In (partial) defense of a Sistema hater

CERN’s next project: smash 1/1024 notes in its symphonic collider to rationalize the existence of Beethoven…


If you reread the previous entry closely, you’ll note that while denigrating the logic and exposing the irony of Mr. Toronyi-Lalic’s statement on the social impact of el Sistema, I didn’t actually dispute the statement itself. Rather than risk the copious wrath of the internet, I’ll state from the outset that he’s wrong, of course, but I also understand precisely why he expressed himself in the manner he did.

There’s an element of inflammatory journalistic license in his writing, certainly. Provocative statements, no matter how poorly informed, make for good reading, and good reading makes for good business if you’re in media. Personalities such as Keith Olberman, Rachel Maddow, and on the other side of the political spectrum, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly (apologies to my European readership if these names are unfamiliar) have made careers of strongly expressed editorial, trading off popular outrage and indignation while paying scant service to ancillary considerations such as the truth or reality. Given the attention Mr. Toronyi-Lalic garnered by his statement describing el Sistema as “voodoo,” the approach certainly works.

But I’m still hesitant to condemn him for his choice of words, lest I be accused of a double standard. Recently in the LinkedIn Sistema Global group, two individuals who have made significant contributions to el Sistema worldwide went on the record describing elements of the program as “magic.” Context is everything of course, and they were referring to subtle elements of the relationship between music and social action, rather than dismissing it all outright – but the fact remains that Sistema supporters have similar words in their vocabulary and use them. “Voodoo” has more pejorative (and racial, curiously) connotations than “magic,” but both invoke the supernatural. For my part, I cite the third of Clarke’s Three Laws, and resist the notion that there’s anything mystical about Sistema, just much we have yet to comprehend fully about what is truly a very advanced technology.

And there’s the rub. Sistema can look like voodoo or magic because the specific mechanics of social action through music, while frequently expressed as generalizations that do not justify the exclusive use of the art, are not well understood. Not understood is not synonymous with nonexistent or non-effective. Exactly like a Higgs Boson, we accept the premise, that of music’s potential for social impact, on the basis of logical proposition long before the data manifests to prove the point empirically. Logical proposition is by far the stronger of the two positions, for that matter: the existence of the Higgs Boson was established by gathering data from thousands of particle collisions… but CERN scientists would never have looked for it could they have explained the existence of the universe any other way.

As for Mr. Toronyi-Lalic and his blanket dismissal of Venezuela’s achievements, couched in what is actually a fairly positive review (albeit one replete with gauche attempts at witticisms), his utter irrelevance was firmly established by the subsequent announcement of the expansion of England’s In Harmony programs to four new sites. The government and the people clearly overwhelmingly agree: Sistema may be voodoo, but it works.




One thought on “In (partial) defense of a Sistema hater

  1. Hmmmm… After nearly four years of rigorous, and intensive study of the El Sistema world – through conversations with El Sistema gurus (self proclaimed or otherwise), discussions with Maestro Abreu and his executive in El Sistema in Venezuela, dozens of professional and amateur musicians, a plethora of music teachers and music educationalists, teachers from the Venezuelan Sistema, students and graduates for the Venezuelan Sistema and other Sistema’s around the globe, and through developing and establishing the very first El Sistema-based program here in Australia – I have come to the conclusion that “music” does NOT change anyone’s lives at all. It doesn’t casue you to be more brilliant. Nor does it make you more likely to become a doctor or a super-conductor.

    To suggest that “music changes lives” is a bit like saying “water causes life”. It doesn’t.

    Music doesn’t really do anything at all in this context. And El Sistema isn’t magic, or a phenomenon or voodoo. It’s something much more complex and tangible than that.

    El Sistema is actually real system – despite what you hear around the traps about there being “no system”. That came from something Maestro Abreu said which seriously got lost in the translation. “El Sistema” was the name they called it, simply to bundle everything they did until a single catchphrase. What it isn’t, is a “formula”. It’s a comprehensive collection of programs and components bundled together – it’s flexible too!

    El Sistema transforms lives because it bundles a number of important and significant elements together to create an ingenious construct for transformation processes to take place.

    It is the music plus the orchestra plus the teachers plus the focused attention on the children plus the fun it is for them plus the getting them off the streets plus the engagement with the parents and the community plus the difficulty of learning to play an orchestral instrument plus giving children the choice plus not treating children like they are stupid plus giving children a challenge plus giving them access to wonderful music plus using teaching artists who know how to play their instrument really well plus very high grade teaching plus multiple hours per day several days a week plus constant exposure to high class classical music concerts plus the fact it’s classical music plus a rigorous performance schedule plus making all thye children and their parents feel special plus incrediible amounts of organisation plus zealous fervour in its organisation plus a lot of love and passion all around.

    The trouble with folks like Igor Toronyi-Lalic, is they make glib and facile remarks about things they have little or no understanding about and show their ignorance more than anything else, of something which is entirely remarkable. Compare with someone like Ivan Hewitt in his article, – where he atually went to Venezuela and interviewed children, the teachers and the managers of the Sistema programs there.

    It’s the entirety of El Sistema that makes it what it is. Not magic, not even unique in its componentry, just unique in its all-encompassing process and the endlessly flexible combination of all it components.

    The magic everyone keeps refering to, is in the lives of the people who are affected by it – it does feel magical. They feel transformed. But as for El Sistema being “magic”? No. It’s just plain common sense.

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