The Towers and the Trenches

The title slide from my presentation in London
The title slide from my presentation in London

I thought I was done with my thoughts on London but I have been encouraged by Geoff Baker’s comments on my last entry to return to the issue one last time. I don’t presume this will be the final word, but I’m not the type who has to have it.

It took me well over a month to write the last entry, and as is usual it went through many iterations, many drafts before I finally hit the “Publish” button. I’m neither the most prolific nor fluid of writers, and if I were to make a general criticism of my own publications, both electronic and print, it would be “olet lucernam.” Much perspiration, not much inspiration (or illumination, to continue the Latin metaphor.)

Compared to the alternative, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My editing of drafts usually involves the reduction or elimination of what is often a rather caustic inspiration. This process isn’t what some would describe as self-censorship, but simply a much more pragmatic perspective on discourse. Sometimes (okay, fine, often) I choose to be polemic, but other times I’d rather try to bridge the gap to my readership.

But in the interests of making my point about the practitioner/researcher dichotomy to which Geoff Baker objected so strenuously in my last entry, I’d like to offer here some paralipomena I cut from the final draft. I’ve since changed my mind as to its relevance. It originally appeared after the following text:

Just because you’re doing hip hop music with your 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.

[begin insertion]

And just because you’ve written a paper critiquing an educational system does not make you a progressive educator. At the conference, a recurring meta-issue of which I think most attendees were blissfully unaware was the enormous gulf between their ivory tower theories and real world exigencies of practice. Academics seem to think that having identified a problem, and provided some context and enough quotes from other like-minded academics in support of their position, that they have discharged their duty (see this note about the drummer at the ISME Conference in Porto Alegre in 2014, for instance.) But the disconnection was driven home by the near-universal belief amongst those presenting that it was enough to hold up a stack of A4 and read an academic essay line by line to present their thinking.

We’re supposed to be educators, people. So what if this is the norm or the tradition in academia, where “reading a paper” means literally reading the paper? The starting point of all research and innovation is the thoughtful challenging of assumptions. Whatever I’m doing, can it be done better? Must I use these particular tools, or are there others that would produce the desired result better and faster? Is the desired result in fact desirable, or is that outcome being pursued only because of a failure to envision something more? Academia demands this be applied to everything. Everything except itself, apparently. It was bizarre, if not surreal, to watch speakers decry the controlling, conforming qualities of the orchestra and classical music while in the same instance demanding those precise same traits of their audience. In the context of a conference devoted to “the better ways” this wasn’t just irony, but hypocrisy: not of the malicious ilk but the even more disturbing clueless variety.

[end insertion]

“Rotterdam: Jonathan Govias on El Sistema delivers polemic concepts expected and digital interaction” – caption and photo courtesy of Heloisa Fischer

The underlying rationale behind all academic formats, print or spoken, is to place the emphasis on content. Delivery has trumped substance all too often in the Sistema sphere, but to deny it any role is a tacit acceptance of the worst failures and abuses of our own education systems. Venezuela’s el Sistema by its own explicit admission looks to the emblems of Western Europe culture, like the Berlin Philharmonic, for its pedagogical and artistic direction. If we change our own practice, we may well change theirs. And before I go telling the Berlin Philharmonic to change their practice, I’m going to change my own.

I researched my materials for London quite carefully, as is my wont. But I also spent a significant amount of time developing and rehearsing a presentation that I hoped would be engaging to both ear and eye even if it still fell into the model of talker/listener. There are limits to what can be achieved in any space and within any context, I’ll be the first to admit. But one month later in Rotterdam, at the Classical:NEXT industry event, I was able to put my money precisely where my mouth is and facilitate a session on social learning that was built around social learning. It can be done, and if I ever catch up on this blog I’ll tell you about it in detail. But the point remains: if you have a vision for education, music or otherwise, live it first.

 

 

 

 

 

11 thoughts on “The Towers and the Trenches

  1. Well said Jonathan. The trouble with attitude is that it is always relative. Relative to experience, belief, understanding and knowledge. The biggest influencer has to be experience in that set. Therefore if you don’t have it, it makes it very difficult to justify the principle beyond the theoretical. Which is why critics need to be engaged, or have been engaged in what they comment about – not just academically but actually. That is not to say their opinions aren’t important, they often are, but how much better equipped they would be if they actually had the groundwork before they decided what they believed?

