Putting the pieces in place – how Sistema earned a foothold in England

For links to all the documents and many of the individuals listed herein, please see this previous posting.

Whenever cross-border comparisons are made, irrespective of subject or the border in question, the inevitable response seems to be “that might have worked there, but it will never work here.” In the case of something as broad as Sistema, the prompts for the refrain are multiplied; the philosophical fundamentals, the fun and the funding of the program are often dismissed as anomalous or exceptional, incapable of being reproduced outside the narrow cultural and fiscal confines of Venezuela.

Those arguments have been put to the test now that England has assembled the pieces for a national el Sistema-inspired initiative, incomplete though the process and funding might be. Since the directory of programs and short summary was posted, the most common incoming question has been “How did they make this happen?”

The best person to ask would be Richard Hallam MBE, and North Americans will have the opportunity to pose the question in person at the Leading Note Foundation Symposium in Ottawa on March 31st. But it’s a fascinating query, and with the luxury of some hindsight there are a few identifiable factors that undoubtedly played a role.

The champion

At the SouthBank Symposium, 2010

In Julian Lloyd Webber, In Harmony England had a musician of great stature and influence as a spokesperson or figurehead. As an artist speaking on a musical topic he had tremendous credibility, and with his active support and advocacy for the effort, people, politicians and policy-makers paid attention.

The people

Beyond Julian Lloyd Webber, the other key individuals involved appear to be extremely well-chosen. As a popular musicologist and radio personality, Darren Henley could build bridges to the public and the existing music education industry. Richard Hallam combined extensive experience as a music educator with an exemplary knowledge of government operations. The “external consultants” who led the process were musicians first.

The language

The reports generated by both Henley and the Government are incredibly readable, pragmatic documents. They avoid the flights of literary fancy and exaggerations that seem to go hand-in-hand with most discussions of Sistema. There are no unsubstantiated claims (reason dictates that Sistema can break poverty cycles and lower crime rates, but the data just isn’t available yet), effusive rhetoric or poetic statements, just an exhortation to explore.

The attitude

The language used in the documentation reflects the philosophical approach: Sistema is something worth investigating carefully and well. The pilot programs were extremely well-funded and the evaluations methodical. The focus now is on expansion and further evaluation, rather than wholesale adoption. The strategy is respectful of existing music education activity and constructive. If the results don’t manifest, it will be difficult to argue that the concept wasn’t given a chance.

The inclusivity

The Henley Review wasn’t only about Sistema – it examined music education as a whole. What is remarkable about the final report is that there are many ideas (the creation of “Hubs”, the use of existing resources, achieving economies of scale) that reflect very strongly the idea of the network (La Red) in Venezuela, even if the association isn’t explicit. Both the review and the national plan look at social music initiatives as part of a more densely woven national network of service providers, rather than as a revolution to overthrow the establishment.

It seems almost superfluous to say that a major contributing element was the existing political will in England. The Henley Review and subsequent National Plan for Music Education were the products of a coalition government, requiring support across the political spectrum. It is admittedly very difficult to envision music education as a whole, let alone Sistema, being embraced in some extremely conservative fiscal and philosophical environments – but not impossible. But as England has demonstrated, being reasonable, realistic and respectful has paid dividends.



2 thoughts on “Putting the pieces in place – how Sistema earned a foothold in England

  1. Thanks Jonathan, for your ealier excellent posts on Canadian and English Sistema inspired programs and this wonderful summary of how Sistema gained a foothold. I appreciate the comment “The strategy is respectful of existing music education activity and constructive”.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Peter. I think the English approach strikes the right balance (at least on paper) between improving access for those who currently have none, yet supporting and connecting the existing music education industry – which inarguably does very fine work. Will we see you or anyone else from SJMA in Ottawa?

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