Being from Minnesota, also known as “the land of 10,000 choirs” – and taking to heart Dr. Abreu’s advice to “do what I know best” – I knew I had to start a Sistema-inspired choral program in my home state after graduation. After two months of extensive community mapping, I partnered with a charter school, the local music conservatory, the public schools, and the Promise Neighborhood, and ComMUSICation was founded – a program about community, music, and education that uses music as the language to communicate.
Our mission is to empower all youth with life-long skills through musicking and building community. This involves a great deal of time, dedication, rigor, frequent community performances, an ensemble focus, and it’s made accessible to all youth in the community...
It’s been over two weeks now since I returned from attending the International Society for Music Education (ISME) Conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil (July 20-25), but it’s taken that long, and the juxtaposition of ongoing work and presenting at another conference, to fully process a wonderful experience in the ISME El Sistema Special Interest Group (SIG).
Sponsored as the inaugural recipient of the ISME Steve Dillon World Conference Award for early career academics working in music and social justice, I am very grateful for the opportunity to have made two presentations on my work. In the first, “El Sistema USA: Evolutions and Emergences,” I was able to speak on a panel of international colleagues, examining the structural development and iterations of national networking of El Sistema programs.
We’ve had a thoroughly complicated time in the US settling on an appropriate model for maintaining a network and sharing resources, but the interviews and archival research I did for this presentation left me feeling optimistic that we have learned greatly from this experience and are moving forward. I emphasized the importance of always returning to and aligning with the intersection of needs and resources (thank you, Erik Holmgren), and ISME colleagues shared that they found my presentation “brave” for its candor.
Ensuing conversations throughout the week demonstrated my colleagues’ hopes that they would take our US experiences back to their own countries to start out a bit further ahead on the path of building national infrastructure.
I also enjoyed presenting on a panel questioning the role and potentialities of El Sistema programs in indigenous communities. The ongoing globalization of our El Sistema movement (including in indigenous communities) begs us to examine ourselves with a postcolonial lens; I critiqued the current rhetoric and practices we use in the El Sistema movement, problematizing them as embodying colonial tendencies which run contrary to our fundamental goal of social justice. As I have argued elsewhere, social justice is nothing without cultural justice, and in our music practices and curriculums, we must represent the cultures of our local communities. I posited and unpacked a cosmopolitan music education as a direction to be considered in El Sistema-inspired programming.
My colleagues in this symposium, Ros Giffney and Joe Harrop from Sistema Aotearoa in New Zealand, complemented such ideas in a brilliant presentation of on-the-ground work happening in their program.
The thought which has stuck most in my mind is one of Geoff Baker’s conclusions: that in the El Sistema-inspired movement, we have moved from a drive to imitate El Sistema, to considering adopting or adapting it (indeed, one of the major questions of the El Sistema SIG two years at ISME in Thessaloniki), to labeling ourselves as “inspired,” and now to critiquing it (see Geoff’s reflections on ISME, including his delineation of this point, here) Should my research one day connect with praxis in a program, I would indeed position it as a program constructed through the critique of El Sistema.
More recently, I was at another conference, and upon introducing myself as working with the El Sistema movement, a new colleague essentially asked: “Haven’t you heard the criticisms of El Sistema? Why are you still working with them?” Actually, I believe that I can continue to be critical of the movement while identifying my work as inspired by it – to an extent. It holds true that I am inspired by a philosophy of pursuing social justice through music education, by an understanding of the music ensemble (or many different ensembles together) as being a potent mechanism for such work, and by such music education programs accessible on a large scale.
I might find fault with manifestations of the work thus far, and I will point out the flaws, contradictions, and shortcomings. But I do this in the hopes that creating such a liminal space will give rise to the construction of something better.
These conferences, as opportunities for hearing new ideas, for candidly sharing and dialoguing, for getting a face-to-face understanding of colleagues’ intentions, and for getting support from a likeminded network, are crucial to the growth of our movement. I increasingly view the El Sistema SIG as one of our few current spaces for deep questioning, considering alternative narratives and truths, and bridging with work in related fields (community music, music and social justice, music education and sociology).
In the Freirean sense that true reflection manifests in action, such research spaces will lead to better praxis. With that, I invite and encourage our movement to consider attending the next ISME conference, joining me in 2016 in Glasgow.
For other reflections on the 2014 El Sistema SIG at ISME, do check out Jonathan Govias’ two entries, here and here, and the entirety of Geoff Baker’s post.
 I regret never having met Steve Dillon, but receiving this award led me to seek out his work, and I link here to an essay by Barton and Hartwig (2012) which commemorates his philosophy.
I was interested in the progression of the students through the different levels of the orchestra. My own experience has involved a more rigid system - we think more of progress on the scale of the individual e.g. this musician has reached a certain technical level and is ready to audition for the next orchestra up. Instead, in many nucleos they follow the progress of the group of children and make the call as to whether the group is ready to tackle more advanced repertoire, thus keeping the community of students together as much as possible. They simply change the title of the orchestra from Children to Youth.
It seems that the change in repertoire tackled is the most defining element of the identity of the new orchestra, for example the children know that if they are starting to learn Tchaikovsky's 4th and Shostakovich's 10th symphonies that they are at the next level. There are auditions as well, for the players at the first stand for example. They evaluate the players every week and change the section leaders every six months. There were auditions for the chance to go to Salzburg and for orchestras in Caracas. Many students were preparing for auditions when we were there - an El Sistema favourite, the 4th movement of Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony was chosen as audition material, a piece of popular shared repertoire that everyone wants to participate in.
The August edition of Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth's publication chronicling the emerging field of El Sistema-inspired activity in the US and beyond, and featuring an essay by Katie Wyatt (Sistema Fellow '10) on her observations of El Sistema in the United Kingdom, is found here.
The first day of my much-anticipated return to Acarigua, I stopped to chat with the núcleo director, Roberto Zambrano, while the orchestra was on break. He was on the phone, in full crisis-prevention mode.... It isn’t a real Venezuelan seminario without some kind of crisis, and once again fate had delivered in spades. There had been doubts, not just about the venue but the country itself. Some of the international faculty had bizarrely cancelled at the eleventh hour citing security concerns, despite the fact that Venezuela as a nation was at its most calm since the start of the unrest in January. But if the annual theme of the seminario, if not Sistema, if not the country, had previously been “Tocar y luchar,” this year a simple postscript could rightly have been added: “La vida continua.”