The Two (Ivory) Towers

University of London. Could the Tower get any more ivory?
University of London. Could the tower get any more ivory?

Almost two months (and another conference) later I’m still digesting the events at the University of London in late April. I wish had been able to attend both days of the forum: I submitted a proposal when the conference was only scheduled for a Friday and had already made plans for Saturday when the expansion of the schedule was announced, so my comments on the proceedings have to be restricted to the first day only.

Just to set the record straight, this wasn’t actually the first conference devoted to critical (in the sense of thoughtful and well-researched) discourse on el Sistema. University of London was pipped to the post, if four years can be referred to as “pipping,” by conferences in 2011 at the University of Western Ontario, hosted by Ruth Wright, and another later that same year in Montréal, hosted by Theodora Stathopoulos. These were not the typical and now more common Sistema group advocacy sessions in which nary a discouraging word is heard, but serious events hosted and attended by many leading figures in music education or music sociology. (The late Christopher Small was scheduled to attend the event at UWO but cancelled at the last minute due to ill health.)

As for the conference itself, Geoff Baker has produced a précis emphasizing those points that align most closely with his outlook. For that reason, my presentation didn’t make the official synopsis. My session was a reflection on the fact that many of the proposed instructional alternatives to Sistema are in fact equally prone to the potential abuses of the media and methods currently used in Venezuela. Certainly the orchestra may be flawed, but no more so than as almost any other teaching medium. Moving to different media or genres without changing the underlying practice is akin to painting over the crack in a foundation: it might look different but nothing has been altered, functionally or fundamentally. This wasn’t a defense of Sistema, merely a pragmatic observation on my own journey towards developing a practice (more on that in a moment). But the example that unintentionally drove this home for me was Eric Booth’s response to my assertion that “Uninformed practice is dangerous.” Booth countered with the example of a grandmother teaching her grandchildren ukulele in Hawaii, asking incredulously if anything could possibly be wrong with that. Naturally Booth chose the most superficially benign of examples: one can almost imagine the activity on the beach, illuminated by the late afternoon Pacific sun, accompanied by the gentle white noise of the waves and the buzzing of the honeybees. But this is a perfect example of how easily the trappings of practice obscure the practice itself. If we could exchange places with a bee on a nearby flower for this idyllic scene, we might hear a pleasant, loving session of music making – or a litany of abuse and recrimination directed towards the children, under the guise of good intentions. Grandmothers can be abusive too. Just because you’re doing hip hop music with black students doesn’t mean you’re culturally appropriate. Just because you’re teaching folk music doesn’t mean you’re anti-colonial. Just because you’re leading facilitated improvisation with an ensemble doesn’t mean you’re empowering its membership. Shifts in genre and media are only superficial, cosmetic solutions to incredibly complex problems.

It can! At UNC Charlotte!
It can! At UNC Charlotte!

But the superficial, cosmetic or the impractical seem to be the only solutions the academics often have to offer. A frequent criticism of Sistema is what Geoff Baker describes as “A tendency to ignore or downplay complex issues.” If this tendency does exist, is it a product of ignorance, be it blissful or willful, or a lack of viable tools with which to tackle the challenges? My own criticism (past and present) of many music researchers is their eagerness to identify a problem and contextualize it academically, but then consider their job done. I would love to see researchers and practitioners (those who are both are very few) working side-by-side for once to develop workable alternatives rather than abdicating the responsibility to each other like the last two wallflowers at dance, refusing even to make eye contact. Practice can and should be research-affirmed or informed, but the fallout from Bakergate seems to have been a heightening of tensions, a widening of the divide between the parties, rather than the opposite. Practitioners feel attacked, researchers feel ignored, and the rhetoric heats up further.

And the rhetoric was quite warm enough. What I found particularly curious about this event was that all the accusations typically leveled at the pro-Sistema faction – the smugness, the unwillingness to look deeper, the intolerance of multiple viewpoints – manifested just as often in their philosophical adversaries. Snide remarks and sarcastic references to Venezuela abounded in the formal papers and presentations (“The wit of the graduate student is like champagne,” Robertson Davies once wrote, with the addendum: “Canadian champagne.”) A co-panelist for my session degenerated into an ugly, vicious, topically irrelevant and factually untrue tirade about the purported Dickensian abuses of Sistema. Then the pro-Sistema faction, as vocally represented by a former Latin American ambassador, lived up to its stereotype. Not a happy day for discourse. The most grounded, insightful thoughts of the day, and there were many, came most often from the active performers, the program administrators, and the music teachers, the people in the trenches. Everyone was provocative. Only some were relevant.

