Not a Sponsor, but a Game Changer …

This blog is based on an article first published in the June 2014 edition of the ‘Ensemble’ Magazine
May 2014 – 786 Words

It was recently announced that Venezuela’s National Electricity Corporation (Corpoelec) will form a new youth orchestra in Caracas under the aegis of El Sistema, with the aim of eventually enrolling up to a thousand children. (Stop for a moment and think about that announcement: it’s nothing short of a revolution in institutional and model development for El Sistema). Not long ago came the news of Maestro Abreu’s plan to extend El Sistema’s work into schools throughout Venezuela. Another big, very big, idea. Meanwhile in Barquisimeto the proposal for one of the world’s greatest architects to build an opera house complements the announcement last year of Milan’s La Scala opera house partnership with El Sistema.

Here are three examples – plucked almost at random from El Sistema’s ever burgeoning and seemingly unstoppable structural and institutional growth – of radical new models to advance the spread of successful Sistema work in Venezuela. After almost 40 years, the unremitting daring pace of structural expansion there remains mind bogglingly ambitious, and whilst such changes take their place alongside highly valued pedagogical and musical developments too numerous to list in a blog of this humble length, they are no less integral to the success of El Sistema. Actually perhaps more integral; a point we can often miss.

Now I could go on at length about the developmental ingenuity of Maestro Abreu’s model development and its critical importance for the growth of El Sistema, but instead of preaching to the possibly converted, here’s my question for today: what is happening in the rest of the El Sistema world that can even begin to compare with the virtuosic depth of long term strategic planning and development of El Sistema in Venezuela?

Answers, I suspect, could be proffered on an extremely small postcard.

The fact is that many people are so justifiably impressed by the methodology and pedagogy of El Sistema, that, in my opinion, they have arguably neglected the radical nature of the model development side. Now don’t get me wrong: there are some great programmes and wonderful teaching approaches out there, and there are also some very impressive institutional initiatives, such as Take a Stand and Salzburg Festival’s recent mass Sistema play-in that brought almost 1500 young Venezuelans to perform in one of the world’s most important music festivals.

But how many of these initiatives are being planned on, say, ten – forty year perspectives in order to provide new engines for institutional development in tomorrow’s world at national or regional level? What does the next President of the US (or the one after that) know about the social problem solving capacity of El Sistema? Who has engaged with the George Soros’s, the Bill Gates’s or the Thomas Piketty’s of this world? In England last year, for example, when Sistema England made a presentation to an invited audience with members of the in Harmony Scheme, the question from the floor from the UK government’s Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, was words to the effect ‘this is all wonderful: have you been in contact with the Ministry of Justice?’

So we have here a philosophy, a methodology, a pedagogy, actually a complete aetiology of positive  social change in a proven program of community cultural activity. (Apologies, proven is a big word that remains arguably short of our current grasp). But is it only Maestro Abreu that we should be relying on to argue the case in front of the World Bank, Davos, G20 and TED people?

My thesis is that to begin to be successful at such a level, at a level where there is significant institutional leverage on big international stages, El SIstema programmes need to be more imaginative and bold in their institutional thinking. And somewhat more outward facing. The laboratory phase of hundreds of varied Sistema organisations worldwide has been great – and continues to be – but it’s essentially a laboratory of pedagogy. What is now needed to lay alongside it is a laboratory of institutional and model development that takes Sistema organisations into daring new partnerships and as yet unimagined alignments.

A couple of examples from Europe: Big Noise in Scotland is hosting an international teachers’ conference in October 2014. How great an opportunity is that for major international tech. companies or inter-governmental organisations to eavesdrop on this gathering? Or the next Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra camp in Istanbul in August. Why not invite major international corporations to come alongside it to see how young Europeans from a dozen countries or more are learning to communicate effectively across major language, social and cultural barriers? Fact: somewhere near you is a company like Corpoelec Venezuela; not a sponsor, but a game changer. Fact: unlocking that change is just a matter of imagination.



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