A sour note has been sounded in the sweet symphony that is El Sistema USA: the New England Conservatory of Music, the organization’s host and primary supporter, recently decided to discontinue its support of ESUSA and focus its attention solely on the Abreu Fellows program.
Since the announcement, there’s been plenty of surprise, shock, angry recriminations and finger pointing (the last mostly in the direction of NEC), and some panic as well. Much of this is understandable. As an entity, El Sistema USA was still in its nascent stages, coming to the fore in summer of 2009 with the launch of the Abreu Fellows Program, and only recently having undertaken some of the steps necessary to define its future, including the completion of a strategic planning phase.
Ironically, it was that last process that seems to have prompted the decision on the part of NEC. In determining the roles ES USA could play in promoting the movement nationally, the strategic planning committee was perforce obliged to consider the costs of the proposed activities as well. In the final reckoning, it seems that the leadership of NEC simply couldn’t justify the price tag.
This is entirely understandable as well. NEC’s mission, in short, is the training and development of world-class musicians. The board and management of the Conservatory have a duty not just to uphold that mission, but to safeguard it as well. As altruistic as it may be, the promotion of music accessibility initiatives across America falls very far outside the core operations of the conservatory, and was therefore unjustifiable from the perspective of NEC – a very reasonable position to take. That said, the Abreu Fellows program, designed to train and develop world-class musicians, is entirely consonant with the mission of NEC, hence its retention.
Lost in all the acrimony over NEC’s decision is the fact that the conservatory has done El Sistema USA a tremendous service over the last few years, underwriting the cost of major staff and resource developments, as well as funding the entire strategic planning process. NEC can hardly be accused of abandoning the program or giving it unduly short shrift; like its students, the institution has given ES USA every chance to succeed, and it can and should succeed on its own now. Just as a university that hires too many of its own graduates creates the impression that its students can’t find work elsewhere, the kind of support NEC gave ES USA might ultimately have reduced the impetus for entrepreneurial thinking, decisive action and self-advocacy that the organization requires to have real impact. Nor is NEC pulling the plug brutally: this decision was communicated with the intention of giving the stakeholders an opportunity to prepare for a transition.
And the stakeholders are responding, calling a “Sudden Summit” early in the new year in San Antonio to discuss the future of the movement. It will be interesting to see what comes of it. Remember, the function of dissonance in music is to make the inevitable resolution all the sweeter…
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