This column in the Guardian today has jolted me into writing about the phenomenon of El Sistema, the Venezuelan initiative that uses the personal discipline and collective commitment of orchestra-playing to raise the ambitions of impoverished kids. Here's a summary of their approach taken from the website of the forthcoming documentary movie. It refers to the educational methods of El Sistema's founder, the deeply charismatic
According to [Abreu's] approach, musical perfection is not the first priority; instead, from the first day on, what’s important is being able to play together with others. The children are integrated into orchestras from the very beginning, and the older children pass their knowledge down to the younger ones. Abreu’s intention and philosophy is concealed behind this simple concept: for him an orchestra is first and foremost about togetherness, a place where children learn to listen to each other and to respect one another. The purpose of the work is the integration of the children into a united social structure, in which each individual assumes responsibility and contributes to a commonly achieved result.
Charlotte Higgins' column is trying to say that the British system of youth orchestras could borrow from Abreu's communitarian idealism (indeed there's two initiatives abroad already, in Scotland and England). But I'm intrigued by some of the comments to Higgins' piece, which confirm some of my anxieties about the transferrabilty of El Sistema.
I'm completely for the union of play and craft. But shouldn't we also validate those who make elaborate journeys into sound through pop music - who use, calibrate and master their synths, samplers, turntables and software? I wonder also whether El Sistema's slogan - tocar y luchar, to play and to fight - derives its particular edge from the passion of those in the impoverished South to fight for the right to claim ownership of the European classical tradition. (And whether it's this that ensures such adulation from the likes of TED, the developed North's elite at its most expansively inclusive, as Jaron Lanier has written).
I don't doubt for a second the positive impact that such a journey into mastery (and self-mastery) has had on the hundreds of thousands of kids that have gone through Abreu's youth orchestras: this commentor on the Guardian article confirms how magical the experience is, deep in the heart of the barrios. And I support the initiative in the UK of stern musical modernists like my countryman, James Macmillan, to make the encounter with orchestral music as ubiquitous as possible in contemporary schools.
I've also worked with too many jazz musicians in my life - some attendees of schools like Berklee and the Guild Hall, some just obsessive practicers and fingerers - who are entirely committed to their technique, and its progress. Artistic excellence I'm not opposed to.
But I think the lesson to be drawn from El Sistema is that we should seek to build 'systems' of social action, that can extend the collective and individual joys of cultural mastery. I just think we should be open-eyed and eclectic about where we establish those systems.
For example: Shouldn't the compulsive gamer from the wrong side of the tracks who might want to be a compulsive games-maker also be able to find a supportive environment like Abreu's orchestras? An environment based on respect for collaborators, adherence to excellence, the transmission of knowledge down the generations? And the same for the fashion designer, the chef, the poster-maker, the social-network builder... I've always been struck by the way that hackers and free software advocates evolved a "hacker ethic" - excellence-meets-mutual-support - around their constructions, which seems as 'classically orchestral' as Abreu's vision.
In short, let's praise El Sistema for its tactics and philosophy, but not necessarily for its content - and particularly not the idea that its content implies the philosophy, imputing some kind of higher improving power to the European classical tradition. (And again, to be clear: one of my biggest buzzes in life is to listen to a live classical orchestra - I'm not being inversely snobbish here). Abreu has said:
Originally art was made by a minority for a minority. Then it became art by a minority for the majority, and now we are at the beginning of a new era, where art is intended by the majority for the majority.
Bravo, maestro... as long as we are suitably flexible about what kinds of elaborated cultural practices count as "art".