Drink up! Reflections and video from Ottawa.

Kiddlywinks performs on March 31st.


I heard a new expression for the first time in Ottawa last week, and then again just 48 hours later at the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge: “To drink the Kool-aid.” Its meaning, as I inferred in context, was akin to “intellectual intoxication” – to grow so infatuated with an idea as to lose sight of all perspective, to buy into propaganda, to be unreasonably passionate. Both times I heard the phrase it was used in reference to some of the el Sistema advocacy and rhetoric out there, specifically the clichés and glurge that are repeated so often.

I’m actually quite sympathetic to the pedlars of this brand of fanaticism. Sometimes it does seem to substitute for actual thought or insight, but more often, if you know what el Sistema is (and that’s quite a big if), and particularly if you’ve witnessed its impact either in Venezuelan or closer to home, it’s extremely difficult not to believe completely and utterly in the power of the idea on primarily an emotional rather than rational level. This conviction is an outgrowth of an identified psychological phenomenon called moral elevation, the suffusion of warmth and righteousness we feel just by witnessing or even hearing about an act motivated by pure altruism. Unfortunately, just like the power of music itself, this is something best experienced rather than described. If you haven’t witnessed el Sistema in action, if you haven’t “drunk the Kool-Aid,” what it does can be near impossible to comprehend, particularly on the emotional level.

I’ve had plenty of the Kool-Aid, thank you, but I’ve also worked closely with a variety of political stakeholders, policy-makers, and public and private granting agencies, and I can say with confidence that even if they love the idea, their internal and external accountability requires them to examine proposals strictly from a rational perspective. Unduly emotional or passionate language, while communicating sincerity, can actually put their backs up quite quickly. Yes, they’ll agree music is a good thing, but they still won’t write the cheque.

That’s the nature of advocacy: not changing what people say, but what people do. The image of the bureaucrat gleefully snatching violins out of the hands of infants is an absolute myth. Treating public officials, or those who just don’t get it, with scorn and derision for the decisions they make invites a similar degree of disrespect and disregard in return. Good advocacy requires good listening long before good speaking, to identify and understand the concerns or the objections and respond to them in sensitive but concrete ways.

If there were a theme from the conference in Ottawa, it would have been the balancing that essential passion with real pragmatism, and the Friday and Saturday panels reflected that in particular. Richard Hallam’s presentation in particular reinforced the fact that if our arguments for music education in any form are not being heeded, it is not the fault of the ears on which they fall, but rather the mouths from which they come. As Chris Nicholls of Sistema Australia astutely pointed out in his comment on this entry, if Sistema is described as “music education,” policy makers automatically view it in the context of an overtaxed educational budget allocation. If you speak of it only in terms of its cognitive benefits (music makes you smarter) then you invite the risk of some other activity emerging which fulfills that function more cost-effectively. Similarly, if valued only in terms of cash return on investment, the savvy investor, be it an individual or government, will immediately withdraw funding the moment a program with a higher rate of return should materialize. And judging music only by its instrumental value – its practical function or impact – denies it its incredibly rich and entirely unique intrinsic value.

Clearly it’s not an either/or proposition, but both/and, if not all of the above. I’ve said this before, but good advocacy requires different vocabularies for different constituencies. It also needs good listening, to know which vocabulary is required, and any approach that focuses on one avenue at the expense of all others is inviting disaster. Then again, I’m reminded of Dr. Abreu’s “Kool-Aid” approach to advocacy: putting the children front and centre, serving up a metaphorical pitcher and inviting all to drink. Moral elevation is a powerful force: the politician on the panel in Ottawa placed his unwavering support for OrKidstra in the context of a visit to Colombia where the children played the Canadian national anthem for him. Kool-Aid, breaking down mental walls too…

Have a drink.



4 thoughts on “Drink up! Reflections and video from Ottawa.

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    It’s always a pleasure to read your insight. I am currently writing an Arts Education research paper, and your blog is an invaluable resource. Surprised you’ve never heard “Drink the Kool-Aid” before! I am glad that you address the issue of being too easily sold on the system. Like many people who are passionate about the arts, I tend to jump on board without having a full picture.

    Thanks again for your blog!

  2. “Drink the Kool-Aid” will raise alarm bells for any reader over 40 as it refers to the Jonestown mass suicide of over 900 followers of Jimmy Jones back in the seventies! For many, this is an unfortunate and odd metaphor to use for the enthusiasm and joy of those who participated in the Ottawa Symposium. Despite this, be assured that joy and enthusiasm and committment were there aplenty, as Jonathan describes, and with very positive results. Perhaps ‘drunk with joy’ or ‘something akin to a runner’s high’ might be less fraught.

  3. Blanche, thanks so much for reading and for your comments. Can’t you tell from looking at me and my outdated mode of garb that I’m not too connected with pop culture? (although connected enough to make jokes about Kool-Aid, like “breaking down mental walls” too, even if no one gets them…). And as Claire points out, the origins of the phrase are fairly sinister, even if its meaning has since been subverted, so I may not use it again.

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