Social action through music – beyond Sistema

Orangement on Parade
The Orangemen with band on parade outside a Catholic church in Belfast. Polite? No. Social Action through Music? Yes.

A year after I took the position at UNC Charlotte I was contacted by a fellow Fellow, Aubree Weiley, who asked for some guidance in putting together a course she was going to teach on Sistema at North Park University in Chicago. She had heard I was doing something of that nature at my host institution and thought I might be able to help. I wasn’t able to assist, really, but not for lack of desire: through our correspondence Aubree and I came to agree there wasn’t really much study-worthy material on Sistema per se, and that a better approach would be a more holistic one looking at social change through music. Even with more recent substantial publications since that conversation, my opinion hasn’t changed: I still believe there’s just not enough material solely within Venezuela to warrant a dedicated course.

For the past two years at UNC Charlotte my primary teaching responsibility outside of the orchestras area has been a class of my own development, one that examined the intersection between music, industry and society. (You can read about the genesis of the course here.) This semester I was given the opportunity for the first time to lead a much more specialized course, one that I chose to name Social Action through Music. I use that phrase often – see the prior blog entry for example. There’s a vague nod to Sistema in there, the same title gracing the primary music making facility of the Fundación in Caracas, but it wasn’t my motivation to make an explicit connection to Venezuela. I chose the title, and I use the term now to remind myself of an unhappy and often ignored reality that emerged in my own research: that many of the historical precedents of Social Action through Music reflect a desire to control, suppress, or oppress. There are examples across a spectrum of intention from malevolence to benevolence, but the history is weighted heavily towards to the former. Venezuela’s El Sistema was one of over a dozen topics spread across this spectrum I proposed for team study and presentations, with other areas such as music and: race, gender, LGTBQ issues, the Holocaust, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, Communism, Italian orphanages, class conflict as viewed through Mozart Operas, etc.

US Armed forces blast music at the Vatican Embassy in 1989 to compel the surrender of Noriega. Still “Social Action through Music.” The song of choice? Van Halen’s Panama, of course.

As long as the list was, it certainly was never considered comprehensive, and students were free to propose new topics for their personal study that fit within the remit of the course. To my delight, many of the topics now being researched are not on my original list: Rock and Roll in the 1960s, Louis Armstrong, and the social gestation of Hip Hop music have all been studied. For the last third of the semester, I have one group presenting on women in classical music, and the other on women in popular music, so we’re setting up for a spectacular finale. (The class is evenly split between genders, interestingly.) A focal point of the course is the development of logic models where appropriate (yes, logic models again), to identify the concrete mechanisms through which deliberate social change was attempted and or achieved, with a view to outcomes both intended and unintended. The unintended outcomes of social action through music are certainly the more fascinating.

I don’t spend a lot of time lecturing in this class. I think perhaps the total sum of “Dr Govias” talk time this semester in front of the assembled might be pushing 90 minutes over some 45 instructional hours to date. In tackling the vast topic of Social Action through Music I came to the unhappy realization that there was simply no way I could lecture at the students enough to cover all the ground I wanted to cover. Once that thought crossed my mind I realized three things.

  1. Lecturing is incredibly unproductive, pedagogically
  2. Why should it be about the ground *I* want to cover? And finally:
  3. Why try to cover it all when I can’t?

I think I realized, back when I put together my first course on Music and Society, a noble but unhappy truth about education. We can’t teach our students everything we think they need to know, and to attempt to do so is to doom both parties to frustration and misery. All I can do as a “Teacher” is help students understand the scope of the problem, and show them some tools that will help tackle it in their own way. That’s it. In this course I “privileged” certain topics at the outset as a starting point, but many students, in their own creativity, and in accordance with their own interests and insights, chose to ignore those and propose their own.

Every class I teach is a work in progress. Once again I’ve experimented with a new format. This one places great autonomy but thus great responsibility in the hands of the students: they choose the topics, they do guided research, and they present their findings. There is very little lecturing, or lecturing Mk.II, also known as “guided discussions” in which the “sage on the stage” is replaced by the “guide on the side”, just a lot of team-based investigation and analysis within a specific framework and timeline of deliverables. I try to function as part of the teams, offering proposals, generating counterarguments, but never imposing outcomes. If you think this places less of a burden on me, you are sadly mistaken: I am obliged to research significantly more and in areas with which I am NOT familiar in order to collaborate effectively with students. This is far more intellectually challenging and time consuming than simply preparing and reading a lecture.

In terms of outcomes – I don’t know yet. The topic proposals themselves reflect a positive outcome, in that students are engaged and thinking about social issues and how they manifest within or are catalyzed by music. The sheer range of topics proposed by students has revealed to me even more of the complexity and history behind the premise of the course. At some point I could make the class all about Sistema, but in light of these developments, now I’d have to ask myself: Why?

One thought on “Social action through music – beyond Sistema

  1. I commend you for your academic courage as my mind races through all the possible points of controversy.

    For starters how does one define the use of music as propaganda versus social empowerment?

    Its not fair you send your students on a wild goose chace and not report on the observations they come up with in conclusion. 😉

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