Reflections on 10 years in Sistema

It’s been a while, hasn’t it.

I was chatting with a trusted friend lately who told me that she missed reading my blog. I have missed writing it. It’s not easy. Every few weeks or so I’ll see another colleague announce with great fanfare that they’re starting a blog, and the same amount of time later I’ll see the blog abandoned after the second entry. (There are some notable exceptions, like Geoff Baker’s, but the exceptions prove the rule). This posting marks year 11 of this endeavour, and while I have stopped posting weekly, here I am, still writing… annually.

But there’s much less now to say about Sistema except perhaps “requiescat in pace.” The alliance between the Fundación and the Gobierno Bolivariano in Venezuela, an association that proved so profitable at first, became its greatest liability, and the lack of diversification of funding sources has crippled the program domestically. Granted, tours have continued: the Símon Bolívar Orchestra, or rather, a shadow of its former self, was recently in Moscow, with the destination immediately telling anyone who has the slightest awareness of current geopolitics all they need to know. And the Weberian trap of “younger, bigger and better” finally sprung, thwarting the Fundación’s efforts in orchestra building. Next steps for them? Having expressly declared their intention of producing conductors (the 1% of the 1% of the 1% – it’s actually smaller  than that if you do the math based on their own published numbers) they will now probably switch to a similar strategy of finding younger and more hyperactive orchestra dictators until the prospect of wheeling a perambulator to the podium proves even too absurd for them or the miserable musicians compelled to follow its occupant. It’s either that or capitalize on a new industry movement and start producing women conductors, which, frankly, would not be such a bad thing even if it means that the beneficiaries are now the 2% of the 1% of the 1%. But that would require a seismic shift in a culture noted for machismo.

The Símon Bolívar IS a shadow of its former self, with anyone in Venezuela let alone Sistema possessing the resources and the passport to flee to country having done so. (4.6 million have fled in the last 4 years. Can you imagine the entire urban area of Washington DC or Atlanta up and leaving?) Roberto Zambrano, the maverick spark and catalyst of so much incredible work in Acarigua, is now leading the Dallas Symphony’s young musicians’ initiative. This coup de main for the DSO is regrettably also the coup de grâce for the programs he led in Estado Portuguesa with so much vision and success. He’s not going back, except as  director invitado for the program he created. Rodrigo Guerrero, the brilliant translator and equally competent administrator who features so prominently in those early Abreu videos, translating perfectly while Abreu continues to talk over him, now holds a position with the Massachusetts Cultural Council. And for those who remain, for example the musicians I worked with of the late and lamented Orquesta Teresa Carreño, they post pictures on Facebook of their much-reduced circumstances – and by “much-reduced circumstances,” I mean their literally emaciated bodies as they struggle with maintaining basic nutrition.

With the acquisition of Zambrano, the DSO is now a bright spot in a rather moribund North America sector as far as Sistema programs go. There are some other genuine success stories: anyone following Dantes Rameau’s work in Atlanta cannot fail to be impressed how through hard work (more like blood, sweat and tears) and laser-like vision, he has built his small program into one of major urban recognition, it now having recently inaugurated its own purpose-renovated facility. I remember a meeting in Boston in 2011 when he nearly exploded with rage at the mindless proselytizing of the class of fellows, who were talking about holding self-aggrandizing philosophical conferences and making videos, when he was worried about making payroll. It’s that pragmatism (and intensity of purpose) that has made his program fly. He’s been looking to the sky, but his feet have been firmly on the ground. I don’t even want to ask how many pairs of shoes he’s worn out. Similarly, the non-Sistema Sistema program in Vancouver, St James Music Academy, has gone from a budget of mid five figures to having crested, or being on the verge of cresting seven figures, thanks to its inspired, open-minded leadership under Kathryn Walker and José Ceron.

And as for the national movement… with its self-imposed isolationism and delusions of exceptionalism, its active alienation of the large, extremely competent and very devoted body of state-certified music educators, and its death grip on outdated, deprecated or conservative pedagogies or models which they continue to believe will someday produce results different from the last 300 years of their implementation – none of these have produced anything of note, except stagnant conference attendance and a heightened desperation in its internal self-congratulation. Wearing pedagogical blinders is not an American trait: it was fascinating, during l’Affaire Campo, how many organizations were so quick to disavow the conductor after accusations of sexual harassment in his native Guatemala (guilty until proven innocent, of course), even if the statements claiming that Campo had never worked with their organization were easily proven false (see Geoff Baker’s careful research on this.) And all while disavowing Campo, none of them ever thought to disavow the conductor-centric model which could facilitate such abuse happening in the first place. Conductors remain central to Sistema ideology, both north and south of the Caribbean, east and west of the Atlantic, even as they remain anathema to its professed social objectives.

The blind spots are glaring. At a recent conference in Sweden, where the program has among its stated objectives the integration of immigrants (primarily African and Middle Eastern, as I understand) the “faculty” included two or three Venezuelans (one, extremely ill-equipped to talk about pedagogy, talking about pedagogy) with the remainder being white. Is it possible for programs to be internally colonialist?

And as far as Sistema training goes, NEC shuttered its Fellows program in 2015 after the fifth class, and the much-trumpeted Longy MAT limps along in an institution limping along, now under the umbrella of a liberal arts college…limping along. The NEC program was always quite problematic: members of the fourth class recounted to me how they were confronted on day 1 with the statement that the program was “Neither an MBA in non-profit administration or a Music Education degree” leading them to collectively wonder – then what the hell is it? And the devolution of the objectives to the class was not inspired pedagogy on the part of the program but an abject abdication of its responsibility. The program was rudderless in execution but so narrow in its definition of success that failure was inevitable. If fellows weren’t working in Sistema programs on the ground, they were failures. The real failure was the inability to recognize that many forms of leadership would be needed for the vision to take root, and the program could cultivate them all with intelligent curation. And better still, I’ve heard from multiple sources that a consultant previously engaged to build the NEC program has actively worked to exclude its graduates from opportunities in an effort to preserve and dominate territory. If someone wants to be lord or lady of the anthill, let them, says I.

I’m trying to think if I’ve left out anyone to anger. Doubtlessly the Sistema defenders are crafting their responses/retorts as you read this. They forget how much potential there was here 10 years ago (Yes, it has been 10 years) and I how much I wanted and continue to want the ideals of this movement to succeed. Not the ideal of under-trained “teaching artists” attempting work far above their pay grade but the ideal of a universal, genre-agnostic, high-quality music education system. It’s not an ideal that can be achieved, but it’s one worth working towards. Thankfully, outside of Sistema, there is a much better educated and better organized contingent whose efforts continue unabated. There’s some hope – just no more than there was 10 years ago, and maybe even a little less.

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