Early in the new year I had a conversation with an aspiring Sistema program in the US. I call them “aspiring” because they as yet are only able to offer one group rehearsal per week, which makes them no different from any of the other conventional youth orchestra programs in the nation, no matter what their philosophy. When I made the point that one of the prerequisites to having any kind of influence in the lives of program participants was frequency of contact, I was told in no uncertain terms “Our kids won’t stand for it. Half will leave.”
Good, I thought, twice as many resources and opportunities for the remainder who are serious about this.
Having grown more diplomatic of late I confined the statement to my inside voice. Perhaps I shouldn’t have. I view it as a simple dichotomy: being absolutely ineffective for about 100 children, or having some impact on 50 – were I to agree with the utterly untested assumption concerning the effect on enrollment. I don’t. With parents lining up a week in advance to sign their children up for quality programs, it’s clear there’s tremendous public demand for socially-oriented music education. Furthermore, certain structural baselines must be met, or there’s no point in having a program at all. Ensembles, frequency, access: all of these from the outset are fundamental to creating social benefit (connectivity can be postponed, but not avoided forever). If it’s a question of costs, remember that Venezuela, with its outwardly nominal per-capita program investment, is proof positive that having the right framework is more important than having a gold-plated budget. If it’s a matter of funder expectations, any grant that requires core values to be compromised ultimately damages a program more than it helps. If it’s a matter of decreased student tuition, it’s clearly not a Sistema-inspired program anyway.
Headcount is a different story. The Sistema ensemble approach is essentially a way of leveraging economies of scale, making it one of the few teaching environments in which large class size may actually be desirable, and not just cost-effective. There are practical limits of course, which make having motivated participants even more important. In the manner of all other forms of education, Sistema is a partnership between student and program. Horses can be led to water, opportunities for growth can be offered, but whether the literal or metaphorical thirst is slaked remains solely within the purview of the party being led. Personally, as a teacher I would rather focus my energies on those individuals who are willing to offer as much commitment to me as I am to them, rather than squandering them on those who are just along for the ride.
Sistema advocates, practitioners, and particularly budget officers must be pragmatic about what they can and cannot do, and this applies equally to spiritual and material worlds. Firmly on the “Cannot” side is the poetic, but also nonsensical, insulting and condescending statement of “We have to love the children into wholeness” in current circulation. In addition to being offensive to the parents and relations of program participants, it’s simply an unworkable proposition. No amount of instrumental education, access to health and social services, hang-out time with orchestral colleagues or exposure to Vivaldi will substitute for the love and attention of a caring family. Complement and support? Perhaps. Replace? Never.
Entirely on the “can” side is the mission to offer as many young people as possible the meaningful choice to participate in ensemble music. This is challenging, entirely realistic, and devoid of the usual mellifluous prolixity and run-on sentences that characterize most organizational “mission statements.” This is the core of what Sistema is in Venezuela, and really, everywhere else in the world, with the obvious addendum that we should endeavour to do this in the best possible way. The parameters of “best possible” are not fixed, naturally: Sistema Scotland has to resources to interpret that rubric more broadly in its particular socio-economic and fiscal context, and attends to participant well-being in multiple dimensions – entirely to their credit. Programs less well-funded should not be discouraged: Scotland’s inspiration is an initiative in Venezuela where thirty-six years ago “best possible” meant eleven children in a garage, and a budget of zero.