Go Figure: another Sistema No Brainer PART 2

April 2013, 412 words

Last November I wrote about what I saw as one of THE new big issues of note in Sistema land: the question of research and evaluation. Since then SERA (the Sistema Evaluation & Research Archive) membership has gone to beyond 60 people from about 15 countries and 4 continents, and grows weekly. And seemingly dozens of people are engaged in new research studies regarding El Sistema. Don’t get me wrong, it will be a while – I’m talking years – before most of these studies shows significant results. And we are going to have to be careful and rigorous in making sure that such research and evaluation is objective and suitably peer reviewed (and not simply a series of attempted justifications) of what Sistema work is really achieving or not achieving. Nevertheless things have moved on significantly during the last year.

In one way all of this is what you might call ‘small beer’. Because  what we lacked up to now, is a plain audit of what is out there. Knowing from a simple catalogued listing,  who has been, and is doing, research. Well it seems that that is all about to change following the very recent release from Sistema Global. Ladies and gentlemen, here is a copy of the announcement. It seems that there is a new player in the field …

Sistema Global  is delighted to announce that it has commissioned a Literature Review of Projects Inspired by El Sistema. An international team of music education researchers led by Dr Andrea Creech, of the Institute of Education, University of London. Together with colleagues from McGill University in Canada and the Autonomous University of Chihuahua in Mexico, the IOE researchers will be reviewing the many academic journal articles, evaluation reports, dissertations and policy documents that have been produced on Sistema programmes outside Venezuela in recent years. The Review is expected to be available in early July. For further information or to contribute to the research contact Andrea Creech. “

Now that, is what I call progress. Thank you Sistema Global, the Institute of Education, London University, and Dr.Andrea Creech and her team.  We look forward to a research base line. Then we can really move on to identifying the areas of research provision that are lacking. As for that killer piece of research I mentioned last November, well the game is still open on that one. Small steps maybe, but as they say … small steps are better than small beer.

Voice, Power and the Fruits of Difference

Opening the Great Doors of Diversity

I’ve just been in Detroit for three days attending Sphinx’s inaugural convocation about diversity in the performing arts. It was an impressive and imposing rolling structure of creative planning: One lecture space. One networking room. One theme. One inspiring memorial lecture (Jawole Willa Jo Zollar receiving the Arthur L. Johnson award.). And 31 speakers with 15 minutes each on their chosen subject leading out of the theme empowering diversity in the performing arts. Few questions, no break outs, no multiple sessions, no trying to curate a joined up narrative. Brave stuff. And in the end the ‘con’ in Sphinxcon turned out not to be the dreaded conference, or even a convening, but a ‘conversation’, people simply listening to each other talk about diversity. Next time – and I’m sure there will be a next time – it will be different, but this was at least a heady beginning for lots of people who have been battling both severally and separately in the diversity wilderness for many, many years.

So how was it?

Well there was a wondrous pot-pouri feel about it. From Horst Abraham talking about leadership in turbulent times, to Shirley Stancato on dealing with race, Farai Chideya on the global and historical context of diversity, David DiChiera a treasure of a storyteller, María Rosario Jackson on cultural kitchens, Ken Fischer being very successfully practical, and the greatest solo spoken word dance narrative I’ve ever witnessed (Maria Bauman of Urban Bush Women). There was generosity, there was whimsy, and and a sort of home spun mid Western laid back amiability in spades.

And what did I learn? Well it was three days of reminders: I was reminded that Aaron Dworkin is not only a charismatic leader and a great speaker, he is even cleverer than you might have thought before. His last words were the key ones: ‘this may only be the beginning of the conversation, but the conversation has no sense unless it is translated into action’. And to be more precise, he quoted Picasso: “Action is the foundational key to all success”. As for the reminders, near the top of the list were a series of easily forgotten truisms; that prejudice is born of ignorance, that diversity begins with knowing who you are (thank you Delroy Lindo), that in order to persuade people you must first listen, and that – here is perhaps the most interesting  – if only the lots of people doing good in their own projects could come together, then the quiet getting on with it ‘doing’ majority could change the world in quite a small period of time. As it is however the chips suggest that we are definitely in it for the long haul.

Another gain it gave me was the catalyst to deconstruct the word. Otherwise ‘diversity’ can sit down on us a little too squately and heavily as if trained by one of Larkin’s Toads. On the one hand there is ‘power’: the need to redistribute resources, money, platforms and opportunities from the ugly indefensible unjust excesses and over concentrations of power present in the status quo. Then there is ‘voice’, something which all the contributors of color seem to have a powerful handle on (and particularly the idea that they really know and value who they are) rather than the personas and amnesia of self that those who make it over the money parapet often seem to fall prey to. There is also plenty to talk about here regarding fear: fear of difference, fear of giving a platform to people who come from different traditions, fear of the unknown if we are to let in diverse rather than known entities, whatever it is that we do. So  in all of this, difference therefore emerges as not only a personal positive and a group challenge, but a simple brute necessity. Boredom and unknowingness are the probable alternatives.

But really the most important potential gains in sight are the cornucopic and seemingly infinite fruits of difference on offer – a matter I did not have time to riff on in my 15 minute presentation in Detroit on the lessons for diversity in the recent globalisation of El Sistema – if we have the courage and commitment to really open the doors to diversity. As a journeyman in the world of El Sistema in the last few years, this, if nothing else, has struck me time and time again. And now back in Europe as CEO of the European Union Youth Orchestra (an orchestra of young players currently auditioned from 28 countries) I am only just beginning to see some new opportunities and challenges of working with diversity.

I am buoyed up however by the experience of the last 18 months, in which I have had the luxury to be able to watch, teach and listen to diverse groups of young musicians from about 18 countries in 4 continents in dozens of projects, together showing me exactly what that diversity gives us in practice when it flows untamped into the concert hall. Whether I have been in New York or Tbilisi, Caracas or Stirling, Salvador Bahia or Stockholm, Los Angeles or Moldova, or now Detroit with the Sphinx orchestra, the absolute raw driving energy that is humanity at its very best has been almost continually on show to remind me that when race, gender, poverty and class are not allowed in as restraints on trade or creativity, humanity has seemingly limitless and inspirational achievements as its trophies. And the alternative – allowing those doors to close shut – means only one thing: a new Dark Age. You know your duty.

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Postscript: below you can find a link to the presentation El Sistema: Lessons in Diversity & Globalisation given in Detroit Michigan, USA on Saturday 16 February 2013 as part of Sphinx’s Inaugural Convening on Diversity in the Performing Arts plus a couple of photos of suggested Characteristics and Program for a Diversity Network made by the conference delegates during the talk on El Sistema.

Sphinx Presentation Marshall Marcus Feb 13

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Go Figure: another Sistema No Brainer

November 2012 – 1223 words

Something is stirring in Sistema land. In the last few months an idea that has spent much of its life lurking in the depths has begun to acquire air and a new level of articulation. It’s not yet sweeping through the international Sistema community; there are no major bush fires or storms with names in their wake just yet, but by my reckoning there soon will be. And in my opinion it’s going to be a key – as well as a very big – challenge for just about every Sistema programme out there. Period.

Evaluation and Research is the name of this new game. It comes at Sistema projects from a number of directions. Many, though not all, programmes have had to do some evaluation as a matter of course when starting up or carrying on, even if only of the most basic kind. In places like Europe and the US it’s part of the background hum to a project, a constant riff that always needs attending to but can never be finally quite satisfied. Want to be sustainable? Then you’d better have some cast iron figures to show why your patrons, donors, sponsors, friends, trusts, local council or national government should keep on giving, and why your journalists, writers and broadcasters should keep on telling the story as something really positive. (Of course I appear to be making a big assumption here: I seem to be assuming that the figures will show good news. That, of course, may or may not be the case, and you won’t find that out until you have those figures).

Looked at like this, the question about evaluation and research seems pretty clear. But it’s not long before a profusion of questions arise from every side: what measures should you be using? Is it about musical attainment, social development or both? Cognitive function or social behaviour? How do you calculate value on SRI measures? Should positives (future employment) as well as absence of negatives (lower unemployment) be factored in. Should you be doing it yourself or getting outsiders in? What percentage of your precious turnover is worth it for hard facts? Are you talking about evaluation, research or both? Can you trust the evidence of already published studies? Where are the control groups? Are you prepared to wait a decade or so for really trustworthy figures? Have you measured drop out rates? Ambitious or prudent? Longitudinal? Quantitative or qualitative? Did you do base line measures before you began? And that’s before you get to any of the complicated stuff. Help!

Back in January 2012 I was sitting in an evaluation class at the LA Phil’s Take a Stand conference, and getting, well, bored. The Arts Council in England, knowing that I would anyway be in LA, asked me to have a look at what the session would throw up. Keep it simple, was the adamant proposal from the session. You have enough to worry about without getting a PhD in data methodology, and anyway it would take years to get sophisticated numbers. A few simple quantitative measures are much better.

Well I didn’t buy any of that, and I still don’t.

Of course viewed from Caracas, where I recently landed, there’s historically been a different approach. El Sistema grew here with a different sense of what it means to persuade. And anyway if you can show that it works, really show, do you also need to prove that it works? And what if you’re in Yerevan or Kinshasa or Ramallah or Stockholm? What is ‘showing’ in these cultures? What is proving?

The easiest thing is to forget the whole dance and get on with what got you started in the beginning: making great music with children and improving lives in the process, not staring at numeric pictures that merely represent the hopefully successful results of such activity.

I sympathise. But let me tell you: some new solutions are forming. And the nice thing is that that some of these new solutions are mirroring the way children learn about music in El Sistema; by doing it together. There’s a kind of quiet madness about everyone trying to solve this evaluation problem on their own. Yes, of course there are some different needs and there are different cultures and many different ways of working with evaluation or research, but there are far more common needs. Why not let’s share answers to those common needs. So Glenn Thomas’s Sistema Global has just started a sub group called, appropriately, Sistema Research. To begin with Glenn, Teaching artist Eric Booth, UK music educationalist Richard Hallam, and I started throwing a few ideas around. But I really became impressed when I saw the number of people chiming in. An initial thread passed 60 contributions, including Marilyn Price-Mitchell (US), Ken MacLeod (Canada), Joy Bechtler (US), Keane Southard (US but with increasing knowledge of Brazil) Tricia Tunstall (US) Geoff Baker (UK) and Sara Zanussi (US). (Hmn; did I say global?)

As a companion initiative I’ve started a Google Drive folder: SERA, ‘Sistema Evaluation and Research Archive’. (You can find that through this blog at http://wp.me/Pohgn-g4 or via an information page on the main menu El Sistema drop down tab). There you can place research work and see what others are placing there. It’s new and early days. Gradually a conversation will form around these sites and a new international approach to evaluating El Sistema will arise, which will not be quite so North American and UK centred. And I dare say more sophisticated ways of talking about it together will emerge.

Some of the questions are practically screaming at me. For someone there’s a career to be made by grabbing hold of this question: how to best audit what is around in a way that helps everyone in the field. There’s another field of glory for whoever can develop a small set of templates that cover a big enough range of different evaluation needs, so that evaluation can be approached with flexibility but enough consonance that results around the world can be compared. And whilst we are about it we could also do with a nice suite of evaluation tools (thank you for that one Eric).But ultimate glory awaits whoever can find the killer research project that really unites what many Sistema practitioners around the world are doing.

Now you can argue about whether El Sistema in Venezuela is a programme, a system, a network, a franchise, or another fancier word that explains it all in a few connected syllables. But internationally it’s already clear how we are going about solving El Sistema challenges: share, open source, look, learn, discuss, explore, communicate, try and report: these are the buzz words. And when it come to growing a methodology of evaluation and research that will work from LA to Kampala it’s very clear: the network is king. That is the really valuable thing I have learnt this year from international Sistema work. And not only is the network free, but it also lacks centralised control, as Glenn, Eric, Richard and I know only too well. We can start what we want, but the network will decide where it goes. A no brainer if ever I saw one.

Sistema Global Research sub group available via the Sistema Global LinkedIn Site

SERA
Sistema Evaluation and Research Archive information at: http://wp.me/Pohgn-g4

Seizing the moment for Africa

October 2012 – 541 words

The moment for action has arrived. Or rather for more action. With the successful entry of 22 projects in 18 countries into Sistema Europe throughout the first half of 2012, it is now time for another – and arguably much larger – challenge.  That challenge is Africa.  The method for meeting it will be the values, programmes and methodology of El Sistema, and the device for achieving it will be a new organization that launches today, Sistema Africa.

Over the last few years I have listened slowly but surely to a small but growing number of voices from around the continent – from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean to the heart of Africa and beyond – exploring ways to establish Sistema work in a substantial, effective, sustainable manner. During the last year virtual conversations have taken me to Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, and beyond. There is a thirst, and a tremendous sense of desire to make something positive happen, and build sustainable help for young people through the vehicle of  music. Of course much is already going on, and there are many people who have been fighting the battle for some time. One of the challenges – as in Europe – will be to see how the wonderful pattern of activity that already exists will come together with any new or continuing Sistema projects. And as with Sistema Europe the stress will be on being an organisation that brings people together, assists the spread of good ideas and practice, and is generally helpful in an open non territorial welcoming manner.

As the first stage in assisting that process, I am working with Gabriel Prokofiev, who is already well known in Europe for his radical new classical music projects and who very successfully worked in Caracas with the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in February 2012. Gabriel is now looking at establishing Sistema work in Congo-Brazzaville where he has been recently, and will be returning. He and I have founded Sistema Africa to bring together the already existing and ongoing Sistema ongoing projects as well as any inspirational leaders who want to begin their own Sistema journey.

Initially Sistema Africa will exist simply as a Facebook Page – see https://www.facebook.com/SistemaAfrica for where this currently exists –  in order to become a friend, announce any work that you are doing, and network with your contacts to spread the word. I am sure that initiatives like Glen Thomas’ Sistema Global will also help the process. My gut feeling is that unlike in other places in the world where El Sistema is developing, the first priority will be to establish a linked conversation by people who share values, practice and common challenges. Linking together will I am sure be the number one priority. Later on the form of Sistema Africa will develop in ways that we can probably not imagine just now, but will be described by the journey it happens to take. As the Venezuelans say, the planning is the doing. At some point it will need to be a place where money can be raised and lobbying achieved. Let’s see where this takes us. For now welcome to anyone who wants to join this new bold audacious initiative, to anyone who wants to seize the moment for Africa.

New kid on the Sistema block

October 2012 – 765 words

My last blog focused on the view that 2012 will come to be seen as a watershed year for the internationalisation of El Sistema. If true, that will no doubt be due in part to the goings on of a new kid on the Sistema block, Sistema Europe. Sistema Europe was formed a few months ago in February 2012 at the LA Take a Stand conference (thank you LA Phil and the US Sistemas for your catalysing influence). Growing from a single thought, it became, at its meeting last week in Vienna, a really Pan European project. And such is the speed of it all that the website does not yet probably tell you what I can: that Armenia, Austria, Bosnia, The Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey are member countries with some 22 Sistemas delivering Sistema inspired practice to around 10,000 children and young people. And by next week it will have grown further.

Some of the members at last week’s Sistema Europe meeting, including guests Bruno Campo, Director of the Gautemalan Sistema, and Florian Wiegand of the Salzburg Festival.

What’s fascinating is the different form that the work is taking in all these countries. In the last few months In Harmony Sistema England took a big step forward when the number of In Harmony Sistema centres doubled from 3 to 6 thanks to a combined grant from the UK Department of Education and Arts Council England, and Sistema Norwich is a second England organisation that has entered the field. North of the border Big Noise has just announced a second centre in Glasgow to add to the hugely successful Raploch scheme. So in a matter of months the UK has 9 rather than 4 centres, and that is without counting projects like London Music Masters’ the Bridge, and the Music First project. At the other end of the scale Anna Mikaelian Meschian recently created Sistema Armenia, building from nothing, with a series of partnerships with The American University of Armenia, LUYS Foundation, a local music school, an art school, the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra and a sizeable number of individuals from inside and outside of Armenia, who have all committed to bringing El Sistema to Armenia. And it will happen, in this case, with the support and help of Sistema Europe.

And so it goes on. Superar Austria, hosted last week’s meeting in Vienna on the occasion of one of the Youth Orchestra of Caracas’ recent Vienna concerts (really, you had to see this city youth orchestra take one of the most sophisticated and critical classical music centres in the world by storm: picture below). This included a tour round Superar’s new centre in the 10th. district of Vienna in the inspiring spaces of its Atleier 10, an open and free arts space in an old bread factory in one of Vienna’s least affluent areas. it reminded me of one of Maestro Abreu’s many maxims: ‘for the least advantaged in society, the best and highest quality of resources’. This place is extraordinary, and when finished my bet is that it will be the envy of even the bastion groups in Vienna, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Opera!

Superar host Werner Binnenstein-Bachstein shows some of us around Atelier 10, Superar Austria’s new Vienna facility.

The meeting in Vienna heard some moving stories about the formation of Sistema projects in places like Bosnia, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Turkey, from the generosity of a man in Istanbul buying piano accordions for a new group out of his own pocket, to the challenges for the Roma people in a number of European countries, and the need of a place like Srebrenica to be known for something more positive than genocide.

Everyone clearly enjoying lessons in Srebrenica

Everyone clearly enjoying lessons in Srebrenica

The Caracas Youth Orchestra, having shown the Viennese how to play a Strauss encore in Vienna’s Konzerthaus.

In Europe the Sistema movement is building on some powerful cultural identities and as well as large dollops of history, some of which needs to be embraced and celebrated, and some of which needs to be strongly rejected, if not however, forgotten. And in all of this, El Sistema and its Venezuelan root represents a set of values and a form of being which is reaping unbelievable prizes for the less fortunate in our rich yet remarkably unequal societies. Every time Sistema Europe meets I am impressed and moved by the deep humanity of its members. We are lucky here to have such a group. So far the new kid on the block is doing well. For which much thanks.

Time to get out the measuring spoons

Published Sept 2012 – 3,486 words:  A September 2012 report on El Sistema, leading to the question, where exactly might El Sistema be headed at the moment?

Many of us have just turned a sharp corner. A matter of days ago it was summer, with whatever it was that we had hoped for from the annual holiday interlude still flirtatiously, if tenuously, alive. Now we are past the middle of September: for around half the world dark nights beckon, a new cycle has begun, and it’s time to get out the measuring spoons.

So it was that I found myself staring reflectively out of my Caracas window last week, whilst – as usual – contemplating Pico Oriental’s unseen 2,700 metre drop down to the Caribbean Ocean (the other side from the picture below I’m afraid, but that’s the point), also wondering where things are headed in the year that is about to unfold.

Caracas last week

Last week inside La Sede – Caracas’s Social Action Music Centre – it was unusually quiet. The two Bolivar orchestras were still on holiday, the nucleos in Caracas were yet to reopen, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra was rehearsing in the afternoons and evenings, so that in the mornings there was only the occasional sound of a very few of Espíritu (my baroque group) rehearsing, together with sectionals for the Caracas Youth Orchestra preparing to go on tour.

Then a few days ago it was all change. The older orchestras returned, the nucleos reopened, and on Wednesday (see below), the front yard of La Sede filled with the Caracas Youth Orchestra gathering together to leave for Maiquetia airport and a tour to Italy, Russia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Austria and Germany, a tour which they are by now well into.


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At the same time, the Simón Bolívar choir are on tour in New York, and as soon as both groups get back, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra prepares to leave for Europe. By that time the Sistema’s Percussion Ensemble will have been to the UK, and the Simón Bolívar String Quartet during 2012 will have been performing in Canada, Europe, and the Far East. The Brass Ensemble will be in the US, and later in the autumn Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra also head to Washington, New York and other points North American. From now until Christmas there is hardly a day without one of seven El Sistema groups on tour abroad in one continent or another, something that must surely be on the minds of Askonas Holt, the unflinching music agency charged with regularly moving these approximately one thousand people around the globe.

And then there is Maestro Abreu. Last week in Ravello Italy he announced a bilateral Italian-Venezuelan orchestra for next summer, signed concordats with the Italian Sistema delle Orchestre e Dei Cori Giovanili e Infantili d’ Italia, was given the freedom of the city of Ravello, revealed plans for the Opera Academy that no less an organisation than Milans’s La Scala is going to create with El Sistema in Venezuela, and oh yes, mentioned that in 2015 he will bring Venezuela to Milan’s Expo ’15, including the presence of some four Venezuelan orchestras (including the hotly anticipated Venezuelan National Children’s Orchestra) and two choirs to include the famous White Hands chorus. And that is just the news from the opening days of the current tour. A talk by him at Carnegie Hall in New York on December 8th recently went on sale. It’s probably sold out by now. Between now and then who knows what reordering and development of the musical world will be heralded by his remarkable peregrinations and their attendant announcements.

These happenings are of course merely one part of a continuous array of action that has occurred throughout the Sistema world during the last year. My initial point then is this: the measuring spoon says it has been another astonishing year for El Sistema.

For anyone who doubts this conclusion let me briefly recapitulate just a few of these highlights. (I’m going to keep this to a few headlines or your day may be over before it has begun.) El Sistema began 2012 with the mother of all symphonic projects when Gustavo Dudamel, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed all Mahler’s symphonies, twice, once in LA and once in Caracas, including performances beamed into cinemas around the world, and eventually some of it committed to disc. In Caracas El Sistema marshalled 1800 young Venezuelans to play for – and bring tears to the eyes of – the stalwart Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians. In the same month El Sistema signed separate concordats with South Korea and the New England Conservatory.

Between May and June a bi-national orchestra of 160 Norwegian and Venezuelan musicians, performed side by side at the Bergen Festival and in the Norway Academy of music, Oslo, the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble also sharing a concert with the Norwegian National Brass Band.

And then as part of the Cultural Olympiad of the London 2012 Olympics the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra under Dudamel performed in Scotland in Raploch with the Scottish Sistema Big Noise, culminating with a major concert on the first night of Festival 2012. In London they performed as part of the Sounds Venezuela programme with a special Olympic residency and concerts in the Royal Festival Hall at London’s Southbank Centre that saw the site turned into a Venezuelan nucleo for a week, involving hundreds of young English musicians. The Simon Bolivar String quartet followed up a concert in London with a launch of their first CD. Now the autumn tours beckon.

Against this backdrop of events consider where Venezuela’s Sistema has arrived: According to figures from Venezuela, in its 37th year the programme begun by Maestro Abreu in Venezuela with 11 musicians now consists of around 400,000 children and young people studying in 286 nucleos in 23 Venezuelan states with 100 pre school orchestras, 150 children’s orchestras, and 146 youth orchestras, giving a total of 396 orchestras from a population less than a tenth the size of the USA. El Sistema is said to operate 9 special education programmes, 7 conservatoires, 20 instrument repair centres, 8 prison orchestra network programmes, 42 Venezuelan popular music groups, 22 student orchestras, 20 bands, and 342 choral groups.

And although Venezuelan soloists have yet to make big inroads abroad, the crop of new conductors is doing exactly that, with a growing number of musical directorships and chief guest positions: Dudamel in LA, Diego Matheuz in Venice’s La Fenice Opera House and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and Christian Vasquez with the Gävle Symfoniorkester and the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. To this could be added Rafael Payare winning a conducting competition in Denmark, and other conductors such as Joshua Dos Santos and Manuel López-Gómez slowly but surely establishing themselves on the international circuit.

El Sistema has also advanced plans to establish seven national music centres which will bring state of the art performance, recording, rehearsal and practice facilities within reach of every part of the country.

The first centre – La Sede referred to above – has already been operating in Caracas for a number of years, but work has just begun (left) on a massive extension to La Sede, with construction on both sides of the building going on which will provide larger concert halls and more facilities.

Of course all of the happenings that I have so far mentioned (with the exception of the development of the national centres) are really just the icing on the cake. No, really. The really profound achievements are the steady regular improvements to the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Sistema children and young people in the regular programmes throughout Venezuela, the sort of thing I see whenever I walk into or work in a nucleo in Venezuela. So this year’s progress – a progress which I am only just touching on then – is I believe, to underuse an overused word, humongous. So that’s it then, end of article.

Not quite. For in the annals of Sistema history I don’t believe that 2012 will be remembered for any of these events, wonderful and extraordinary though many of them undoubtedly were. No, something else will I believe take centre stage in the history books: and it is not, unusually, a matter of what the Venezuelans did, as much as what they caused others to do. Because 2012 will I believe come to be seen as the tipping point in the process of the adoption of El Sistema around the world. It is time then, to get out the second measuring spoon, and look at the emerging burgeoning international development of El Sistema around the globe.

The first event I will mention was the ‘Take a Stand’ conference in Los Angeles that coincided with the previously mentioned Mahler Project. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bard College and Longy School of Music had recently formed a new Masters course in Sistema teaching, providing a significant addition to LA’s Sistema activity, and complementing the work of the YOLA nucleos. To celebrate this launch, the ongoing Mahler project, and to take the temperature on (mainly USA) Sistema work outside of Venezuela, hundreds of delegates from several continents gathered in LA.

Hardly had this finished when the New England Conservatory announced an extension to its Sistema Fellows Programme as well as a new batch of Fellows for 2012-13. And elsewhere in the US more Sistema training courses are springing up. OrchKids in Baltimore and YOURS in Chicago (partnering with North Park University) are some of the latest examples of this. The USA Sistema movement itself has taken some interesting strides this year with the formation of a national association composed of dozens of Sistemas (there are currently around 55 Sistemas in the US), the very recently named National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired Programmes. In August the action moved north with a Sistema Teacher and Leader Conference held by New Brunswick Youth Orchestra and Sistema New Brunswick, with participants from Canada, the USA and Venezuela.

