Setting the Cat amongst the Sistemas

Existing in Simultaneous Super Position isn’t easy, yet we all manage to do it when no one is watching.


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.




8 thoughts on “Setting the Cat amongst the Sistemas

  1. Jonathan asks, ‘dilution of what?’ Answer: of the Gestalt description of El Sistema. If you try to define El Sistema too closely you inevitably end up suggesting that El Sistema is not a ‘thing’ that actually exists in any pure form. But El Sistema does exist, and it exists in Venezuela, and in the world. And my contention is that only by understanding it as a whole picture, in all its wonderful overflowing same-and -different, ‘this today and that tomorrow’, contradictory, ser y no ser todavia complexity and variety, can we properly answer the question, ‘dilution of what?’. If we try to define it by dividing it into a fixed number of principles I believe that we will inevitably fail to define it. Leonard Bernstein said it all with the title and content of the fourth of his six Norton Lectures: The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity. So I say follow Abreu, follow Schrödinger, follow Bernstein, Einstein, Picasso and all the rest of the post Cartesians who represent the last hundred years of progress with the view that we need to utterly embrace rather than desperately overdefine the complexity that is contemporary society. With all its goods and ills. Then we can say with confidence, El SIstema exists, it started in Venezuela, it is a social music education programme based on a set of values – a family of values – if you like, and now in 2012 it exists in hundreds of programmes in dozens of countries worldwide. So when it comes to El Sistema, ‘Cat Schrödinger’, it turns out, can both be and not be. In fact Schrödinger might have existed simply to demonstrate the existence of El Sistema. You can see the original blog that Jonathan is referring to at

  2. Question for you both and others. What are the benefits of definition? Why is there a magnetic north desire to define? ( best physics allusion)

    How about money? is a movement which cannot define itself financially sustainable when it has to compete to funding with other well defined causes?

  3. For me and my program, “Sistema” was a lightening bolt illuminating what is possible. However, as Americans struggle to define it, tame it, force it to fit, we decided to step away. We need the freedom to continually adapt the concept because even in our own relatively small community, the needs of each neighborhood are different. And what we have the capacity and resources to offer has changed over 4 1/2 years, as well. The most important things we have learned have come as complete surprises. For instance, our enrollment (70% African American, 60% low income) doubled and attendance went from 65% to 90+% when we added a small registration fee. I think that’s a cultural thing in the US (or maybe just Birmingham): value is measured in monetary terms.
    Birmingham is still a divided city on many levels. We are successfully using music to bring children and families together into a community that bridges those divides. I believe this mission is a direct descendant of Dr. Abreu’s vision, whether we fit the official definition or not.

  4. Taking in stride Marcus’ fine list of “influencers” and the march toward an embrace of Ambiguity, I would only add that when you do eventually, and inevitably, meet Abreu and entourage in the middle of your road, you face the question and potential decision with courage and with humour.

    … because, what would happen if the cat was locked in a bunker with a viola.

  5. Because we are small and in a state of start up and development struggling for funding I find myself teaching everyone from Preschooler to high-schooler in the course of a day. I said to one of my parents, I often feel like a short order cook as I adapt lessons for groups of children each with different needs. Such I think El Sistema behaves at a macro level by meeting the needs and readiness of each community where it can be found. We are serving up the musical nutrients needed most by the children who are the consumers depending on their.environment. It is a feast. What ever kind of food the cat prefers, ultimately what you get in the end of its development is a cat.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s