Baker and Sistema Fellows Agree. Whatever Next?

[10/09/2015] One of the arguments used to dissuade people from reading my book and engaging with the issues that it raises has been to claim that it is entirely negative. Anyone who has read the book with an open mind, rather than through the jaundiced lens of a biased reviewer, will know that in fact it contains positive suggestions and examples of good practice, even if few of them are manifested by El Sistema in Venezuela.

For example, there are numerous mentions of collaborative composition and improvisation, and the Guildhall’s non-formal Connect ensembles are one of several examples provided. Last year I visited one of the current outgrowths of this program, Future Band, run by Detta Danford and Natasha Zielazinski, graduates of the Guildhall’s Leadership masters course. This experience, alongside that of visiting another London-based collaborative composition project, Animate Orchestra, informs an essay on music education and citizenship that I wrote at the start of this year and is currently awaiting publication by OUP. (I gave the paper in absentia at the Caracas Sistema conference in May, and will be presenting spoken versions this autumn.)

So I was interested – and pleased – to see graduates of the US-based Sistema Fellows program recently engaging with this topic, making the same connection, and drawing similarly positive conclusions.

Clara Yang travelled to London to do a creative training workshop with Detta and Natasha, and invited them back to New York City to work with students there. Echoing my book, she writes of the advantages offered by creative composition over standard orchestral learning:

Dr. Abreu is often quoted as saying that the orchestra is a symbol of the ideal community. While I believe that young students in orchestras do develop positive interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, I also think that young students in creative composition teams develop what I sense is a truer spirit of collaboration, not only with their peers but also their teachers, who are starting from the very beginning of the process with them. Moreover, instead of responding to the decisions already made by the conductor in front and a composer on their sheet music, they get to create, edit, get real feedback, listen, and respond to those immediately around them.

Ayriole Frost, too, travelled to London, took a course at the Guildhall, and learnt from Detta and Natasha.

Lorrie Heagy, meanwhile, attended a Collaboration & Creativity Laboratory led by Liza Barley, another Guildhall Leadership graduate, at NEC’s Sistema Fellowship Resource Center.

Given this recent interest from Sistema Fellows in a topic that appears as a positive suggestion in my book, one might ask why more established Sistema commentators in the US have painted my work as uniformly negative. It may of course be that they simply didn’t read the whole book. But perhaps the reason they don’t want you to read it is not that its arguments are unconstructive or flawed, but rather that it reveals the hollowness of their claims to expertise.