But new Sistemas and ideas for new Sistemas have been springing up all year. Armenia, Greece, Malta are some examples in Europe. The Chilean Sistema is now working through the schools system. In Asia the Korean Sistema has expanded its activities following its new agreement with El Sistema in Venezuela, and Sistema Japan took a huge step forward with an international conference and launch in the Fukashima area north of Tokyo that was so devastated in the tsunami and nuclear leak last year.

And all the time Sistemas are visiting each other, learning from each other and planning together. At Southbank Centre’s Festival of the world in June, coinciding with the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, a day devoted to the idea that art can change the world included a session bringing together Sistema Directors from Brazil, Columbia, the US, Canada, England, Scotland and Sweden. A story board (below) recorded the discussion:


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Whether it is Sistema New Zealand’s recent trip to Europe, a set of Danish schools on a fact finding mission, the Kenyan Youth Orchestra looking at how it can employ Sistema techniques, the Director of the Guatemalan Sistema on a sabbatical in Europe, the Iraqi National Youth Orchestra working with In Harmony Sistema England’s Julian Lloyd Webber, the Czech Republic Harmonie project basing itself on In Harmony Sistema England whilst the other Czech Sistema visited Big Noise in Scotland, or the Turkish Sistema one of a number Sistemas about to visit Caracas, there are now regular joined up Sistema conversations going on right across the globe.

Then there are the non Sistema organisations wanting to become more knowledgeable about, and work with, Sistemas: ECHO (The European Concert Halls Association), The RSA (Royal Society for the Arts), ICO (The east European I, Culture Orchestra), The Institute of Education, the British Council, a Swedish media training course: these are just a few of the organisations that I personally have met with to discuss international El Sistema work in the last few months.

As a blunt overall measure, a couple of weeks ago I had cause to send someone a list of the countries where I had had contact with Sistemas or Sistema inspired activity during the last year. I put down the following, in no particular order: Scotland, England, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Armenia, Bosnia, Slovakia, Rumania, Turkey, Malta, Greece, the Czech Republic, Russia, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Columbia, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, The Republic of Congo (though I think there may also be interesting things happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda, South Africa, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Japan. And there are another dozen projects in different countries I would have liked, but did not have the time to be in touch with. Meanwhile I note that this blog has been accessed by people in 70 countries, people, presumably, who have only done so since they are interested in El Sistema developments. This is not evidence of a 25 hour a day work pattern on my behalf, but the sheer number of people and places focusing on El Sistema projects in their own backyards.

Of course of the list I have just given you, not all the projects are classical Venezuelan Sistemas. Some like the USA, Colombia and Italy are huge, (as I have mentioned there are dozens of different Sistemas or Sistema inspired organisations in the USA, and Colombia has over 20,000 students), whereas some, like Iraq and Afghanistan, are not really Sistemas as much as music schools and youth orchestras for the most underprivileged, that happen to operate with most of the principles and quite a few of the practices of El Sistema. And some are no more than nascent ideas, like the lady who is determined to start a Sistema in Russia, or musician Gabriel Prokofiev who is intent on starting one in Congo-Brazzaville, whilst in Bulgaria there is a group that probably don’t even know that what they are doing is essentially like a Sistema. But most of the examples are the classical sort that we would recognise from the work in Venezuela.

But it is not simply a matter of individual Sistemas or new Sistema training programmes. The new word on the block is ‘networks’. I mentioned above the new National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired programmes in the US. Another major new Sistema network, one that I have been involved in setting up, is in the new hot spot in Sistema formation, Europe. Sistema Europe was launched in February 2012, and whilst it currently has eleven member countries, I would estimate from current relationships, that that number will soon be around 25. That’s getting on for a significant proportion of the continent. One of the members of Sistema Europe, Superar Austria, is in the midst of putting together a European Union (EU) application for a cross Sistema project on the Roma who live in several European countries, whilst another EU application is linking Canada’s and Europe’s Sistemas in an application. In England the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) is beginning to look at the question of international research networks. And in July a special interest group composed of 15 nations gathered as part of the ISME International Society for Music Education’s 30th World Conference for Music Education in Thessaloniki to investigate, and share knowledge and practice of El Sistema.