So true to academic stereotype, I’ve identified the problem, contextualized it, and offered a superficial solution to it: “can’t we all just get along?” And in this online forum I’m entirely comfortable doing that, because beyond this blog I’ve spent the past five years in the rehearsal rooms and concert halls developing my own practice, informed and affirmed through research, it’s not nor will it ever be perfect, it doesn’t solve or address everything, it continues to evolve and improve through application, assessment and reflection – but it’s my practice, one as consistent with my social and pedagogical values as the world currently allows.

If you’re an educator trying to lead a Sistema program, and are feeling overwhelmed by the reams of research and multiplicity of viewpoints on cutting-edge teaching techniques, the questions of colonialism, oppression, race, ethnicity, media, genre, repertoire, while trying to scrape up enough funding to keep your program going for another week, here’s my suggestion for what to keep in mind:

  1. No one else is doing your work, so don’t apologize for doing it.
  2. You have to teach something, so teach what you know.
  3. Try to know a bit more every day.
  4. And as importantly:

  5. If anyone denigrates your work, invite them to come down and help out for an hour. Someone will learn something.








9 thoughts on “The Two (Ivory) Towers

  1. Thank you. That’s right where I am, everyday.

    While we survived a world recession there were not that many folks who showed up to donate their time.
    My sister who teaches special education complains that the even the Governor of CA and his politicians are busy deciding what she should be teaching in the public schools. I suggested she teach music. They know so little about what I’m doing they don’t even know where to begin.

    Imagine a world in which our leaders play enough music to think they know something about it. What a wonderful nightmare to have. 😉

    You know you are doing something right when your students are musically productive even when they are in the hands of amateurs. I would say that the best practices of El Sistema puts that notion to the test.

    1. The word “amateur” has acquired a lot of negative connotations, but the root of the word is the French verb “aimer,” to love. An Amateur is simply someone who loves what he or she does – it has no reflection on their skill, only their passion. Surrounding chiildren with people who love what they do is the best way for them to learn.

  2. Thank you for a clear and helpful reflection on the London gathering. Regarding your unexpected slap at a comment of mine you pulled out of context…let me remind you of the context. I had asked you something about your statement “uninformed practice is dangerous” — I had asked you “uninformed BY WHAT?” You chose not to answer my question. Still haven’t. Really?–all music education is dangerous unless it is informed by what? Uninformed by … all music education research in history? Uniformed by your preferences about music education? Uninformed by the subset of research that you find most compelling? Saying that music education that is not informed by what any one individual thinks it should be informed by is dangerous, seems to me to be a dangerous statement. It smacks of the same kind of prefeence-absolutism you identified on both sides of the conference. And it contradicts the positive common sense suggestions you make in your blog above. My example was meant to be silly. And if you think that the granny in Hawaii should not teach ukulele because there is a potential that she might be emotionally abusive unless her practice is informed by research you admire, then we do disagree.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Eric. First, you should distinguish between between commentary “ad rem” and “ad hominem.” I’m challenging your ideas as stated in writing on my blog, not attacking you personally, and the context is both correct and also clearly provided by a hyperlink.

      I understood your reductio ad absurdum, but rather than it defending your perspective, it made my point. I can’t apologize for that. Similarly, your question “Informed by what” suggests, in a similar reduction to the absurd, that there’s only only one practice, and informing it is a one-time event. Obviously it’s not something that can be checked off a list, but the process of a lifetime, hence my suggestion to “know a bit more each day.” That in itself is a very challenging directive, common sense though it may be.

      Your return reference to the grandmother seems to suggest you still don’t get the point. Grandmother + ukulele + Hawaii does not constitute a practice – all are irrelevant to whether the practice is informed or abusive. Those conditions depend entirely on the nature of the activities undertaken, not the intentions behind them or the interpersonal relationships or cosmetic features through which they play out. Whether the grandmother should teach shouldn’t depend on whether she is a grandmother or owns a ukulele.

