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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 1 September 2010

Sistematic Explorations

by Jonathan Govias / September 1, 2010

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The following is the first in a 10-part series on key concepts and elements from the Venezuelan national music program known as El Sistema, and the program’s implications for both music education and the performing arts within Canada and beyond. Questions or suggestions for future installments can be submitted via the website below.

In drafting a recent article on El Sistema, I described its founder José Antonio Abreu as an amateur musician. When I submitted the version to the International Affairs office of the program’s administration in Venezuela for fact checking, the rebuke was both swift and sharp: “Don’t you ever call him amateur!” was the admonishment, followed by a lengthy list of Maestro Abreu’s professional activities before he founded the Venezuelan national music program 35 years ago.

As a member of the inaugural class of Abreu Fellows at the New England Conservatory, I’d spent the last year studying the program in depth and had just concluded my third visit to Venezuela to teach and conduct there. El Sistema is certainly well publicized, as the countless online videos and press articles on its most famous product, Gustavo Dudamel, will testify, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s well understood. The misinterpretations or misunderstandings go much further than my faux pas: at a recent audition with a major American orchestra, which must remain nameless, the music director in the interview asked me about El Sistema. A senior member of the administration on the panel immediately interjected, summarily dismissing it as “a socialist tool of the current government to indoctrinate their youth.”

Given that El Sistema has survived six (eight, if you count interim) administrations over 35 years, it’s hard to justify that description. It’s true that El Sistema is government-funded and it’s true that it has social aims, but that’s as far as the idea of socialism goes. Like any educational program, its objective is to provide its participants with both experiences and tools to better their lives and contribute positively to society as a whole. The experiences happen to be musical—orchestral or choral, to be precise—and the tools are instruments and printed scores.

 The Venezuelan national music education program, known familiarly as El Sistema, brings youth together after school to make music. They rehearse daily, sometimes even on weekends, and perform monthly, if not more frequently, with repertoire drawn from western classical traditions. There is no cost to the participants, and no entry audition for access to the program, with places assigned on a first-come first-served basis. There are no standardized methods or curricula.

The last is vexing to the North American mindset, not in the least because the common name of the program translates as “The System”, begging the question “What is the system to El Sistema?” The name is a contraction of a long government-mandated title that translates literally as “The Foundation for the National System of Youth Orchestras and Choirs in Venezuela,“ also known as “Fesnojiv” (FESS-no-heev). There is a system: it’s the network connecting all the ensembles and related activities within the 300-plus music schools, known as núcleos, and the 300,000-plus participating youth across the entire nation.

There’s another, less obvious, system too: a system of values that guides the activities without directing them specifically. The fundamental principles of El Sistema are the closest to universal qualities in a markedly diverse, decentralized organization, and they stem without exception from the idea of music as an agent of social change. Focus on the ensembles, frequency of rehearsals and program accessibility and non-selectivity are all offshoots of the idea that music education has power and value beyond the intrinsic. They are ideas worth exploring independently, because as beautiful and inspiring as Internet videos are, they are simply the effect, not the cause, the product and not the process.

» Next time: music as an agent of social change.

Jonathan Govias is a conductor, consultant and educator for El Sistema programs worldwide. For more information on his activities and resources on El Sistema, please visit www.jonathangovias.com

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