A Christmas Present for El Sistema – Part 2

About once every year I foolishly start to think to myself that I might have figured out this conducting thing. It’s an easy trap to fall into, mainly because the idea is something I desperately want to believe and I look for reasons to believe it. Alas, the self-satisfaction, such that it is, has always been short-lived. I’m brought back to reality, usually via a not-so-successful audition or Masterclass that ends up reminding me how far I have yet to go. But no matter how uncomfortable or temporarily demoralizing, I emerge from it perhaps not better in ability, but at least willing to reapply myself to the task at hand. That’s how I get better. Well…how I try to get better.

I’m not unique in my propensity for self-deception – judging from Branford Marsalis’ remarks (caution, video contains mild but funny profanity), it’s pretty common, if not pretty human. Of course, we’re aided and abetted in our delusions by the system itself, as Marsalis notes, but as a practice this can eventually be even more damaging than brutal honesty. Perhaps students merely reflect the attitudes and values of the system in which they’ve developed, for the systems themselves acknowledge no internal weaknesses nor failings, just an unflinching belief in their own excellence no matter how miserable they are in practice.

And just as the delusions are damaging to individuals, so they are to institutions. The music education system in North American is extraordinarily intransigent. The most dismal of institutions will reject innovation as “untraditional” and persist in outdated if not nonsensical practices, while those institutions who do innovate (those who stop winking, according to Marsalis) are deemed self-proven mediocrities for their lack of adherence to orthodoxy. NEC’s admirable support for El Sistema USA, although now narrowed, is an exception that proves the rule: only unquestionably excellent institutions are allowed to innovate without being punished.

And while there’s plenty of recrimination around the aforementioned “narrowing”, the very fact that the support was there and that the Abreu Fellows program remains reveals an important characteristic of NEC: the fact that THEY believe they have something to learn from El Sistema. (I don’t believe for a moment that the change in funding reflects a change in attitude, just an acknowledgment of fiscal realities). This is a gift of a very different level of respect, and as an offering one that seems to be very rare.

The greatest strength of Fesnojiv and its students is their genuine, incessant desire to learn and grow. This uncommon humility has been a key ingredient in the success of the program from day one: ideas get assimilated at an extraordinary rate, and best practices are constantly identified and emulated. This humility lies at the heart of “Ser no ser todavia”, Abreu’s description of Fesnojiv “Existing without concretizing.” (It’s not an exact translation, but “concrete” describes the mindset and the footwear of 4 of the 6 post-secondary institutions I’ve attended.) Sistema keeps getting better, and the first lesson we have to learn from it is the humility to examine our practices with the same uncompromising rigour with which it views itself. Dudamel may have suffered at the hands of the critics on his American tour, but if he has any of the qualities of his mentor, he will take it all as motivation to be even better than he was before. The musicians in Venezuela will respond similarly: my own experiences with them have shown me as much. There is a real symbiosis possible in collaborating with the management, faculty and students of Fesnojiv, and I hope this blog in the past year has reflected that.

So there are two elements to taking el Sistema seriously. Grant the musicians the credibility they deserve artistically, and respect the organization enough to accept there are lessons there for us too.

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