The Search for SIGnificance

The first meeting of the Sistema SIG at ISME 2016.

Reading the different responses to the ISME Conference in Glasgow is much like watching Rashomon: the facts of the matter aren’t much in dispute but the different interpretations make for stimulating comparison. Geoff Baker, as prolific as usual, has already posted a two-part reflection on the proceedings and made many of the same observations (my last entry was written after his first post but before publication of the second) but came to some different conclusions, particularly relating to the Sistema Special Interest Group (SIG). For those of you unfamiliar with SIGs, they are sub-groups created through ISME to facilitate research and dialogue on a specific subject that would otherwise not be represented or supported through the regular conference activities or commissions.

At the concluding SIG event in Glasgow, outgoing chair Graça Mota announced that following Andrea Creech’s current term, I will chair the group from 2018-2020. I thus have a vested interest in the SIG and welcome thoughts on its future direction. That said, in a conversation about the events falling under the SIG’s umbrella, it’s important to differentiate between the spoken papers, over which the SIG simply hangs a banner, and events coordinated or presented by the SIG. SIGs should serve the interests of the participants within the broad scope of the topic, and the spoken papers submitted represent those interests.

My only real disagreement with Baker is that I consider it a maturation, rather than a weakness of the SIG that those interests have voluntarily shifted away from Venezuela. Baker has argued that there is a practical and ethical obligation to continue the investigation of the Fundación, but the lack of appetite for this might well be his own fault. As I pointed out in the previous entry, the general reaction to the Mazzocchi interview was largely one of indifference (or willful evasion), perhaps because the content was by then so unsurprising. The critical spectrum on Venezuela hasn’t just been defined, it has been polarized, with the result that Venezuela-related research on the classical music side of things only serves to reiterate or repudiate Baker’s positions on various levels. There’s also a practical consideration: issues of neocolonialism aside, it’s not particularly productive to pass judgment on the activities of the Fundación, since the research has had no influence on how it operates. Finally, the previous rationale for scrutiny, that Sistema was internationally portrayed as a model of enlightened music education, doesn’t seem to hold so true anymore. It might be that Baker, in his quest to redefine Sistema discourse, was so successful he rendered himself, in his role of chief provocateur, obsolete. While I debate whether to congratulate him for putting himself out of a job research sector, (I do congratulate him on his recent promotion to full Professor) I’ll still say that the emancipation of the sector from a very limiting area of study was long overdue. Expansion is not exclusion, and there’s still room for original Venezuelan critique if that’s what members propose.

Since Theodora Stathopoulos spearheaded the SIG’s inception in 2012, the research environment has clearly changed significantly, and the group has evolved in response. On the final day of ISME, Richard Hallam hosted a panel session bringing together the chairs of the SIGs for Community Music, Popular Music, Policy and Sistema for the sole purposes of starting the reversal of what has largely been a process of divergence. (I spoke on behalf of Sistema, in loco Graça Mota  et Andrea Creech, both of whom had other commitments.) Richard, despite his longstanding Sistema affiliation, was motivated by the belief that all the participating groups will only advance meaningfully through active engagement with other entities holding similar objectives. So even as I reiterate that I felt the discourse in the spoken paper sessions had moved sideways at this event, that remains a reflection of participant research interests and not SIG leadership, and I believe the SIG in its directed activities continues to serve an important role and function given the limitations of the forum.

Teacher training session in Raploch. We started with music. Worked through music. Then finished with music. No flipcharts.

And there are limitations. This returns to my point in the previous entry about pedagogy, and our unwillingness to confront the question of “What the hell do we do day to day in the classroom that’s going to make a real difference?” I believe the reason the Sistema SIG hasn’t tackled this effectively is that the SIG is largely populated with University faculty and researchers, not Sistema program leaders or teachers. But even a shift in participant background might not solve the issue. André Philip of the Brazilian NEOJIBA project (one of the very few individuals at the SIG active as a teacher in a program) presented on the struggles the Salvador program has had getting its senior students to engage meaningfully in teacher training. Unsurprisingly, the students want to teach the way they were taught.  That’s not going to change. So it would take a complete shift in the pedagogical culture of the entire organization in order to break this vicious circle– the musical development of students would have to be undertaken through completely different models from the very start. In short, it takes tremendous thought, effort, patience and investment to orient or re-orient a program in the service of true pro-social change. From current research on teacher education we know exactly what is required in order to achieve that: hands-on training and strong ongoing mentoring. Yet the current vogue in Sistema teacher training is one of a weekend of flip charts, seating circles and “profound reflection,” which while emotionally gratifying, unsurprisingly yields virtually zero change in practice.

The purpose of the SIG is to investigate, not validate. The investigation into Sistema, as ill-suited as that term continues to be for both the SIG and the activities it seeks to encompass, may run its course, at which point we may collectively choose to rename, refocus, merge, or even discontinue the group, just as Baker speculated. But to construe any of those outcomes as a failure would be a mistake.

2 thoughts on “The Search for SIGnificance

  1. Thinking about the El Salvador dilemma. What if one could establish a lab nucleo in a region where teachers could come to spend a few months at a time under mentorship in an ideal program and then bring it back to their own nucleo. You could have a system of rotation until each nucleo was strong enough to serve new nucleos.

    1. Hands on training and mentoring – the hallmark of good, impact-yielding teacher training. Funding permitting I’d establish something in the US.

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