The Candlestick Maker

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In all the furor over Geoff Baker’s book, I almost managed to forget that on occasion I too make some literary contributions to Sistema thought and practice, in my own substantially more modest and less controversial way.

filarmoni El Sistema’nin 5 Temel İlkesi – aka The Five Fundamentals of El Sistema

I’m beginning to regret assigning the rights of this article to the Canadian Music Educators’ Association, because it has been translated yet again, this time into Turkish, and published in the major national Turkish music magazine. This brings the number of languages in which it can be found in print to nine, joining French, Korean, Japanese, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and the English original, of course. The ongoing translations serve as a very generous external endorsement of the article’s lasting relevance: it’s actually been quite entertaining to watch how the titles of similar efforts by others have undergone a gradual evolution to mimic my concept at least superficially, without capturing the simplicity and credibility of the content.

CMEA56 CoverThe Challenge of Sistema

In recent years I’ve made an effort to distinguish the three “Sistemas” that currently exist in common parlance and are very often confused for one another. The first “Sistema” is the organization, the Fundamusical Simon Bolivar in Venezuela, encompassing the vast diversity of activities undertaken in its name. The second is the equally broad “Sistema” of the international community, be it an imitative, adaptive, adoptive, misrepresented, misinterpreted, or even improved version of the perceived work in Venezuela. The delineation between the first and second Sistemas is essentially geographic, without any qualitative distinctions, and largely exists to recognize Venezuela as progenitor and acknowledge the nation’s ownership of the word.

But it’s the third “Sistema” that really interests me. This is nothing more than the idea that music may be an agent of positive social change. From that starting point, the article in November’s CME Journal looks at the scientific roots from which a potential new practice might draw. It might seem unorthodox to test the Venezuelan hypothesis without the concomitant Venezuelan practice, but the sheer range of what happens in the first “Sistema” actually makes that impossible. There is as yet no system to “Sistema” so ultimately there isn’t a hypothesis, beyond the most general, to test.

American String Teacher Journal November 2014 Cultivating Cohesion

This process of developing and articulating a new practice, one well-founded in scientific research, was never a theoretical exercise for me, but part of my own desire to resolve for myself the paradox of the orchestra as agent of social change vs. orchestra as the most anti-social mode of cultural expression. One of Baker’s major arguments is this contradiction, pointing out how the practice in reality so often channels the authoritarian characteristics of the latter while making claims to the former.

The fact that the paradox exists is itself informative. It reflects the near-axiomatic acceptance of the idea that a musical ensemble can serve as a vehicle for positive social change, while simultaneously representing centuries of an unvaryingly autocratic tradition. So the issue isn’t with the idea, or the ensemble, or even the genre, but simply with the current lack of alternatives.

But I believe there is an alternative, and I have spent the last four years making it part of my own work. If the article “The Challenge of Sistema” explores the roots of a potential practice, then “Cultivating Cohesion,” appearing in the November issue of American String Teacher Journal (The official publication of the American String Teacher Association) stands as a first attempt to describe part of that practice systematically. In what might be a first for me personally, the article doesn’t mention the words “Sistema” or “Social change” at all. Those terms weren’t relevant. The ideas I present actively engender collective efficacy, but they will only be adopted if they produce better musical results than conventional methods. And they do: at teacher training workshops I lead, the participants are invariably stunned by the quality of the outcomes they themselves are able to generate by implementing the tools. The fact that everything is field tested, and some of it video documented, certainly doesn’t hurt either.

After I presented at a conference in Montréal in late 2011, an attendee (now known to me as Kate Einarson) came up to me and asked me: “Who are you?” She wasn’t wondering how I managed to sneak in: she had visited my website while I was presenting (the curse of mobile internet!) and was confused by the fact that I maintain a professional presence as an orchestra conductor, but I had just delivered a presentation that made more references to psychological than musical or educational texts. I don’t recall my answer, but having deliberately elided butcher and baker for humourous effect in the title of my last entry, I think the logical extension of “Candlestick Maker” may not be such a terrible self-description for what I attempt to do. I try to create tools or resources to cast some new light on matters of music and music education, focusing less on the first two “Sistemas” now and far more on the third, simply the idea, in my own practice as a conductor, in training other educators, and in teaching my students at UNC Charlotte. Venezuela remains a source of great inspiration and musical renewal for me, but I see no point in promoting the mission if I’m not simultaneously living it as well.






3 thoughts on “The Candlestick Maker

  1. I think both Suzuki Sensei and Maestro Abreu faced the same dilemma. They could have kept their baby in house back in Japan or Venezuela where they could have full control over it, and perhaps even suffocate it. Once this magnificent horse is out of the barn and over the boarder one is resigned to the fact that you discovered something that is bigger than yourselves.

    In this case I would say that the creature has sprouted wings and is soaring. There is no turning back. We and even our critics can only trail behind this amazing creature hanging on to the reigns for dear life not knowing where it will take us. The best we can attempt to do is name the reigns in our grasp.

  2. As I expected, the article is really good. Courageous, too. Great diagnosis, great prescription.

    What intrigues me is where this leaves El Sistema. You are in effect arguing that the program could be wonderful, if only it completely changed its learning model from autocratic/hierarchical to social. I agree entirely, but this is about as likely as Abreu dancing the tango with President Maduro. In the meantime, the program is left harking back to older philosophies of education, venerating autocratic maestros and revealing little sign (at least to my eyes) of the “innate understanding of social learning” that you perceive.

    Two points emerge from this:

    (1) Surely pretty much any music education program could be wonderful if it turned into something else. So it’s not clear where this leaves the question of what’s special about El Sistema now (it hardly has a monopoly on the idea of large ensemble education). You come back to this question – “how is Sistema different?” – in the penultimate paragraph, yet your use of tenses is revealing: the question is posed in the present, while your answer is in the conditional.

    (2) If social learning is the solution, then why not turn to a project like Musical Futures, which is much more closely aligned with that principle than El Sistema?

    There’s an underlying problem here. As you note, El Sistema and its global advocates claim that it is a social project – and yet, the conversation keeps coming back to the symphony orchestra. It seems to me that all the social claims, and even your article, are efforts to make the orchestra more palatable, rather than to optimize the social benefits of musical learning. Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that you want to make the orchestra more palatable – goodness knows it’s needed, and you’re the only person that I know of who’s had the cojones to say so in Venezuela. But if the social were really paramount, then one would start with the desired social outcomes – inclusion, teamwork, democracy, etc – and then work out the best musical means to achieve them. And, if one surveyed the music education literature, one would not turn to the symphony orchestra, in fact it would probably be at the bottom of the list. One would be much more likely to turn to something like free improvisation. If that sounds unpalatable and unrealistic, then it suggests that El Sistema is still what it was when it was born: an orchestral (i.e. musical) program.

    In sum, I think your article is fantastic, but I’m not sure that El Sistema comes out of it very well. If social learning is the answer – and I buy the suggestion that it is – then why not choose a program that is already highly compatible with that idea, like Musical Futures, rather than one that might (but might not) embrace this philosophy at some unspecified point in the future? It feels like you’re holding up an empty glass and saying “this has the potential to be a really thirst-quenching drink,” while the guy next to you is quietly sipping an ice-cold Coke.

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