloadable PDF linked above.
It’s hardly a secret that Maestro Abreu really doesn’t like the name el Sistema. In his defense, it wasn’t his choice, but a bureaucratic naming convention concomitant with government funding. Governments tend to occupy themselves with “systems”, such as the “health system” or “justice system”, but in the same way that neither of those terms refers to a single medical procedure or judicial format, Abreu’s el Sistema isn’t a unified way of teaching. As discussed in the first installment of this series , the name is a simplification of a much longer government designation (abbreviated as FESNOJIV) for the national network of youth orchestras.
There’s probably not a citizenry in existence that views government involvement without some suspicion. After all, bureaucracy generally begets needless complexity, inflexibility and waste, to say nothing of the corruption endemic in so many areas of the world. The “System” behind El Sistema has largely avoided those traps by finding an effective division of authority between the núcleos and the national administration. The federal body essentially disburses funds for teacher salaries and coordinates projects on the national and international level, leaving the regional núcleos with the freedom and flexibility to address local conditions most effectively.
This management structure is itself worthy of much study from a corporate perspective for the trust it places in its employees, but the Sistema has an invaluable pedagogical function as well: it is an organization-wide network through which both people and information can move to the greatest shared benefit. Within the network, there’s always an appropriate place for a student to play, an ensemble offering the optimal mix of challenge against contribution. If a student outgrows the only orchestra in his small hometown, he can continue his musical development in the larger centre down the road. And onward it goes: for those who possess the motivation, the path from beginner ensemble to the Símon Bolívar Orchestra is clearly defined.
But just as students can rise within the network, they also percolate back down, bringing new knowledge and experiences to share. The 14 year-olds who won national auditions to work with Simon Rattle this summer brought back to their núcleos heightened professional and artistic sensibilities, just as graduates of the Símon Bolívar Orchestra often return to their hometowns suffused with the experience of working with musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic, eager to share their newfound expertise.
El Sistema is not a curriculum or method. It’s a network that creates opportunities and builds internal capacity in the most resource-effective manner. It eliminates competition between ensembles, and simultaneously facilitates long-term student development. It is the mechanism through which all levels of participant ability are accommodated, thus fulfilling an essential role in the social mandate of Fesnojiv.
It will also be the most challenging and interesting element to reproduce in the international evolution of the musical movement.