      And to respond at your insistence to your surprisingly strange implication that there is only practice and only one way of informing it, I think it important to recognize that there are many practices, and how they unfold – and are informed – is first and foremost a function of the needs of the students and their learning objectives. Your suggestion that there should be a biblical orthodoxy is the only thing dangerous here.

  3. Jonathan, your reflections are as welcome and bracing as ever. It’s good to see someone else’s perceptions of the event. My own were explicitly partial. As I wrote in my (non-)précis,

    “Rather than writing a comprehensive review of the conference, I want simply to outline some of the themes and currents that ran through the papers and comments, and draw attention to some of the key concerns that were raised. […] This post is only a shadow of the actual conference, since some of the most interesting discussions took place in private outside the formal sessions (as usually happens at such events), and for that reason, I can only write part of what I learnt and grasp a fraction of what went on.”

    Your point that musical genre in music education is rather irrelevant if the practice is poor is well made, and it connects with the argument made by other writers that the arts don’t do anything, people do, and since people are good, bad, and everything in between, so arts education will be the same. Still, that doesn’t mean musical genre is irrelevant: if we compare good music education in symphonic music, hip hop, folk music, and collaborative improvisation, we will find students learning quite different skills and values, and it’s definitely worth having a conversation about which skills and values we want to prioritize.

    That said, I have two significant reservations about your post:

    1) It sends out contradictory messages. In the middle, you paint a picture of reconciliation:

    “I would love to see researchers and practitioners (those who are both are very few) working side-by-side for once to develop workable alternatives rather than abdicating the responsibility to each other like the last two wallflowers at dance, refusing even to make eye contact. Practice can and should be research-affirmed or informed.”

    However, most of your post reflects its title – that flawed, academic-bashing cliché of the “ivory tower,” which sets a divisive tone from the outset. Similarly, the recipe for educators at the end says nothing about making an effort to be research-affirmed or informed. You acknowledge that there were many grounded, insightful thoughts expressed at the London conference, so it’s interesting that your concluding points for educators didn’t include: “rather than denigrating academics, go to a research seminar or conference on El Sistema if you get the chance – you might learn something.”

    Overall, the post’s tone and content are likely to decrease rather than increase the chances of practitioners wanting to work side-by-side with researchers. If you’re serious about bringing people together – and I’m sure that you are – then ditching the divisive cliché would be a good start.

    2) It’s based on a false distinction between research and practice. You paint a picture of two distinct groups: “the academics” on one side, and “the active performers, the program administrators, and the music teachers, the people in the trenches” on the other. The problem is that most, perhaps even all, the people who spoke at the conference have (or have had) a foot in both camps. Among the academic speakers were people who work or have worked in Sistema-inspired projects, music education more widely, professional orchestras, curriculum development, policy formation, political activism, community projects… the list could easily go on. I’m sorry you couldn’t stay for the second half of the conference, because the very next paper after you left was by an independent scholar who has worked as a violin teacher in Palestinian refugee camps and the UK’s In Harmony. There were two more papers by Sistema-inspired insiders who are also graduate students. How do these people fit into an academics/trenches dichotomy? What about the three former or current professional orchestral musicians who are also graduate students?

    So I’d suggest that the cliché of the ivory tower is not only divisive but also inaccurate in this context, and again, I’m not sure that deploying it is going to do anything to resolve the two-wallflowers problem that you correctly identify.

    I would argue that research, too, can be “in the trenches.” Several speakers had done extensive fieldwork in social contexts in the global South that are miles away from the sedate image of the ivory tower. As for my own research, I definitely regard it as less “in the trenches” than the work of most of the musicians whom I studied – but many of THEM regard my work as not so much in the trenches as over the parapet and into the line of fire.

    And I would question whether “coming down and helping for an hour” would necessarily be a transformative experience, particularly for people who are already experienced music teachers. It’s certainly valuable, but having done it several times in Venezuela, I can say without a shadow of doubt that I learnt much more in an hour of semi-structured and anonymized interview with an experienced and reflective Sistema musician – in other words, doing research.

    It’s interesting to compare your post with a recent review of my book ( by the community musician, educator, and writer Gillian Howell, who (like you) has a foot in both practice and research. She too is interested in going beyond identifying problems to finding solutions, yet she doesn’t place the burden firmly at the doorstep of researchers:

    “Far more important than debates about balance or competing truths therefore, is what happens next. In his closing pages, Baker suggests that the global interest in El Sistema has allowed an “extraordinary space” to open up, a space in which the critical contributions that music and other arts experiences can make in enriching people’s lives can be discussed, appraised and explored. But for that space to remain credible, its projects must be open to critical evaluation, deliberation and reflection by those within it as well as external observers.

