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.
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:
- No one else is doing your work, so don’t apologize for doing it.
- You have to teach something, so teach what you know.
- Try to know a bit more every day.
- If anyone denigrates your work, invite them to come down and help out for an hour. Someone will learn something.
And as importantly: