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: "