El Sistema: Seeing is believing
I have just visited Venezuela and seen El Sistema in practice, at first hand, for the first time. I have to admit that I went with high expectations and therefore feared that I might be disappointed. Far from it. My highest expectations were exceeded. Does that mean I wasn’t aiming high enough? Definitely not.
I was interested in the process that results in the levels of musical excellence of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra. How do they achieve such high standards of technical mastery? At what cost? And I don’t mean just financial – are there human casualties along the way? Where does the passion and ability to communicate through their music making come from? What happens to those who don’t make it into the top orchestras?
But of course, as anyone associated with El Sistema itself and Sistema inspired programmes around the world will tell you, it is not a music programme. It is a social programme whose objectives are achieved through musical excellence.
This short paper is no more than a brief, personal reflection on my thoughts to date1. As well as wanting to understand how the programme works in Venezuela, I wanted to learn more about how the programme might be adopted and adapted in other parts of the world2
The first thing I found was a remarkable openness and generosity in the Venezuelans. Time was not an issue. Nothing was too much trouble. Questions were answered freely. Discussions were reflective and had intellectual rigour that nonetheless never lost sight of the practical realities and the fundamental purpose of the programme: to enrich lives through music.
Of course, not everyone becomes a member of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra or a professional musician. (Though it partly depends how you define that word). The musicians never forget their roots. Giving back to future generations through teaching is part of what they do – no sense of ‘if you can’t play, teach’! There are equally important roles for technicians, administrators, librarians and instrument makers. Virtually any aspect of a music related career is not only possible, it is thought about, planned and catered for. And yes, there are many who follow careers outside music too, but it is their experiences within El Sistema that enriched their lives and empowered them to move on to careers they would otherwise never even have dreamed of.
Whilst it is the orchestral programme that is probably best known worldwide, the choral programme is equally astounding and well developed with groups having won international accolades for singing too. There is also much more diversity and breadth than some people realise. I saw a rock group; there is a massive folk music programme using authentic instruments underway; as well as percussion groups; big band; jazz and Baroque to name but a few. One of the most moving moments was with young people with Special Needs and Disabilities. It was the best work that I have ever seen and included a beautifully sung Ave Maria, composed by Jose Daniel Coronado, one of the students. So yes, tick the SEND and composing boxes if you are into box ticking!
But this is definitely not about ticking boxes. It is the care for each and every individual, together with the attention to detail, that impressed me most. I repeatedly saw support for the young person, in whatever way he or she needed that support, in order to succeed at whatever was the next challenge. The approach was: what does this child need? How can I help? And if something didn’t work, something else was tried until a solution was found. Similarly, every aspect of the programme has been thoroughly thought through, tried and tested over the years. But that doesn’t mean it has become stagnant. It is dynamic. New ideas and repertoire are constantly considered, but subjected to rigorous evaluation, piloting, development, and quality assurance before being adopted more widely. Sometimes the help of experts elsewhere in the world is sought if the expertise is not available locally. The same level of detail was applied to the construction of the Centro de Acción Social por la Música in Caracas (Centre for Social Action through Music). Rooms are all acoustically treated and built with maximum flexibility in mind; recording and video facilities are available in all rooms and the freight lift has been designed to give access to all floors for any size of instrument.
Access versus excellence? Abreu has never subscribed to this dichotomy. He has pursued both goals with equal zeal and as Maestro Abreu himself said: “Culture for the poor must never be poor culture.” Not only is the programme free to all who participate, even the concerts are free in the Fundacion’s superb concert hall.
So, is El Sistema perfect? Of course not. The Venezuelans are the first to say that they continue to strive to improve still further. One day, they would wish to offer the programme to every child in Venezuela.
Can we learn from El Sistema? Are there aspects of their programme that we can adopt and adapt? Indeed, are there things we can offer in return? I believe the answers to these questions is ‘yes’! Certainly, the best of what I see in England is equal to much of what I saw in the núcleos in Venezuela. But El Sistema gives young people access to the best in a way it is hard to imagine without seeing it at first hand. I might even go as far as saying that some of the things we do in England may be better. But I came away feeling that there is an enormous amount we can learn from El Sistema: placing the welfare of the individual child at the centre; supporting musical success through carefully thought out steps; placing all of this within a nationally coherent structure, the philosophy for which is shared and owned by all engaged in the programme.
After a lifetime of making music and work in music education, I left Venezuela inspired and re-energised. There is much still to learn and some things to offer in return. But I also left with a clear belief that together, we can all make an important difference to lives of young people, their families and communities throughout the world through music.
1For those who wish to learn more I recommend Tricia Tunstall’s Changing Lives; visit YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43tqQhOTCgQhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=276oR_tEmbs and www.ihse.org.uk for some inspiring videos and more detailed reports.
2I am currently Chair of ISME Sistema SIG; involved with Global Sistema, Sistema Europe and a Director/Trustee of In Harmony Sistema England
ISM President-Elect and music education consultant