A question of identity

Taken from my apartment balcony, 2005

There are only one or two pictures of me in Shanghai. Not entirely by design, of course: I was there on my own, working as a media consultant for a TV station startup, and was almost always behind the camera. (It’s better that way.) One evening I gingerly balanced the apparatus on my balcony railing, set the timer, stepped back and hoped for the best. The best wasn’t bad, I think, so I have this little reminder of a different Jonathan from a different time in a different place. A very different Jonathan, actually.

It should come as no surprise that I find myself contemplating questions of identity immediately upon my return from an academic conference in London Ontario around the sociology of el Sistema. I forbear to speak more on my own behalf, but in reality, self-identity is an issue the vast majority of musicians face. We live in a world in which individuals define themselves or are defined by others by their profession (consider how often the question “What do you do for a living?” is asked in comparison to the far more interesting “Tell me about yourself”) thus thrusting a crisis on those living beyond the narrow confines of single-trajectory employment.

One of the many beauties of el Sistema is that it offers musicians the opportunity to find and establish new identities, to develop concepts of self that are more relevant to society and more meaningful to the individual as well. It’s one of the most important and overlooked dimensions of the program, addressing not just identity but also job satisfaction and empowerment – and compensation too, for that matter. There is far more opportunity in creating social impact through music than there is on stage. And perhaps, for all those very valid reasons, more musicians are looking towards it for a kind of fulfillment that money alone cannot provide.

In the last three weeks, I’ve had letters from three individuals asking me how they should proceed in a Sistema world, prompting me now to post an abridgement of the responses to the first two. This is for L in Toronto, L in London England, and E in Lille, France, and all others who are wondering what they should do if they want to be involved with el Sistema in any capacity. This is only my opinion… but I aspire to these values without exception.

1) Be an artist.

We are inspired first and foremost by the artistry we see from Venezuela, THEN the human story. We’re captivated by the Simon Bolivar orchestra, by Dudamel’s dynamism, by the virtuosity of the musicians onstage: these are the qualities that draw us in and make us want to learn more. The explosion of the movement internationally is directly related to the emergence of the SBO on the world stage. Start by being the best musician you can be. If that means more education, so be it. The best programs I have ever seen are led by the best musicians.

2) Be educated.

If I can distinguish this from being a great artist (which requires significant education to begin with) – there are so many ancillary yet important issues that Sistema touches upon. Sociology, Economics of the Performing Arts, Educational Philosophy, Advocacy: you cannot be too well informed about all of these. It’s a lifetime pursuit, to stay abreast of all the thinking. There is a very large, well-meaning but ultimately dangerously undereducated faction of practitioners out there who in their zeal do their youthful charges a great disservice through bizarre, unfounded or poorly-considered pedagogy. Program leadership requires visionary but well-informed teaching and leadership. We have decades of experience, best-practices in music education, and scholarly thinking on which to draw. Unite these with passion and you will succeed.

3) Be bold

This is a new field – there’s great opportunity within it, and plenty of room for people with the courage and willingness to fail. But be bold in a strategic way: play to your strengths, and find partners who complement your skills. If you’re a great musician and teacher, find someone who will help with management. If you’re a great organizer, find great teachers. And never let any self-perceived lack of experience or education stop you. It’s far more important to realize you have much more room to grow – and then act – than be paralyzed by lack of understanding or confidence. Knowledge can be acquired if you have the will.

3 thoughts on “A question of identity

  1. Is there a way for involvement of community volunteers? I have been fascinated by el Sistema since I heard of it, and wondered what I could do to promote it or bring it to my area. I am an amateur string player and mother of a two budding musicians (one string player). It certainly is clear to me that the benefits of real music education is out of financial reach of most people in our communities – not only the poorest, but even the middle class have trouble affording or accessing high quality music programs.

    How can we build a large and sustainable program that brings the social and educational and spiritual benefits of music to a greater portion of our community? Is there a place for us non-professionals and parents?

  2. The great lesson of Maestro Abreu and his 11 children rehearsing in a garage is to do what you can, with the resources that you have, and no one can ask more of you. Being an artist is a journey, not a destination, and it’s a path you can travel regardless of your vocation or occupation. Being educated only requires the will to seek out knowledge; it is not dependent upon universities or conservatories. And being bold only requires that you accept you will make mistakes, and learn from them.

    I can’t respond to your two final questions, because the person best able to do so, in your particular community context, is you. You’re parent. You’re a musician. You’re a stakeholder. You can define your place and your role, which is a far better proposition than having it defined for you. Whether you are best at managing, teaching, connecting people and resources or advocating, there is an aspect of Sistema in which you can contribute.

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