Work is Work

One of the projects that I watch closely is El Sistema USA, a movement to implement a version of the Venezuelan music organization El Sistema to the United States. One of the main partners in this initiative is the New England Conservatory of Boston, and the Boston Globe had an article yesterday about the program. There was a suggestion in the article that gets to the heart of the difficulties about bringing this program to the United States:

Still, skeptics can be heard wondering if NEC’s ties to El Sistema are mostly cosmetic, a kind of brilliant publicity stunt that links the school to the hottest phenomenon in classical music. That charge is not warranted, yet if the school seeks the honor and credit of serving as the official bridge to El Sistema in this country, it should deepen its commitment. In addition to hosting El Sistema USA and its program to train the movement’s future leaders, NEC should itself lead by example. It should open its own El Sistema-inspired nucleo.

This could serve as a model of how the Venezuelan principles can be put into action in this country. It could have a permanent teaching staff and involvement from the Abreu fellows, but, just as importantly, it could engage a steady stream of NEC students. Currently one gets the impression, confirmed in conversation with individual Abreu fellows, that the fellowship program is rather detached from the school’s undergraduate student culture. The existence of such a nucleo would allow a much deeper integration of this work into the curriculum and the broader ethos of the conservatory itself.

This makes two really important points, one about the way that music education works in this country, and one about the way that the classical music establishment must change if it wants to sustain itself.
I think that the biggest danger in trying to bring El Sistema to the US is in focusing on the success that it’s had and not giving enough weight to the sacrifices that the children make to be a part of the program. Too often in news stories about El Sistema, I get the feeling that the writers feel that the children are blank slates, and that the strength of the organization is found only in the combination of early access and children that don’t have the resources to do anything else. If this were true, then of course this program could be adapted to the US: there are plenty of resources to set up young children with music instruction. I think this misses the point; the majority of instruction that any participant in El Sistema receives will be from other students. This is a fundamental departure from the way that music is usually taught in this country, both in public and private music instruction.
Private (non-school) music instruction in this country is usually funded by parents, and therefore does not have the equality of access that El Sistema takes as its mission. It is also overwhelmingly one-on-one. School instruction is more communal, particularly in band, however there are few opportunities for small group instruction for gifted students, nowhere to go for the most gifted students, and few teachers and well funded programs at any rate. Instruction in El Sistema consists of group lessons with opportunities for small group and individual instruction for gifted students. At the same time, every student takes responsibility for their part in the organization, and assists instruction of students at lower skill levels. El Sistema impresses upon its students that their participation is both a privilege and a responsibility. Adapting this organization to work in America will require that El Sistema USA will have to change the culture of music instruction to put a greater responsibility upon its students.
This is why simply providing instruments and instruction will not work, and Jeremy Eichler is right to suggest that simply providing training for administrators will not work either. El Sistema has grown from the vision of a singularly persistent director, however much of the work in growing the organization has been done by the students themselves. After all, the reason why El Sistema has moved to the foreground of arts discussion has been because of the success of Gustavo Dudamel, it’s most famous alumnus. El Sistema USA will only succeed if it can create an equality of access, room for students to grow, and a culture of responsibility in its students that can match Venezuela’s.
The second point that I wanted to make is about the relationship between music education and the future of classical music in this country. Classical music has been coasting on a prestige that is no longer present in this country. Lower, Middle and Upper class families no longer consider it a social status symbol to be familiar with and versed in classical music. That’s kind of OK with me: if something only succeeds because people have been told that it’s important, all it takes is someone to say no to destroy it. On the other hand, if music organizations want their music to continue in the future, they must take greater responsibility for education. Every orchestra should be familiar with the music instruction in their home city, and have programs to supplement it, whether it means offering instruction directly or supplementing the school-orchestra programs with advanced instruction or mentoring (by the way, if regional orchestras are looking for relevance, this might be helpful). Build the audience, and they’ll come.

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