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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 5

The Science of el Sistema

by Jonathan Govias / February 4, 2011

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El Sistema is a beautiful idea, easy to speak of and describe in purely emotional terms. Journalists frequently rhapsodize about the visceral, tear-inducing performances of the orchestras without delving too deeply into the factors that brought the musicians there in the first place. Yet the emotional response in this case is highly significant; el Sistema is a concept that resonates in a primal way with the experiences of every person who has been involved in some form of ensemble music making, regardless of scale or prestige. Although el Sistema has not yet been subject to significant scholarly inquiry, those same resonances have been the object of very serious thought and examination. In other words, the way el Sistema seems to speak to so many people offers a window into a greater degree of scientific understanding.

el Sistema is built upon five fundamental principles:

»The program objective is social change through the pursuit of musical excellence, not musical excellence as an end unto itself.

»The focus is on the ensemble, not the individual.

»There is frequent contact between the program and the participant.

»There are no barriers in terms of fees or proficiency for program entry.

»Activity is aligned in regional or even national networks to allow more opportunities for participants

The first principle is the conceptual lynchpin from which the remainder unfolds, and in many ways, it’s also the most intuitively logical. In a performance, there are relationships created between performers and audiences, naturally, but also between performers and performers, and audience members and audience members, by virtue of the shared experiences. Music is inherently a social activity, and as such it has social impact, a phenomenon most eloquently articulated by sociologist Christopher Small. This idea carries over into the second and third principles, which together stress the importance of meeting often as a group. The concept of individuals working closely together, observing and emulating more advanced colleagues, is an extension of social learning theory as originally advanced by psychologist Julian Rotter, among others. Rotter’s work also reappears in the fifth principle. The empowerment that the national network gives students, placing their fate into their own hands, reflects the ideas of locus of control and self-efficacy, the latter as defined by Albert Bandura. The network itself, offering participants the right mix of challenge and comfort, is a structural facilitator of what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as Flow.

To call this thumbnail sketch of the science behind el Sistema “the tip of the iceberg” is to do a great disservice to the iceberg, when this line of inquiry could fill several books. Regardless, the program’s connections to contemporary sociological, psychological and educational thought in no way diminishes the vision and innovation displayed in the creation of an entity of such scale and scope. It makes the achievement all the more remarkable—and credible.

Jonathan Govias is a conductor, consultant and educator for el Sistema programs on four continents. For more resources on el Sistema please visit www.jonathangovias.com

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