The Classic Question

Not the final showdown, thankfully.


One week ago today I was in Anaheim at the NAMM conference, giving the “Music Education Day” keynote along with my fellow Abreu ’10 alumni. I opened the morning (which made for a nice change given that during the Fellowship I always ended up going last) and gave a brief synopsis of the Five Fundamentals to lay a framework for the morning’s discussion. And as seems to be typical, the moment I stepped off the stage I was confronted  with both challenges to the Five and suggestions for additions. Passion and Intensity usually come up (both are addressed here) but Anaheim was the first time anyone had asked the question: “Why isn’t classical music a fundamental?”

I’m surprised this question was so long in coming – perhaps this is simply one of those things largely  taken for granted in discussions of el Sistema. Nonetheless, I’m delighted it was asked, not because I have a good answer (and I don’t) but because it shows others are challenging assumptions in a thoughtful, constructive way.

There’s a lot to be said for classical music, granted. The repertoire itself represents some of the finest human artistic achievement known, but in a living, dynamic form that can be accessed around the world. Therein lies another consideration, the universality of the media – not the music, but the ensembles that present it. The orchestra and chorus both are largely standardized internationally, meaning that a piece like Marquéz’s Danzon No. 2 can be presented in Novosibirsk as easily as Mexico City, perhaps just not with the same flair.  That’s an excellent example of another factor: how classical music, through its notation, establishes a baseline for skill development. The score and the notes on the page establish concrete requirements for the pursuit of musical excellence, while still allowing tremendous scope for interpretation and expression. (What Bernstein called “Exact Music” – thanks Jamie!) The ensembles are also the largest performing bodies, with the orchestra in particular presenting the greatest diversity of sound, and with personnel for both limited by practicality only. In summary, classical music allows the greatest number of individuals to engage simultaneously with material that is  both challenging and inspiring, and as such may be the most efficient way to promote social objectives.

Kim Dawson, Zumix Program Director

But I hesitate to say it’s the only way. In October of last year I paid a visit to Zumix, an East Boston based social music project (That’s how far behind I am on blogging), and was given a tour of their excellent new facility by Program Director Kim Dawson. Zumix is oriented around popular music and complementary technology, but not for reasons of philosophy. According to Kim, it was a natural evolution, given the community, but not a proscriptive one  – if the demand were there, Zumix would present classical music courses as well.

Zumix is worthy of a much longer blog entry but in short, they create social impact by using a tiered structure of course offerings, in which students gain progressive degrees of empowerment, responsibility and opportunity as they advance. The system itself sets concrete requirements, but also encourages students to keep coming back, to stay involved, and interact and engage as a community.

So is Zumix an el Sistema program when viewed from the perspective of the Five Fundamentals? I would say yes, absolutely. The program is inarguably oriented towards social impact. The emphasis is on the community, as substituting for “ensemble”.  Frequency for some programs is twice a week, and there are no barriers to entry. Finally, Zumix offers longitudinal opportunities for student development, starting with children as young as six or seven and going through high-school. They also have partnerships with major institutions, such as Berklee, that further expand the possible participant trajectory.

Zumix is a success story that deserves much more attention than it gets. Their history predates the el Sistema wave in North America, and their accomplishments are concretely expressed in their beautiful new home, a restored firehouse dating from the horse and carriage era.  (They took out the pole, alas!)  And Zumix is why I’m loath to limit el Sistema to classical music. The Five Fundamentals are a framework, neither prescriptive nor proscriptive, meant to guide and inform action, not dictate process, and their exclusion of much musical activity is NOT – repeat NOT – a value judgment of the activity itself. The 5F are an attempt at an essential taxonomy. There can be no self-purpose without self-definition, and the recent struggles of El Sistema USA are directly related to their ontological issues.

But that’s a story for another blog…

One thought on “The Classic Question

  1. Pingback: in a big way… «

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s