While much of the rest of the East Coast was busy shoveling out from the major snowstorm, twenty Sistema Fellows reunited for a weekend in Boston last month. This was an opportunity for us, all alumni of New England Conservatory’s Sistema Fellows Program, to share our individual experiences since the last reunion with each other, to discuss our professional challenges, and to brainstorm about ideas which the El Sistema-inspired field may wish to further develop in the future.
I noticed that there was more depth and breadth to the discussions since our last reunion in 2014. This was evident in the targeted and nuanced conversations about specific issues, paired with diverse views brought to the table from Fellows whose work has taken them into related or peripheral spheres such as creative place-making, medicine, policy making, and academics.
The following recommendations emerged from a discussion about what may be necessary for programs throughout the El Sistema-inspired field to advance and increase their effectiveness:
Generally speaking, programs need to continue developing a deeper understanding of the community. Some examples include identifying specific issues the community is facing, and understanding the mindsets of the community to ensure the practical details of the program are aligned (e.g. what does the community think about a program made available for free?). Many Fellows agreed that there should be some culturally relevant content in the program, but there was disagreement about the proportion of this content and if classical music should still decidedly be the essence of programming. For me, this was reminiscent of the heated discussions we had during my Fellowship year about the fundamental question of what an El Sistema-inspired program looks like. But perhaps showing the maturity of the field, or that we had already come to terms with what it meant to us individually, the conversation again turned towards how best to further “the work.” This was in line with the tone of the second day of the reunion – an opportunity to be forward looking.
Other Fellows shared their programs’ challenges in finding and retaining manpower. Some programs had to train volunteers who would only be able to commit to the program for a short period of time, which was not an efficient use of staff time. More pressing was the issue of teacher retention. As they were the ones directly creating impactful relationship with the participants, the question raised was how to move teachers away from a gig mindset and to create a long-term arrangement that aligned with their personal goals. This could take the form of understanding an individual teacher’s aspirations, and for the program to have a combination of full and part time positions. Involving more experienced music educators was also suggested. This would present an opportunity for mentorship of the less experienced teachers.
No conversation about the future is complete without addressing the opportunity that technology presents. Fellows talked about technology as a quick and cost-effective way to build connections with programs across the city (or the world!) and for youth to sense that they are part of a larger, even international community. This could be as easy as having ensembles play for each other over Skype. Program administrators would also be able to network and collaborate with peers to minimize the feeling of isolation.
Another opportunity that was raised as being important for the field at this stage is building partners and advocates. Specifically, how can we deepen existing partnerships? What are some pertinent partners that we can develop outside the existing sphere that could become advocates for the field (e.g. health and higher education institutions)? And how can we stretch ourselves to consider unconventional partners (e.g. publishers) that could provide mutually beneficial relationships?
Discussing the El Sistema-inspired field within the context of the larger community-based music education ecosystem of the future challenged the Fellows to think about the impact of the work within a much broader scope. For a young field, the conversations were appropriately centered on how to do better work, and growing the opportunities surrounding the work. However, to ensure sustainability beyond the fledgling stage, programs need to continue looking into executing sound research and evaluation to assess the impacts on participants. Understandably, in the non-profit sector, the perennial challenge is finding sufficient resources even for the execution of the program. From our brief discussion, there seemed to be a deep understanding about the need for research and evaluation to secure funding for programs going forward, but it remains to be seen if sufficient resources are being allocated to ensure that this crucial need is addressed. From our brief time together, this seemed to me to be a pressing issue that must continue to be at the forefront of program leaders’ minds to ensure the sustained growth of the field in the longer term.
Beverly Hiong, Sistema Fellow '14