At some point in the closing remarks of my keynote in London ON two weeks ago I uttered something to the effect of: “The tremendous irony is that we’re rushing to emulate el Sistema’s practice from 10 years ago while they’re rushing to emulate the best of ours.” This was apparently highly provocative, although it was certainly not the most controversial thing I said during my speech. (That particular philosophical bomb deserves its own blog posting.)I also thought it was fairly self explanatory: the same teaching tools and techniques in Venezuela that are admired and adopted by those with conventional conservatory training are perpetually developing and advancing, if not being entirely superseded, with the help of master teachers from the same western European pedagogical tradition.
The “paper orchestra” concept, that of starting a group of children on proto-instruments made of papier-mâché, falls into a particularly interesting place. It was originally a stop-gap measure, a short term solution in a Venezuelan núcleo that had too many children and not enough instruments. It’s not widely accepted or adopted across Venezuela, and the need for such a solution has significantly lessened as the Fundabol has acquired more resources. That said, the idea has proved fairly popular in North American programs, where having a paper orchestra seems to have become a claim to Venezuelan legitimacy. This isn’t surprising, given that it’s one of the most distinctive tools and certainly the most easily replicated in the early stages of programs – but that doesn’t mean it’s always suitable or appropriate.
So, should your el Sistema program use paper violins? This was the question posed in my most recent article in The Strad, and I’m now able to make the full text available online. In short (spoiler alert!), it depends, it depends, it depends. There are definitely some potential pedagogical benefits to a practice that arose out of need, but much of the value for students relies on the context and the teaching objectives…just like any other tool. The question can’t be answered with yes or no; if there’s a lesson, it’s that everything we do demands significant reflection and ongoing evaluation – one Venezuelan value I think should be adopted universally and without hesitation.