    As story to illustrate: I studied a unit of law at university here, the lecturer was a senior barrister from a regional law practice, he was accepted to the Bar late in life – in his fifties. What was he doing before that? He was a police sergeant in the local police station and worked on the beat for much of his earlier life. The law to him was like the air he breathed. He was one of the best lecturers I ever had, with wonderful anecdotes to back up the dry facts of law. And I believe from what I heard, a fantastic barrister.

    So here we are in Sistema-land, and we need to have the critics to keep us honest, or rather to examine and test our beliefs. How much better would that be for them and us if they were folks who had walked the beat?

  2. I agree, Jonathan, at least up to a point. It must be said, this is a fairly regularly topic of discussion within academia, but it doesn’t seem to have progressed very far. I myself have experimented with entirely unscripted, semi-scripted, and entirely scripted formats in recent years, and they all have their pros and cons. One particular advantage of the scripted version is that it’s very easy to time (so no realising that your time is up before you’ve got to your conclusion). Also, the prime currency in academia is publications, not talks, so academics tend to use conference papers as trial runs or early versions of written articles. Generally speaking, the kind of argumentation required for a written article is too complex to be (semi-)improvised except by a few extraordinarily talented people. But these explanations don’t detract from your valid criticism: the presentational level of academic papers tends to be poor, and most academics (myself included) could learn a lot from “real” public speakers. I have fantasies of going off and training as an actor or something and then coming back to academia.

  3. Again, I agree, Chris, up to a point. The qualification is because great thinkers can provide great insights without having personal experience of the question at hand. Michel Foucault didn’t need to spend time in a 16th-century school or an 18th-century prison in order to make stunning arguments about discipline and power. And it would be ridiculous for a music educator to say: “that Mr Foucault’s got nothing to tell me – he should start up a núcleo and run it for a couple of years, then I might listen to him.”

    Experience is an essential part of the equation, but that doesn’t mean that everyone involved in the conversation needs to have it. Indeed, if everyone involved in discussing Sistema came from Sistema, the program would progress far more slowly than if a wider variety of voices and perspectives were brought into play. This stasis can be seen in action in Venezuela.

    One of the main points I made in the previous discussion seems worth repeating here, since there still seems to be a divide being drawn between the ivory tower and the trenches, the critics and those who walk the beat.

    Among the academic speakers at the London conference 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. One paper 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. There were three papers by former or current professional orchestral musicians who are also graduate students.

    The idea that critics and beat-walkers are separate species is not therefore tenable in this context. In fact, a lot of people who end up as critics start or end up criticising their own practice. An orchestral musician who discusses the problems of the orchestra as a social and educational model is not just some egg-head from an ivory tower; they’re some who has lived and felt those problems. And critical positions may well be derived from other people’s experiences: my own take on El Sistema is based squarely on the testimony of many Sistema musicians – and therefore on hundreds of person-years of accumulated experience.

    Ultimately, I don’t think that a Sistema practitioner needs to read Foucault in the original French in order to have something valuable to contribute to a discussion, and I don’t think an academic needs to spend three years in a núcleo in order to do so either.

    I’ll be around, if you need me back to have the final word 🙂

  4. “Experience is an essential part of the equation, but that doesn’t mean that everyone involved in the conversation needs to have it.” I think, with respect, that you are pushing my point beyond its measure – I didn’t claim it was the only criteria. And with regards to the ‘beat’ , all analogous argument fails at some point, I was using an example of the worth of experience. What I actually said, is that I believe experience is a part of the equation, but that it is the most significant part if you want to be able to deeply analyse something. I didn’t say it was the exclusive part. Not every analyst nor critic needs to have had “Sistema” on the beat experience to analyse or evaluate it, they can have had all manner of related experience and life itself.

    With Sistema processes, they are really remarkably common sense music teaching and learning processes, taken to a bit of an extreme perhaps, but still a bit obvious as to how they work and why they work the way they do. Where it moves away from conventional master/subordinate traditional music ed stuff is in the area of experiential teaching and learning, and the development of social learning processes.

