Sunday, October 17, 2010

What is El Sistema?

During professional development training sessions hosted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Education, we were once posed the question, "Why do we teach classical music to our youth? What do they take away from the experience?" Although there were many great answers that arose out of this discussion, two specifically stuck out in my mind (bear in mind this my understanding of the discussion, i.e., not explicit statements held by the LA Philharmonic Education office):
1. We are trying to provide students with the cognitive and verbal ability to decipher audible information that is incredibly complex.
2. There are many "correct" answers, and it is not possible to fully verbalize what art is encompassing, e.g., "a picture contains a thousand words"
If these two statements are combined, we were essentially saying, "We are trying to develop cognitive and verbal skills to understand and describe something that will never be fully described or understood." Despite the fact that these two ideas seem to be conflicting, we cannot ignore the profound cognitive development that occurs when we literally try to achieve the impossible. This understanding-the-incomprehensible paradox becomes incredibly apparent when discussions occur about El Sistema: We can break down some of the elements of this program, but will find it nearly impossible to fully encompass everything this program accomplishes. Nevertheless, I will present my current understanding of what El Sistema is, with an addendum that my understanding is apt to change with time.

Jose Antonio Abreu has created a program that focuses on social change, i.e., community empowerment. Dr. Abreu has openly acknowledged that ANY after school program could transform a community, especially given the state of Caracas in 1975. However, El Sistema is unique from most programs we know because it implements an orchestra, as opposed to individual lessons/individual tutoring/team sports, to elicit this change. The reasoning for using an orchestra becomes very clear if you consider Dr. Abreu's description of an orchestra: "An orchestra is a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement." He is literally transforming a community by creating a orchestral community. Now many this is where many team sport advocates may digress, because surely that's what a sports team does as well. This is true. However, sports teams are in direct contention with other competitors, whereupon there will ultimately be a trying time for the morale of a losing team. This concept Dr. Abreu presents is an orchestra whose success is based purely off whether or not it is agreeing internally. The ultimate result is the transformation of the participant's self-confidence, the shared pride of families and friends, and an entire community that has come together to celebrate the success of this orchestra.

This core value of social transformation and community empowerment is exemplified by each nucleo engaging a broad range of participants, and achieving a high level of performance. These nucleos are all-inclusive, maintaining participants from every socioeconomic background (primarily less affluent), physically able or physically disabled, and even people who have criminal records. Once again, this in and of itself is not what drives the community empowerment. The orchestra, striving to agree with itself, brings these participants together to form a harmonious community that rehearses and performs at a very high level, which empowers a community by celebrating success. Truthfully, this concept could be applied to any "normal" population as well, BUT there wouldn't have been a dramatic shift in the community dynamics. El Sistema takes the fringes of societal norms and brings them into the societal norm.

This community transformation clearly happens on the local level, but is simultaneously being catalyzed by connecting with other nucleos on a national scale. Any child that has opportunity to be connected with a national, highly publicized, highly celebrated movement will inarguable be elevated to higher levels of potential; let alone a poor deaf/physically disabled/incarcerated individual.

Emma Lazarus's sonnet, New Colossus, once embodied the American dream with the phrase, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me." This American dream represented by the Statue of Liberty is being fully embodied by the El Sistema program Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu has sustained for the last 35 years.

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