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.
Elaine Chang Sandoval, Sistema Fellow '13