Learning from the U.S.?

Thanks to Heath Marlow’s post on Sistema Global, I just read Nick Rabkin’s excellent article about teaching artists in America. Stanford Thompson picked up the thread by discussing Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School, and he concluded: “What I feel El Sistema does in this country is bring that essence back that thrived a LONG time ago. We haven’t discovered anything new… just become more aware with seeing the example from Venezuela.” If North American Sistema programs are recapturing the spirit of settlement house music schools, then there may be much to applaud. Thompson and Eric Booth’s linking of this U.S. tradition to the Venezuelan Sistema made me wonder, though, and reading through the original article again, I found as much that separated the two programs as connected them.

> The first teaching artists in the US were hired to run the arts programs at Hull-House (1889), the pioneering early social service and reform ‘settlement’ founded by Jane Addams in Chicago. They taught music, theater, ceramics, painting and drawing, and dance.

This is an impressively broad range of artistic activities, whereas a signature feature of El Sistema is that it focuses its attention not even just on music, but on performing within a particular ensemble within a particular genre – the romantic symphony orchestra. These are two quite different ways of thinking about arts education.

According to Rabkin,

> developing professional talent was not the mission of the settlements. 

The same is frequently said about El Sistema, but it’s a pretty strange claim, given that the jewel in the Sistema crown is a professional orchestra (the SBSO); many of the young people in the program aspire to play in the SBSO or one of the other paying orchestras in Caracas; the regional youth orchestras also pay salaries; and promising students are regularly fed into the professional symphony orchestras in the state capitals. Developing local professional talent was precisely what El Sistema was originally created to do, and it continues to do it today. The fact that not every Sistema student goes on to be a professional musician doesn’t mean that it’s not providing pre-professional training.

El Sistema’s narrow focus is intimately connected to its role as a pre-professional training program. How different is Rabkin’s description of teaching artists in the States:

> In addition to teaching specific arts-related skills, these teaching artists also cultivate students’ abilities to be creative, plan, explain their thoughts, work together effectively, build theories, make predictions, create analogies, solve complex problems, and assess their own work. These are all skills that are necessary to making art. They are also commonly understood as ‘21st century skills.’

The cultivation of these “21st century skills” is hard to discern in the Venezuelan program, focused as it is on getting children playing difficult orchestral parts as early as possible. A music education program that fostered these skills would be marvelous, but a project as goal-oriented as El Sistema is not the place to look for the involvement of students in planning, explaining, predicting, solving, or assessing.

> One of the most important arts figures at Hull House was a social worker in the 1930s, Viola Spolin. Spolin developed an inventory of theater games based on her observations of children’s role playing games like ‘house,’ ‘store,’ or ‘doctor’.

I found this part particularly interesting, and not just because Hull House had a social worker involved in arts education. Spolin’s educational program apparently stemmed from and built on what children already did, and kept games and play at its heart. In other words, students and their practices and needs came first, and the educational program was created around them. In the Venezuelan Sistema, it is the other way round: the educational program comes first – you will learn to play in an orchestra – and the children are tailored to it, their existing interests and needs of marginal interest. If there is a poor fit between the two, it is the child who has to change (or leave), not the program.

It seems that Spolin learnt from children as well as teaching them; she watched them first, rather than just telling them what to do. She believed that what children already knew how to do had social and cultural value, rather than treating them as a tabula rasa. Her pedagogical program was a creative response, not a prefabricated blueprint. It’s the difference between creating an innovative theatre program based on children’s games and telling all the students to learn Shakespeare off by heart because it’ll make them better people. It’s the difference between starting from children’s existing musical skills and interests, and putting a violin in their hands, Tchaikovsky 4 on the stand, and telling them to learn it for a concert next week.

Education is inescapably political. At the settlement houses,

> The arts were a strategic part of their agenda to make our democracy more robust and inclusive.

As I have argued before, an orchestra is far from an obvious tool for promoting democracy, and unless significant changes are made to its organizational dynamics – ones that haven’t been made in Venezuela – it models and normalizes autocracy rather than democracy.

So while I think the article is great, and it’s particularly pleasing to see it being posted and discussed in a Sistema forum, we should be careful about drawing easy parallels between the U.S. and Venezuela. For me, at least, it is the contrasts that are most interesting, not the similarities. Eric Rasmussen wrote in a response on this website last year:

> The research I’m interested in doing (and have begun) is in how children best learn to understand harmonic functions, or develop the capacity to be creative—not to simply to train them to imitate or play the notes on the page. […] I want musicians of every kind: composers, improvisers, performers, listeners; and in every style, not just classical.

This is an exemplary vision – but it’s not one that is being realized in your average núcleo in Venezuela. This is an unfashionable (and probably unpardonable) thing to say in Sistema circles, but I think Venezuela could learn a thing or two from the past and present of music education in the U.S.

10 thoughts on “Learning from the U.S.?

