Flash version here.
I was 14 when I played in a wind ensemble for the first time. Until then, my horn playing had generally been a solitary endeavour, graced infrequently and uneasily by a long-suffering pianist for various festivals or examinations. That first band rehearsal was a frantic mix of anxiety and exhilaration as I wrestled with the sensation of being part of something much larger than myself, simultaneously overwhelmed by the surrounding chaos and desperate to acquit myself tolerably, if not honourably. It didn’t matter that the group and I sounded terrible—and we did. This was a summer workshop, two weeks in a pressure-cooker environment, in which we played for hours every day, rehearsing ambitious programs of music while having the time of our lives.
The ensemble experience was like nothing I’d experienced before. We each had a distinct part to play, literally and metaphorically, yet the diversity of roles was matched by unanimity of purpose and direction. The printed music commanded exactness, and yet its exactness was always tempered by the exigencies of the moment. Primacy as a concept was fluid: leadership was shared as musical prominence passed from one voice to another, and contribution was always offered in the context of collaboration—there was no success for one without success for all. Our achievement was measured only against our potential, with our victory never contingent upon others being vanquished.
The aim of that two-week workshop was simply musical excellence, not social benefit. But when days become weeks, and weeks become months or years, as they do in Venezuela, the two become indistinguishable. In el Sistema, social change comes through the daily communal pursuit of musical excellence, through the discipline of the craft, and the emotional bonds it creates in the context of mutual struggle and accomplishment.
Those are perhaps the most poetic dimensions of its social impact, but el Sistema doesn’t need to rely on abstractions to make a compelling case for its benefits. When Dr. Abreu convened those 11 children 35 years ago, he gave them a choice that they may otherwise never have had: a choice between the streets and strings, drugs and drums, gangs and guitars, violence and violins. The logic, although prosaic, remains simple and universal. If children are at the núcleo (music school) in the hours after school and the end of the workday, they’re not at risk. The fact that their activities are supervised, focused, disciplined, demanding, and rewarding on multiple levels becomes almost a secondary consideration for those who have never experienced them personally.
The prose and the poetry, both vital in sustaining the program over 35 years, stem from the complete reimagining of the role of music in society. That said, the experience of that summer workshop on the Albertan prairie demonstrates that the gulf between here and Venezuela isn’t that wide. It’s more a matter of changing purpose, focus, and frequency than changing practice.
Next time: Inverting the western European pedagogical paradigm