When Sistema isn’t as easy as pie

A modest proposal.

On the drive back from the Reframing El Sistema conference in Baltimore, my students and I stopped for pie in Washington DC. Over a very delicious and savoury slice of steak and chile (really) I took the opportunity to ask a freshman cellist what she had thought of the conference. Her response was brutal: “I still don’t have a clear idea of what El Sistema is. I don’t think anyone there did either.”

Out of the mouth of babes, as Matthew wrote and some anonymous yet poetic scribe of King James II translated. What I appreciated the most was the courage of her answer. She wasn’t afraid to admit she didn’t understand, and her general hunch had more than a little truth to it. I had the privilege of moderating the very first session of the conference on Friday morning, and I introduced it by voicing a thought that has been much on my mind of late. Next year, 2017, will mark the 10th anniversary of the Símon Bolívar Orchestra’s performance at the Proms, the international coming out party for Sistema. What have we accomplished since then? Is it just program expansion? Sistema isn’t Starbucks, and the number of international franchises is no metric of success, even for a Fortune 500 company (especially Starbucks). When Longy Conservatory advertised last year for a conductor for their program and wrote in the advertisement something that amounted to “preferably Venezuelan,” some were shocked. I wasn’t. Almost ten years after the start of the Sistema surge, Longy still hasn’t devised any other means by which to establish its Sistema credibility. This is why programs actively seek out Latin American faculty or continue to pursue ties with Venezuela, even though the model there has been well defined. The Longy Logic Model, such that it is, looks fairly simple:

Children + conventional music instruction + South American faculty = Sistema.

As logic models go, it might even be true, upon reflection, it just depends on how you define Sistema. Longy clearly defines Sistema as conventional music education delivered by a Venezuelan. As models go it certainly is more specific, and for that matter, more achievable, than the usual Sistema model, which is as follows:

Children + Music = A better world

I’m not going to contest the logic of this, since I believe it – it’s something that every music educator should believe. But this isn’t actually a logic model, because it doesn’t tell you how the better world will happen, how the world will be better, or what kind of music is required, or what kind of musicking is required. The truth is that we know exactly what our current practice of music education produces. For many, these limited outcomes and the “better world” they do yield are more than enough. Sistema ostensibly aspires to more though, which produces the more sophisticated logical model of:

Children + conventional music education = systematic social change.

And this is where I will contest the logic, because doing what we’ve done for three hundred years and expecting something different to pop up is textbook insanity. The only real variable here within our control is that middle value, the very nature of the instruction. By modifying the instructional means, we might be able to alter the resultant.

My pitch at the conference, during my un-keynote keynote, was that since we know what our current practices deliver, we need new practices, and in the highest risk moment of my life and career to date I undertook the monumental folly of doing a live demonstration of the power and effectiveness of social learning techniques with an orchestra that was sightreading some very difficult repertoire. This circus act in itself deserves its own blog entry given the feedback that was forthcoming, but there was some logic to my proposed model:

Children + music + a practice of social learning = social outcomes

During the Q&A after the demonstration, someone intelligently asked about the transferability of the social learning rehearsal tools I’d just demonstrated – in other words, whether the model works. I was brutally honest with myself and with the person asking. “I make no assumptions” I think I said. There’s no guarantee that my proposal will produce the desired result, none at all, but the current competing models are all the same in that their outcomes are guaranteed, with three hundred years of tradition and experience backing them, and the “social” element to those outcomes is almost always preceded by the word “anti.” The fact of the matter is that you can substitute “children” for “everyone” and take music out entirely, in my model, and it may still hold true. May. I don’t know, but at least there’s something to test, some hypothesis to investigate that might produce something different for once. That is, if we have the stomach for it. As the immediate reaction to my own session proved, some people feel that the idea of doing anything different is not quite as easy to swallow as pie. Not everyone is as fearless as the herein unnamed freshman cellist. More on that next time too.

Conference Rant:

Okay people. Time to stop using the word “Intentionality.” It sounds oh-so-good and oh-so-intelligent and erudite, but it’s pompous, pedantic and really, just plain wrong, referring to a distinct concept in psychology. There’s a perfectly good word that means what you want to say. Here it is, check it out: Intention.

Conference Rant 2:

This one’s for the world: enough with the phrase “moving forward.” It’s filler. 99.99999% of the time it’s used, it can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence in the slightest. Unless you happen to have a time machine, you don’t have a choice which direction to go in.

Next time: Moving forward with intentionality…

One thought on “When Sistema isn’t as easy as pie

  1. Yes, Jonathan, I agree that the Baltimore conference did not present a clear sense of the Sistema movement—I am sure everyone there agreed. Your student and you are neither the first nor the one millionth to draw that conclusion. I guess there is an embedded expectation that somehow this grassroots collection of hundreds of programs SHOULD have a clear and cohesive presentation to the world. They don’t, and I don’t see such a distillation coming anytime soon. That’s how it is, and it doesn’t mean much more than just that—there is not a consensus face to their collective aspiration.

    I find your snide reductio-ad-absurdum claims of implicit definitions in their programs to insultingly misrepresent the deep and serious investigation happening in many sites—a determination to clarify for themselves what “Sistema-ness” means to their communities, students, and faculty. The thinking in the Longy MAT program is hardly the equation you propose (conventional music instruction plus a South American teacher = Sistema)—how much time have you spent time inside that program? The last time I was there, I was into substantive investigations of pedagogy within five minutes of entry. I know you are familiar with many individual programs in the Boston area—do you really think they are as clueless and fluff-headed as you portray them?

    I don’t get your conclusion that a disorganized national movement means the network of programs are run by naïve idiots. Everywhere I go, I see just the opposite—thoughtful, dedicated inquirers who are trying to fulfill lofty goals with practices that work for their students, their faculty, and their communities. I hope you urge your student to look a little deeper. I agree that the Baltimore conference was poorly designed to clarify anything about the work that is happening; don’t let your student have the false impression that a lack of a good conference or good branding campaign means the work everywhere is as fatuous as you suggest in your blog. Did she (or you) take the time to visit and learn about OrchKids?—a half day opportunity was offered at the conference? Send her on a trip to nearby Soundwaves, or KidZNotes, and see if she agrees that they are clueless in their inquiry into pedagogies that work for their students.

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