For those of you who caught the little exchange between Marshall and me in the comments section of the previous entry, you might also have noted his other turn of phrase describing me in his blog, my propensity to “put the cat amongst the Sistemas.”
The cat in question, as Marshall most probably knows, belongs to Erwin Schrödinger, and I’ve set it often in the past amongst the Sistemas to help illustrate the idea how, with hundreds of núcleos and hundreds of thousands of children involved in Fundabol programming in Venezuela, almost any statement that begins with “In El Sistema in Venezuela…” is certainly true in isolated rare instance, thus also certainly false and unrepresentative when spoken as a generalization. In my own personal experiences with other researchers I noted the very strong tendency to assume that any activity observed in just one núcleo would consequently be practiced nationally. The best example of this is the Paper orchestra, which for inexplicable reasons has become a badge of international “Sistemaness” when in fact it seems to be a teaching tool used primarily by a few núcleos concentrated around Caracas – or Suzuki programs worldwide. (See this article for more.)
Clearly Marshall is aware of this problem, as he discusses in the same blog entry a shared concern of dilution. But the term itself demands the question: dilution of what, precisely? Is Venezuela the undisputed exemplar of “Sistemaness” and if so, which of the 300+ (400 now?) núcleos shall stand as the model of definitive practice? The question is more than just which of Mr Schrödinger’s cats shall be alive when we open the boxes, but which boxes shall we choose to open?
I’ve been musing on this problem for the last two years, now – I do encourage you to review this entry from June of 2010, in which I offer for the first time an early version of the Five Fundamentals (CMEA article now also available in Korean!) as the only statements on the national practice of music in Venezuela that I could make with confidence. (Note that the fourth and fifth fundamentals listed were merged into a broader concept of Accessibility and a new Fifth Fundamental, that of Connectivity was added shortly thereafter.) They deliberately do not dictate practice, but establish a framework for it, and in essence ultimately reflect more a philosophy of music-making.
(Is El Sistema a philosophy? Such a categorization, far from helping our ontological crisis, might actually worsen it, enabling all the abuses the Marshall too has warned against. And I have no intention of wandering into the minefield of comparing Sistema to religious movements.)
I stand by the Five Fundamentals. They describe accurately, if broadly, the operating principles of The Fundabol in Venezuela, and give structural guidance to other organizations of similar mandate. They do not solve the problem of what constitutes “Sistemaness” nor were they ever intended to – that was never the pressing problem to solve, in my opinion. From my perspective it has never been about the definition of the word Sistema but the use of the word itself. By its inherent linguistic connotations it compels comparisons with Venezuela, and restricts conversations to superficialities of practice, like Paper orchestras. Like any other teaching and learning tool, a Paper Orchestra can be extraordinarily effective when used intelligently and appropriately, or it can be an instrument of misery and drudgery when thoughtlessly emulated. There is a much broader and richer conversation to be had when we stop talking about Sistema and start talking about Social Action Through Music: the specific mechanics thereof; how and why it differs from conventional in-school music education and what kind of social benefit can be produced realistically and measurably. This was the crux of the teacher training sessions I did in Brazil, in which the words “Venezuela” and “El Sistema” were hardly mentioned at all – deliberately. Neojiba will always be inspired by the Venezuelan example, but they would be a poor program if they had no ambition to surpass it.
Is the word “Sistema” a launchpad or a shackle? I cannot help but think that Maestro Abreu, in his wisdom, desires inquiry and investigation to be unconstrained by reference to a mythical Venezuelan exemplar, even if they are inspired by it.
By way of celebrating the start of the fourth year of this blog’s existence, the near 150 posts in the past three years (almost one post a week) plus as apology to the tens of thousands of visitors to this site, I hereby promise to curtail my references to Quantum Mechanics in the future.