    As such, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth is an important contribution to music education literature. Baker’s findings may provoke, but they also illuminate in dazzling complexity the disconnects and conflicts that can evolve between power, discipline, and education, opportunity and aspiration, claims and experience, advocacy and evidence, politics and culture, social benefit and musical excellence. These are essential considerations for any organisation wanting to ensure both the best interests of the young participants and the sustained longevity of the program. Critical scrutiny can be uncomfortable, but if it provokes greater reflection and internal rigour, then this is a good and welcome outcome for all – leaders, organisers, teachers, musicians, and most of all, the young participants and their right to reach their full potential.”

    This actually seems rather closer to the conciliatory message in the middle of your post, precisely because it doesn’t let practitioners off the hook and suggest that researchers have to both ask the questions and provide the answers.

    You’ve given us a largely negative take on the conference, which you’re absolutely within your rights to do, yet you imply that your experience wasn’t in fact largely negative. If you’re not already planning to do this, how about a follow-up post focusing on the many grounded, insightful thoughts that you heard, and the ways that Sistema practitioners might take them on board? That would be precisely the sort of constructive step that you urge others to take, and it would make the most of your position as a kind of mediating figure.

    Finally, about the 2011 conference at the University of Western Ontario. I’m sure that any event involving Ruth Wright and yourself would generate interesting conversations (Wright’s work is excellent and helped me understand the holes in El Sistema’s claims with regard to social inclusion, and I’ve praised yours repeatedly), but its intention was “to raise awareness of the incredible gains of the fascinating El Sistema model.” Aiming to raise awareness of incredible gains is not the same as aiming to engage in critical debate. Indeed, the London conference was set up precisely to critique this kind of miracle narrative and the PR machine that conveys it. Nevertheless, which came first is of little importance compared to the issues themselves.

  4. Geoff, thanks for your comment. Perhaps we’re both suffering from confirmation bias – our insistence on retaining originally formed ideas rather than allowing ourselves to be influenced by new information. For example, Ruth’s conference was ultimately defined by the content, not the title it was given (perhaps for marketing purposes.) Similarly, you’ve focused on some of the negatives that I drew (in response to what may well be my own confirmation bias) and ignored my comment that ” most grounded, insightful thoughts of the day, and there were many, came most often from the active performers, the program administrators, and the music teachers, the people in the trenches.” I thus acknowledged the very group that you referenced, while drawing a reasonable dichotomy between those who originate from a practice background versus those in a research background. Exhibit C: “If anyone denigrates your work, invite them to come down and help out for an hour. Someone will learn something.” – where did I say it would only be the academics who would learn something? This statement was deliberately phrased to be open to the possibility that both parties might benefit.

    As for divisiveness, I’m not certain how you can levy that accusation at me for one blog post. Proverbs concerning the relative hue and chroma of cookware come to mind!

  5. Jonathan, if you reread my comment, you’ll see that I didn’t accuse YOU of being divisive, but rather the cliché of the “ivory tower” (which indisputably is). What I actually said was that I was sure you were serious about wanting to bring people together, but that using a divisive cliché was likely to be counter-productive. Talking to non-academics about the “ivory tower” is not going to increase their respect for or interest in research. Hence the first main point of my comment, about the contradictory nature of your post: you talk about wanting to bring people together, yet use language that drives them apart. The title and tone of your post are not counter-balanced by a deliberately vague comment like “someone will learn something.”

    The second main point of my comment was that drawing a dichotomy between practice and research may appear reasonable but actually is not, if the people you place on the research side of the divide actually have one foot in practice. One of the interesting things about music as an academic discipline is that – unlike in literature studies, for example – almost everyone comes from a practice background of some kind. I’m far from the prime example of this (you and Gillian Howell are much better examples), but even I had spent 19 years playing and then teaching music before I discovered musicology. And academics and practitioners share a core activity and concern – they are all educators.

    You’ll also see that I didn’t ignore your comment above about grounded, insightful thoughts, but actually quoted it (in two parts).

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