  1. Hi Geoff.
    Heath and Stanford make the point that there are similarities between the Settlement House history and practice in the U.S. and the El Sistema-inspired movement. This observation has not been widely discussed in the U.S. and is a lovely enrichment to the way we can imagine our lineage and our U.S. ways of embodying the ideals of El Sistema that have inspired many. And I get your point that there are also differences between the pedagogical traditions of the Settlement House movement and El Sistema inspired movement. I sense that you like a good argument, but I don’t think you will find much argument about there being similarities and differences.

    You also express your preferences for a constructivist creative play approach to arts learning. I share a love for that work, and have been involved in a lot of it—I will be leading Viola Spolin exercises with a group of musicians from a top-five U.S. orchestra next week. Good teaching artists work in lots of ways, and in many El Sistema inspired sites, in the U.S. and elsewhere, I seen experimentation in mixing different approaches for the benefit of the students.

    The goal of El Sistema is not to develop the skills of 21st Century artists as you propose. nor to crank out professional musicians, as you state. They train musicians not for careers (although some small percentage do end up with them), but for a driving hunger for excellence. Their hypothesis is that music is a good way to nurture this hunger and reward it so consistently that it has lifelong impact on how that young person thinks and makes choices and lives to seek excellence throughout life. These habits of mind and heart, moved into a lifetime of positive, contributing choices are the purpose of El Sistema, not an assembly line of professional musicians as products. In previous postings, you have decried the absence of research that objectively affirms the attainment of these goals. Right, conclusive research does not yet exist. But that doesn’t mean El Sistema is not attaining its goals. This is where you like to differ. Many, many people of the highest expertise and integrity see the work and believe El Sistema is achieving the stated goals, and they await the release of new research in 2013 to illuminate more. You doubt that El Sistema achieves its goals, and you have arts learning preferences other than those that seem to be working for them. I expect you too look forward to studying the new research when it is available—I am sure many people will have something to say at that time.

  2. Thanks for your response, Eric. I’m all for the original article and the comparison of it with El Sistema – I just think the comparison can be pushed further (and, while more critically, also more productively). I’m also all for the kind of experimentation that you describe – I just wish I’d seen more of it in Venezuela.

    Clearly, I agree much less about the professional issue. There are many ways to think of this, but just one is this: if El Sistema stopped tomorrow, most of Venezuela’s professional orchestras would go into terminal decline. El Sistema provides pre-professional orchestral training, and the professional orchestras depend on it for fresh blood. So I struggle to see how this is not a system for producing professional musicians (though it might be other things as well).

    I also find it a bit depressing that an educational system that incorporates 400,000 children and has received over $500 million in overseas funding in the last five years doesn’t teach “21st century skills.” It’s supposed to be a “school for social life,” “a model for an ideal society,” and so on – so which century’s society is it preparing children for?

    The release of new research is absolutely to be welcomed, and I definitely look forward to studying it. I’ve read the proposal for the current IDB research and it seems that it may leave a lot of questions unanswered, but it’s too early to make a proper call on that. What I do doubt very strongly is that it will shed much light on the hypothesis that you state above, since it seems to be focused on much more concrete and short-term outcomes. I also remember the IDB’s last research report and its famous cost-benefit calculation that was much quoted as evidence that El Sistema was working… until the IDB itself disowned it last year (see my first blog post). So, as you say, I’m sure there will be a lot to discuss when the next report comes out.

  3. Geoff and Eric,

    Good and valid points all around. Why don’t we all wait 35 years and compare where El Sistema is now to where we all ended up? Settlement programs have been at it for over a 100 years, so lets compare notes in 100 years.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but we are doing everything we can do/try to make our programs have impact in the lives of the children we are serving. We do this as passionately and strategically as possible. We’ve been at it for a very short time, so cut us a little slack.


  4. Thanks for commenting, Stan. I don’t think I need to cut you a little slack, assuming that the “us” in your message refers to Sistema-inspired programs in the U.S. – since my whole post is about how there has been and is good work going on in the States. I believe Eric Rasmussen works in a Sistema-inspired program, and I described his vision as “exemplary.” I was very careful to direct my critique at the Venezuelan Sistema, which is what I know about.

    I know you’ve been at it for a very short time, but the Venezuelan Sistema has been going for 37 years, so it’s high time it received robust critical analysis. I can’t wait 35 or 100 years to discuss the issues that I (and more importantly, many Venezuelan musicians) have with El Sistema. I don’t doubt for a second the belief, passion, intelligence etc of anyone involved in Sistema programs in the U.S., but I do think that knowledge of the Venezuelan program is patchy, and that’s an issue when the latter is taken as a model. So I’m going to throw in my grain of sand, as they say in Spanish, by talking about the Venezuelan Sistema in this blog, and people can use, challenge, or ignore what I say as they see fit.

