It’s Thursday evening in the city of Mozart’s birth, and the formal part of the Sistema Europe conference, organized by European Mozart Ways and Maria Majno, has drawn to a close. As is the nature of these convenings, the informal part seems to have only just begun as dinner plans are being drawn up. The agenda of Sistema Through the Noise or International cooperation has been replaced with one of sausages, sauerkraut and beer. I assume there will still be noise and international cooperation at the table, just of a more convivial and less musical type.
But the pre-dinner menu was no less satisfying, actually. I won’t go into minutiae over what was presented, but there were a few new themes that emerged then surprisingly recurred throughout the day. The overriding theme is one that I launched, if I may take credit for it, by stating that we’re in the third phase of Sistema – long past simplistic Venezuelan adulation and imitation, and now largely through a second period of internationalization. The third phase is one of thinking about the idea itself, without geographical trappings, thinking about the connections between different forms of social change and music, and appreciating that there are limits to what can be done with the medium and our current practice. There’s always been a sharp difference between Sistema in Venezuela, Sistema as perceived/researched/reported by the rest of the world, and finally the idea that positive social change could be effected through music. Those lines are starting to be more clearly understood and drawn.
And as part of the process of drawing those lines, (Marshall Marcus and I shared “Sistema through the Noise”) today I débuted a new definition of Sistema. I’m sure it angered some of those in attendance by excluding many of the emotionally-laden trappings, if not misconceptions, about the program in Venezuela, but it shouldn’t have, really. Once you look at El Sistema for what it is – what its leadership says it is – it loses none of its nobility of intent or impressiveness of scope of execution. Here it is, the new definition of El Sistema in Venezuela:
El Sistema is the public applied music instruction network of Venezuela. Under a social mandate of accessibility, Sistema uses conventional pedagogical techniques to offer program participants the established benefits of music education.
There’s not much to unpack there, but I’ll unpack it anyway. 1) Sistema focuses on teaching children how to perform as instrumentalists or vocalists, with musicology or theory a very low priority. 2) The organizational strategic focus, as made clear by Eduardo Mendez in his interview with Tom Service, is one of improving access. There’s nothing wrong with this. It is a very valid and also very quantifiable social objective. 3) There are multiple established extra-musical benefits to participation in conventional music education, and providing these benefits to children under the remit of access does provide an essential developmental and social benefit.
The usual adjectives such as “revolutionary” or “innovative” or “joyful” are not included. They weren’t necessary or even appropriate. This will offend some, and I don’t doubt a host of the usual semi-literate graduate students desperately looking for grist for the slow grinding mill of their theses will pick my new definition apart (you wouldn’t believe how many didn’t bother to read that the Five Fundamentals apply to Venezuela, not El Sistema in general), but I believe the above statement describes the activity in Venezuela fairly and accurately. The Five Fundamentals still apply, of course, but they describe only the structural requisites for social action through music in Venezuela.
Fairness in the definition is critical. Until recently we’ve been unfair in our rhetoric, creating expectations that could never be met, imposing our own visions and aspirations for music education (noble intentions that they are) on the work in Venezuela, buoyed by unconstrained moral elevation. That has proven unfair and actually unhelpful to the Fundación, and this definition is offered in direct support of their work.
Someone famously once said that once you can define something, it’s dead. It makes for a lovely sound bite, but it’s also not actually true. Heisenberg came closer to the truth: measurement/definition of any entity will not kill it, but it will only capture some dimensions of it existence, not all. In the case of atomic particles, it is possible to determine speed or position, but not both at the same time. This definition of Sistema is true now (position), but it does not reflect the program’s ongoing evolution (speed), and a new definition will hopefully be required later. Definitions can be an integral part of that afore-mentioned reception history, and offering a new one now might provide a point of reference for future change.
But for the moment, my interest in measurements, relating to both quantity and speed, are directing themselves towards the agenda of sausage, sauerkraut and beer. I expect a research-intensive evening.