Before leaving Boston, I held several concepts as essential to the best possible adaptation of el sistema to the United States. After a week in Caracas, many of these have been affirmed.
“Ser, No Ser” (being by not being)
- Dr. Abreu
Never be a finished product. El Sistema is always operating under the assumption that more children can be reached and the quality can improve. There is a great sense flexibility and openness to everything.
“The system itself is a non-system. That’s the essence of it.”
Over the past months, the fellows have been hearing “the secret to el sistema is there is no ‘sistema’!,” which is incredibly difficult to swallow when you are trying to fully understand the system. But, for some time, the meaning of this has become clearer. El Sistema is a set of ideals through which the program is designed. It is not a model and no “manual” can be created. Each community, set of teachers, students and circumstances informs how El Sistema is implemented. The uniqueness of each nucleo is pivotal to its effectiveness within its community. The ideals are essential and found in each nucleo’s structure. El Sistema is also deeply centralized (teacher training and pedagogy are as unified as possible, the nucleos are all linked regionally and to Caracas, etc.) so there are incredible similarities. But, each nucleo has a very distinctive touch.
Ironically then, if El Sistema were in fact systematized, it would no longer function in so many communities around Venezuela. As we adapt El Sistema to the United States, there will not be one “model”: after school, in school, extended day, community center, symphony orchestra partnership, universities, etc., will all have a place. Students in Alaska will need different things than students in Miami. Each nucleo will be distinctive. And yet, each nucleo will be linked with a common set of ideals and a common mission. The centralization of El Sistema in Venezuela is more than unlikely in the United States, but the opportunity to open a dialogue, share best practices and learn from one anther’s unique experiences cannot be missed.
“There may be other artistic programs, but this is a social development program through music.”
The intention with which we create and design our programs is incredibly important. The point is to help children gain an “affluence of spirit,” an understanding of their incredible self-worth and a sense of pride and responsibility with which they can contribute fully and respectfully within their community. If this intent remains genuine and informs every aspect of our program, we cannot fail. It is the core of our work.
“Culture for the poor cannot be poor culture”
Human development is the core of this program– but that cannot be done without the highest quality music program possible. As Dr. Abreu put it, you need the best educators for the poorest children, the highest quality instruments for the poorest children, the most state of the art building for the poorest children. They need quality the most.
“El Sistema is teaching three year olds”
- Frank di Polo
In creating a program for children with the fewest resources and greatest needs, it is essential that a tightly knit safety net is created, following the child from birth through entering college. There are no cracks for the child to fall through, no chance for them to fall behind their advantaged peers. This is how we can achieve social change and human benefit in the most substantial ways.
The students involved in El Sistema from the time they are toddlers until they turn 18 have an incredible network. Not only are they spending hours after school stimulating their minds, developing within their community of friends and becoming amazing artists, they also have several adults consistently there who care about them and monitor their well being over several years. All children need consistent, caring adults in their lives to succeed.
The benefits of starting young are pedagogical, social and developmental. Exposure to music at a young age ensures the child can access all of their innate musical abilities and is essential to their musical development later in life. Children from less advantaged backgrounds are socially and developmentally behind their more advantaged peers as early as preschool (for example, children from less privileged homes know half the vocabulary of their advantaged peers upon entering preschool). The earlier a child is involved, the more benefit they will receive.
“Always keep yourself in the perspective of a musician- you know things inherently a bureaucrat does not. Musicians must run the organization because only a musician knows what another musician needs”
Being a musician is what brought us to this work, and being a musician is what will keep us inspired. If anything, the need to improve my musicianship seems more essential now than ever before. How can I ever expect the children in my program and the teachers I work with to hold themselves to high artistic standards if I do not create that example in myself?
Earlier this week, I wrote how true artistry is characterized by selflessness in the performance. After meeting Dr. Abreu, I realize that this influence in El Sistema comes from a great leader. Dr. Abreu’s artistry does not end with his musicianship- he lives his entire life selflessly, as a true artist. It is apparent in his very presence.