If pressed to answer the question “Why Sistema?”, I think there are only two legitimate answers:
a) There’s nothing else here.
And if that doesn’t apply then:
b) It offers something that the existing public music education network can’t.
In Venezuela the first might be sufficient as a rationale, but Venezuela is something of an exception to the rule. In most developed nations with Sistema programs there is almost always something else publicly available, so an additional or parallel music education system must justify its existence and its additional resource burden or consumption on a different basis: it must deliver a “unique dividend.”
I used that phrase fleetingly in a past entry, and in its flight it seemed to have escaped notice or commentary. In my experience it’s philosophically unpopular as a topic of conversation, simply because it’s so difficult to achieve; there are so many established benefits to conventional music education that it’s almost as though there’s nothing left a parallel system can provide. Case in point: the British music critic Igor Toronyi Lalic of Sistema infamy once commented that the basic act of learning a musical instrument doesn’t necessarily make anyone a better person (I’m paraphrasing because the link isn’t available anymore). Superficially, it sounds like common sense, yet surprisingly there is research to suggest that simply exposing young children to basic music education will make them display higher levels of empathy. (Education and Health Vol. 30 No. 3 2012)
The many benefits of music education aren’t an argument for Sistema: they are an argument for the expansion and strengthening of existing music education programs. Why duplicate something at what has internationally proven to be a much higher per-capita cost, when you can strengthen and expand what already exists for a much lower price tag? Without a “Unique Dividend,” Sistema is just a more expensive form of music education, and in this day and age, “more expensive” is another way of saying “less justifiable.”
I’m going to bang a very familiar drum now. Unique dividends require unique practices – pedagogical ideas and concepts that push the musical and social envelope. Again, I differentiate sharply between practice, and genre or medium or even format. The new concept of facilitated improvisations, popularized in Europe and now expanding in practice on this side of the Atlantic, is rooted in the same structure of one person issuing orders to a host of subservient others. The Music Learning Revolution conference in London in October drove this point home, when the centre of all attention during the closing act was a “coordinator” standing at the heart of a choral “improvisation” signaling and commanding preplanned musical elements. (Photo at the top.) I call this the “smiling tyrant” effect – participants are still largely disempowered, but they’re told they’re not by a happy, energetic, passionate autocrat. Printed music is not a dictator: it’s one of a number of boundaries required for all creative and artistic output. Removing the paper requires adding other constraints, so what compromises are made becomes a question of pedagogical objectives.
I’m not criticizing the art form, process or product of these initiatives, only the myopic suggestion that somehow they are more socially oriented than conventional conducted ensembles. They are not: the leadership concept is entirely the same. And it’s the leadership concept that has to change more so than the genre or medium.
And that’s been my major area of research for the last 2-3 years. It has been a fascinating journey, and one key finding is that, as with everything else, it’s not a case of “either/or” but one of “both/and” – that there are spaces and times in which strong centralized leadership is essential and other times when it is absolutely dispensable – but many times in which strong leadership early can lead to greater autonomy and musical/social cohesion later. The fundamental question has been whether the leadership focused on product, or on process.
Which brings me to my current project: a research study in which the musical products I’m asking study participants to evaluate have been generated through very different processes, one of which might prove very surprising. I’m inviting everyone I know – and people I don’t know – to help by completing the survey. It’s very simple, and involves rating 18 musical excerpts, none longer than 78 seconds, on some straightforward criteria. It should take no longer than 30 minutes to complete. So please, take thirty minutes and participate. At some point in the future when I have a critical mass of data I’ll publish the results and elaborate on the methods. It’s a unique practice, of this I’m certain. I’m not claiming yet it produces a unique dividend, but it might bring us one step closer to finding it.