Another flavour of the growing storm of network activity is given by the newly established Sistema Global network, the labour of Glenn Thomas from San Diego. It currently exists as a LinkedIn group and a Facebook page, and is beginning to become the place where international Sistema news can regularly be found. Then there is the Ensemble magazine, produced for the American Sistemas by Sistema author Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth, one of the El Sistema movement’s greatest teacher teacher. Mention should also be made of Jonathan Govias’ blog (more about that below). Glenn Thomas, writing in the Ensemble magazine earlier this year, cast an eye over the international development I have alluded to here: he estimated the current number of children and young people in Sistema inspired work worldwide to be around one million. And climbing.

So what does all this mean, and where is it all going?

Well before we get to that, it’s worth mentioning that there are of course some naysayers. And apart from them, there are also Sistema supporters like Jonathan Govias, a key Sistema thinker precisely because of his naturally doubting, sceptical and anti-bullshit mindset, who often like to put the cat amongst the Sistemas when people get unthinkingly over-enthusiastic about El Sistema. Leon Botstein, an intimidatingly muscular intelligence if ever there was one, gave a remarkable talk at the Take a Stand conference in January, cautioning too much blind belief in the possibility of the USA being able to be a copy of El Sistema. He said, if I have got this right (I can’t seem to find the video of the talk on the LA website anymore: can anyone help?), that El Sistema is not a movement. Well Mr. Botstein, I respectfully but avowedly disagree. That’s exactly what I would say it is. And the evidence is forming before our eyes, popping out with real speed and vigour. Imperfect, sometimes a pale emulation of what has happened in Venezuela, but definitely on the move.

Of course, many people have been saying for quite a long time that it won’t work ‘here’, where ‘here’ means anywhere that is not Venezuela. Others doubt that it has really been conclusively shown to work even in Venezuela. Of these, Geoff Baker, in a recent blog is the most interesting I have come across.  Whilst I disagree with much of what he alleges about the supposed presence in El Sistema of a continuing cultural imperialism, and also his analysis of the Venezuelan politics of Maestro Abreu and President Chavez, he makes good points about the evidence base, and in particular the state of the Inter American banks evaluation reports. And the El Sistema movement really needs serious critics like him to pull us up from some of the more intense bouts of hysteria.( I prophesies that the moment we will realise that will be when his book about El Sistema is eventually published).

Another area of concern could be one that Dan Trahey from Baltimore and I discussed in an almost chance encounter in the Alba Hotel in Caracas earlier this year: dilution. As the attraction of starting a Sistema increases so perhaps do the number of people saying, ‘Oh I’ve started one’ when they have either done nothing of the sort, or taken such a watered down approach to what constitutes El Sistema that in practice it’s just a very ordinary project dressed up with the slogan ‘Kind of Made in Venezuela’. As Sistema travels it must, for sure, adapt, but the devil is in the detail, and we need to keep asking when adaption becomes an excuse for just doing what we have been doing for years, but changing the name on the tin to an increasingly marketable ‘El Sistema’

And so the debates continue. And should. But whatever else happens in the last few months of the year I believe that one thing is certain, and that is that 2012 will be seen as the tipping point for an apparently inexorable international development of El Sistema. Yesterday I had a meeting with the Worshipful Company of Musicians in the UK to discuss an Honorary Fellowship I have been offered for 2012-13 to further work I have been doing on El Sistema. We discussed the options. International development won hands down, and not simply because it was my vote. Then today it was off to the Royal Society for the Arts to discuss a joint project proposal: agreed item, the international development of El Sistema. In two days time I travel to Vienna for a concert by the Caracas Youth Orchestra, but the big meeting will be Sistema Europe and a batch of new applicants. Next week the British Council to look at international networks. And so it goes on.

And with that I suggest that you put away your measuring spoons for another year and start thinking instead about what part you are going to play in this development. If you want help, it’s very much a ‘ just ask’ scenario with El Sistema, such are the number of places that new enthusiasts can be pointed and directed to. My e mail address on this blog can be relied on to serve as a start whoever or wherever you are, but with people like Glenn Thomas, Eric Booth and Jonathan Govias around it’s hardly the only one. And it’s not as if you hadn’t been warned. As a blog article earlier this year announced: Not hopped on the bus yet? You better get going. ‘Nuff said.

Scotland: “We look in awe at what the Venezuelans have achieved, and get back to rehearsing”

Published September 2012 – 29 words

A great story in the UK Guardian about the potential, but frankly inevitable, development of Big Noise Sistema Scotland. Mark their words: the die is cast throughout the country.

Fireworks in Stirling as Dudamel and the Venezuelans bring down the Big Concert in June 2012