Early in the fall I was having a drink with Aristides Rivas, Sistema graduate, one-time student of Roberto Zambrano and now Boston-area cellist and teacher. Beyond his professional activities, Aristides is heavily involved in the social sphere of music, so I wasn’t surprised when he mentioned he was planning on starting a núcleo in the Boston area. I was surprised by what he said next, however, and I will paraphrase: “I don’t want to start a program that’s just for kids who can’t otherwise afford music. One of the most valuable parts of the experience for me in Venezuela was how it brought together people from across society.”
Valuable not just for him, but for society as well: bridging the growing divide between wealthy and poor is one of the most immediate and important social functions of Sistema in Venezuela (see this posting for more) – but it’s an element that has perforce been largely abandoned internationally. The reason is fairly simple: unlike Venezuela, where Sistema is the only option for music education, most developed nations have a well-established parallel sector, represented by conservatories, youth orchestras, and private instructors, providing very high-level training or experiences at commensurate prices. On the surface then, ensuring “access” for those for whom excellent systems already exist and are within financial reach is understandably a low priority. This situation is further compounded by the majority of funding or granting agencies who make it a condition of their gifts that monies be applied only to those with demonstrated need: Sistema programs could in fact be punished financially for attempting to broaden their reach.
And strangely, those few Sistema programs in the best position to integrate vertically generally decline to do so. There are a number of initiatives led by youth orchestras, but the level of interaction between the tuition-based and outreach programs has tended to be very low, or of a nature that emphasizes class divisions. The wealthy students (generally white or Asian in the US) “mentor” the subsidized students (generally black or latino), or play one or two side-by-sides a year, thus reinforcing stereotypical power relationships. It’s all done with the best of intentions, but like so many other things, that doesn’t make it helpful.
There’s one program I know of (please contact me if you know of others) that deliberately integrates vertically (Charter school programs excepted): Orkidstra, in Ottawa, Canada. The only way they are able to mix children of different family incomes is by charging students relative to their ability to pay, although many receive full subsidies.
The crux of the issue is how “accessibility” is defined: completely and utterly free without exception, or relative to the resources of the student? Tina Fedeski, founder of Orkidstra, put it very simply in a private conversation at the Montréal symposium: “How can I look a funder in the eye and ask them to subsidize the child of a doctor?” she said. (I’m paraphrasing again.) The fact that her program encompasses such children is wonderful, in my opinion, and a very important dimension of its social impact. Furthermore, the integration reduces the all-too-common perception that Sistema is “just for poor kids,” an idea that only exacerbates the problem of social divisions.
How has the Fundabol reacted to this? Far from disowning and disavowing Tina and Orkidstra for their temerity in attaching a price tag, the Venezuelans hold their work in the highest regard.
The bottom line is that there’s a lot of money in private music instruction. It’s one of the most stable and lucrative educational markets (parents being loath to see their children’s education suffer even during a recession), and could present a very valuable income stream to Sistema programs while diminishing the “poor kids only” perception, promoting integration and mollifying sponsors too. It could manifest in different ways: through paid private lessons for advance students, instrument rental fees, or a sliding scale for ensemble tuition.
The barriers to participation differ for each student: there’s no reason why programs should revisit what constitutes “accessibility” with this in mind. If initiatives have the ability to offer their services entirely free for all while promoting vertical social integration, more power to them, but they should ask whether their mandate could be broadened with a different approach. We live in a society that equates something’s price with its value. We know Sistema is priceless, but does that mean it should always be free?