Want a Sistema? Look to your leaders …

Dudamel security
Maestro Abreu and Dudamel on a recent walkabout in the Teresa Carreño complex in downtown Caracas.

In a recent LA Times article Mark Swed pretty well probes and also skirts around the issue which appears to be on many people’s mind in the music education business at the moment, in whatever country, culture or society they find themselves. And that is, ‘What is the version of El Sistema which will work best here in my country? How can we take El Sistema’s values, and ensure that they get the same traction here as Maestro Abreu did in Venezuela’. Of those that are not asking that question I also hear a lot of talk about Venezuela being different from other cultures and therefore El Sistema probably not being right for them. ‘Why do we need this in our country’ I was recently asked by a UK journalist. The question, I suspect, was not only rhetorical. Others – often those with both the power and the purse strings – say, ‘well perhaps we should wait to see the figures that show it works before beginning one ourselves’.

I hear less about a different – and for me – far more important challenge. Maybe it’s the biggest. Venezuela has Abreu. Everyone knows that without him this world wide movement would never have been born, let alone have remotely flourished in the way that it has. You can see that in the eyes of every Venezuelan young musician. Gustavo Dudamel included. Dudamel has one the greatest conducting careers and reputations in the world, but he never forgets to whom he owes his beginnings, and more. You know what? None of this works without the highest quality committed passionate 8 day a week leadership. Want a Sistema? Start by looking to the quality of your leaders …

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4 thoughts on “Want a Sistema? Look to your leaders …

  1. Lemn Sissay

    Marcus I don’t think I have written to fully articulate how wonderful it was to be around you in my time at Southbank Centre. How your openess invited random moments of affirmation. We didn’t work together on a project but I have always held the belief that a person can tell you more about themselves outside of the meeting structure than in it. So I feel lucky to have had many a short and enjoyable communication with you over three years. It all adds to a long story which continues.

    I agree with your blog. On a related matter yesterday I spoke at a conference for arts practitioners working with young people. It was called Seeing Through On art and resilience with young people at The tate Britain. I began by saying there is some terminology I wished us to think on. The first is the assumption that we who work in the art are “giving young people a voice”. I have realised how fundamentally wrong this is. They already have a voice and they use it everyday. By saying we are giving them a voice we are assuming they do not have one in the first place. Words matter.

    If we move those easy expressions aside other conclusions that ask more of us than of them come to light. I want us to assume that young people (especially those who are ill resourced) are “Opportunities for excellence”. If we think of them in such a way then El Sistema’s will rise all over the world like orchids (Cattleya mossiae) from fertile ground. Otherwise it’s a project more relevant for the next funding application than it is for the young person. maybe. All the best Lemn

  2. Marshall Marcus Post author

    Lemn, thank you so much for these comments. I think the main reason that my (apparent) openness invited random moments of affirmation from you was because I was simply reflecting your own openness, which has always seemed so palpable. You are like an explorer of ideas and feelings, and the ways we use words to write and talk about them. And you clearly relish the margins where not everyone wishes to go.

    I do agree about what you say about the voice of young people (or anyone else’s voice come to that). It is of course not ours to give, and there is a real whiff of paternalism about such an idea. It pervades further with the constructed idea that we are either the teacher or the pupil. The truth is, surely, that everyone is both, a teacher and a learner, something that is inherently recognised in Abreu’s Sistema with the way it encourages players of all ages to be both. Instead I think of it in terms of brakes; we all have brakes that stop us from achieving something, whether dreams or realities. Sometimes we need help from others in order that we can take off our own brakes off and sometimes we can do it on our own. But if others do it for us we often have to go back to re-collect that learning. Words indeed matter. Thanks for the gentle reminder to make sure I don’t lapse into that paternalism through unthinking use of language.

    The great news is that El Sistema is in fact rising like an ocean of orchids (how apposite your use of ‘orchids’ is; Venezuela is home to one of the greatest collections of these complex flowers in the world). With around 400,000 children and young people currently involved in Venezuela, Sistemas in around 25 countries in 5 continents and projects growing by the day, it is happening. (Not to mention the Sistema project in Baltimore named Orchkids).

    Now what would the Latin be for ‘like orchids arising from fertile ground in every corner of the world?

    all the best
    Marshall

  3. lemnsissay

    I’m sometimes not as good at saying what I feel in a sentence other than in poetry.. I can lose specifity at the end of a well presented few paragraphs. This can encourage to a wrong impression of what I meant to say. A sentence is a wonderous thing and a most difficult thing . WHat I meant to say in context with your blog post and my reply is that there are many who believe they are “giving a voice” through arts education (some great people) and there are those who encourage the artist within the man or woman boy or girl. I think El Sestima is clearly the latter…. I think I am simply rambling now so shall sign off for the night. All the best. Lemn

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