    Where I think Sistema has come unstuck in the firstworld, is in the ‘spin’ of it. Unlike Geoff, I don’t think it was a malicious autocratic conspiracy. I think it’s an overblown hyperbole (if hyperbole can be overblown!). When the first pilgrims came to Venezuela and found out what was going on, they saw a snap-shot of this amazing system, with hundreds of thousands of children engaged in a full on program. It must have been such a dramatic shock to see this in comparison to their own hometown experiences with music education. For many it was a road to Damascus moment, and like the Saul of that tale, once transformed, it was the evangelism which did the rest – lead by the likes of Rattle, Abado et al. The fact remains however, that it truly is an amazing program regardless of anything else. The sheer scale of it, is one of its most significant aspects. Let alone the humanising and positive social benefit music and its practise has.

    “This is the temptation of the ideologically intense on the left and right: Truth exists to serve the narrative rather than the narrative arising from truth. It is a malady easy to see in others and harder to diagnose in ourselves.” – I read this in an article today. Perhaps we all need to evaluate our thoughts and words: are we guilty of that, on both sides of the divide?

  5. Chris, I saw that final quotation this morning too, and like you I thought it was interesting. It made me think something similar but slightly different to you. It reminded me that there is no “truth” of El Sistema, in the sense of a written history, a rigorous evaluation, or a thorough academic study (apart from my own). Since there’s nothing solid to fall back on, no indisputable source, no Truth, everyone creates their own truth to serve their own narrative.

    But then, I thought of my own trajectory with El Sistema. I’ve just reread the grant proposal for my Sistema research project that I wrote in 2008. There is no hint of ideologically intensity in it (if you’re unconvinced, I’ll send it to you). It takes the well-known Sistema story as given, and describes a completely neutral research project to explore how it works. Some of my detractors have claimed that I went to Venezuela with an axe to grind; I obviously know that’s completely false, but this proposal provides written evidence of the falsity of that claim.

    I’ve said this over and over again – I went to Venezuela expecting to see a miracle in action. So my current narrative is 180 degrees away from the one I started with. In that case, truth does not exist to serve my narrative, since my narrative has changed. My narrative has arisen from truth (or as close to truth as I’ve been able to get over years of intensive research). And if people see ideological intensity in what I write, that comes from the same place.

  6. By the way, that quote continued: “Without a common factual basis, it is impossible to make incremental progress on public matters. All that remains are shouting matches and power plays.”

    This seems rather relevant too in our current context. There is an urgent need to develop a common factual basis, otherwise the conversation will continue to be dominated by spin and hyperbole. I attempted to do this by spending a year in Venezuela and digging up whatever written sources I could find as well as interviewing all sorts of knowledgeable people and observing as much as I could. Who is going to take the next step, dig up more textual sources, fill in the huge gaps in the institution’s history, test out my ideas (rather than shout them down)?

    I’m amazed how little interest there is within the Sistema-inspired sphere in getting closer to the truth about the Venezuelan program. Perhaps with the narrative already firmly in place and eagerly repeated by the media, the truth no longer matters to some people. The problem is that – to fill in the final sentence of that quote – this “is dangerous to democracy.”

  7. Geoff, I thought of both sides of the equation. And they are (as I see them), the international Sistema movement as those who support the Sistema process, and, on the other side, those who don’t support its values and question its key premise of social charge through music – and orchestral classical music model in particular. That is the essential, ‘us and them’. Here’s how you framed it in one of your essays:

    “In the blue corner: a conservative music critic who has only a superficial acquaintance with El Sistema but a feel for some key issues and, it seems, an unparalleled ability to provoke. In the red corner: a clutch of liberal Sistema supporters who know a lot more about the program but are almost all, to a greater or lesser degree, employees or outriders of El Sistema or its offshoots and therefore heavily invested in its success. The result is that impartiality is thin on the ground, and that what may appear at first glance to be an informed debate is riddled with inaccuracies and myths.”

    Jonathan has rightly questioned the attitude of the academic polemicists, in particular, their objectivity, their cloistered judgements, their lack of on the beat experience, and why indeed they seek to haul something down that seeks to offer an alternative process to a very tired Western music system (my words).

    What most concerns me about this ‘debate’ is the concern of “proof that it works”. How many people question the value of education and its role in fixing poverty, and social ills generally? You know, these sorts statements, claims and beliefs:

    “Investing in education is the single most effective way of reducing poverty.

    Education is more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. It is one of the most important investments a country can make in its people and its future, and is critical to reducing poverty and inequality. If all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.”*

    Few I’d say. And you know, they’re not very different from the claims of the Sistema folks.

    I very much support academic rigour and investigation, but I think it must have agenda and invective removed before it can be truly valuable. The Sistema folks need it too. I am often asked by friends and colleagues within the Sistema, what is the socioeconomic ROI on these programs? What’s the socioeconomic ROI on English and Maths and our education system generally? Perhaps we need to ask and answer both of those questions

    Here’s where I think we should be headed: a collective push to determine the value, the ROI, the effects, and the design of Sistema-based social change programs – agendaless and objective. So we can all “live it” together – objectively.

    *http://www.globalpartnership.org/education

  8. By the way, that quote continued: “Without a common factual basis, it is impossible to make incremental progress on public matters. All that remains are shouting matches and power plays.”

    This seems rather relevant too in our current context. There is an urgent need to develop a common factual basis, otherwise the conversation will continue to be dominated by spin and hyperbole. I attempted to do this by spending a year in Venezuela and digging up whatever written sources I could find as well as interviewing all sorts of knowledgeable people and observing as much as I could. Who is going to take the next step, dig up more textual sources, fill in the huge gaps in the institution’s history, test out my ideas (rather than shout them down)?

    I’m amazed how little interest there is within the Sistema-inspired sphere in getting closer to the truth about the Venezuelan program. Perhaps with the narrative already firmly in place and eagerly repeated by the media, the truth no longer matters to some people. The problem is that – to fill in the final sentence of that quote – this “is dangerous to democracy.”

  9. Generally speaking, I think it’s a good thing that there’s little interest in the Sistema sphere in de-mystifying Venezuela, because … not many people actively involved in Social Action through Music outside of the South American nation really care one way or the other anymore. They may draw inspiration from Venezuela, but they’re not inspired by the activity, only the concept behind it. This shift reflects a relative maturation in the sector, and a migration from blind adulation and emulation towards more scrutiny of their own work and practice. On one level, I think Geoff’s book was published about 3 years too late.

    I also think it’s long past time we stopped talking about Venezuela. There’s not much to talk about, just western models with the same western problems. I love making music there and interacting with the musicians, but there’s more innovative and interesting work happening elsewhere in the field. This is why I’m quick to differentiate between the 3 Sistemas (Venezuelan Reality/Venezuelan Myth and Extra-Venezuelan activity/and the idea of Social Action through Music.) Geoff’s area of expertise and ethnographical research is No. 1. I spend a lot of time trying to migrate 2 towards 3. The people most angry at Geoff are those that fail to see the differentiation. They view his critique of Venezuela as a critique of their own work. That may be true in many cases, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say a majority.

    The reason Geoff’s pleas for greater research are falling on deaf ears is that Sistema in Venezuela is old news – and aging as rapidly as the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. Venezuela has to trot out larger and younger orchestras now in order to keep the world’s attention. There’s a limit on how far they can practically go: I can’t imagine children under the age of three being able to blitz through Mahler no matter how prodigious they are, so give it 5 years and the hype will be over.

  10. I think that Venezuela is Venezuela. Many of us have moved on into our own versions and interpretations of the Sistema model – many of us have run our own programs and have witnessed the immediate results. I’m certainly very interested in establishing the social output ‘truth’ and real value of the biggest implemented music program for children in the entire world.

    However, like many others, am very busy in establishing a real, effective program in my own country. And creating a factual evaluating process within it so that output and results can be understood, monitored and validated. Like many I’ve moved well away from evangelism and fantasy; like many I’m focusing on developing a mechanism with real outcomes – both socially and musically.

    I am willing to accept that the Venezuelan Sistema is not perfect, but establishing its ‘truth’ is less important to me than establishing ours.

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