    • Last time I checked, we are not “El Sistema-modeled” programs – we are simply “El Sistema-inspired” programs. Again, we are doing what we can do to get these programs going and it’s exactly what Abreu has done over the past 37 years. You better believe that there are many patches, but he did what he could to get the program to the point now. I think you might be wasting some time in your critiques and analysis of our friends in Venezuela. However, I wish you the best in your pursuits.

  5. Hi Stan,

    I take your splitting of hairs – I like that kind of thing too – but the point still stands: I think that knowledge of the Venezuelan program is patchy, and that’s an issue when the latter is taken as an inspiration.

    So, for example, there’s no comparison between what you’re doing and what Abreu did. That’s the kind of thing I think it would be useful for people to know more about.

    As for whether I’m wasting my time analyzing El Sistema, well, time will tell. I think that any organization that moves large numbers of people and money deserves critical analysis, and that the same applies to any educational program, given the complexity and importance of education – but you’re perfectly entitled to feel otherwise, and I too wish you the best in your pursuits.

  6. Hi Geoff,
    To your point that any organization that “moves large numbers of people and money deserves critical analysis,” I generally agree. I am surprised, however, and I disagree with many of the statements in your recent post based on what I’ve learned in Venezuela.

    In your very last sentence, you “think Venezuela could learn a thing or two from the past and present of music education in the U.S.” As a matter of fact, Maestro Abreu has looked to other music education systems in the U.S. and Europe for years. The first time I heard about El Sistema was from my horn teacher, a member of the Berlin Philharmonic, in 2001. He and his colleagues were invited to teach in Venezuela on multiple occasions, and when I first visited VZ in 2007 with them, I listened while Maestro Abreu asked the Berlin Philharmonic members about their music education programs in Europe and what suggestions they’d have to improve his program in Venezuela. This last spring, I witnessed this same curiosity from Abreu when he asked the ten visiting Sistema Fellows from NEC for input on what we saw after spending 5 weeks traveling the country, and suggestions for what we might improve, based on our own experiences in the US and elsewhere. As I’m sure you’re aware, El Sistema has invited top musicians and music educators from all around the world (including many from the US) to visit Venezuela, teach the students in El Sistema, share their knowledge of their own programs, and make suggestions for improvement to the Venezuelan programs. In Abreu I saw what people refer to as true “inclusive leadership.” Remember when Jon Deak from the New York Philharmonic went down to Venezuela to teach composition using his Very Young Composers approach? The Venezuelans wanted to look to the US as a model for innovative composition instruction to give young people in the Sistema more opportunities to explore composition. Furthermore, I see leaders from El Sistema in Venezuela visiting music schools and programs around the U.S. and around the world, asking questions of music educators and administrators about their systems and taking what they’ve learned back to their own programs in VZ.

    To Eric Rasmussen’s point about students being improvisers, listeners, performers, etc., you say that it’s “an exemplary vision – but it’s not one being realized in your average núcleo in Venezuela.” I’m not sure which “average” núcleos you’re referring to– every núcleo I visited across the country was far from average and looked very little like any of the other núcleos I saw. Every teacher and administrator I spoke with explained that their núcleo was a place of experimentation and exploration, and that it’s constantly evolving according to the needs of the community. Which brings me to the next point.

    You say: “In the Venezuelan Sistema… the educational program comes first – you will learn to play in an orchestra – and the children are tailored to it, their existing interests and needs of marginal interest.” I found exactly the opposite. As far as “interest” goes, as I’m sure you know, there are cities all over VZ that are lobbying to get a Sistema program in their communities. People want an orchestra program, because they’re inspired by how it has given so many young people a chance to change their lives for the better. In many cases, the people who start the programs are 20-somethings who have gone through the program themselves and want to give young kids the same opportunities that they have been given.

    As for the question of need, every site we visited was a result of its community’s need. While the programs are often orchestral or choral, núcleo leaders are asking and listening to what their communities want and need most. Every program I visited had a Venezuelan folk music component. In Mahomito near Valle de la Pascua, the núcleo directors realized early on that the students were much more interested in Venezuelan folk music than violin, so they returned the violins and bought cuatros and harps, instead. The children loved to sing, so they have several choirs. In Valle de la Pascua, after launching an orchestra program, the núcleo directors realized that there were many students with disabilities in the community, and in order to truly be an all-access social program, they needed to develop a special- needs track. Now there is a robust special needs program in this small town, with a percussion ensemble, a jazz band, and a choir in addition to an orchestra.

    Yes, there are many choirs and orchestras. But the music that they perform is far from just romantic and classical. They play Venezuelan compositions, other Latin American compositions, modern compositions and arrangements, film music, and compositions from around the world that were written for orchestra. An orchestra can be a launching point for so many different compositional styles, and with its size, it can be a place where many, many students can take part.

    But back to the first comment: Abreu and his team continuously take cues from around the world. Why not have jazz? people have asked. What about rock? Well, there are jazz bands and rock bands and many other types of ensembles now in the Sistema. The Center for Social Action in Caracas is teeming with chamber music of every kind. Yes, there are other musical systems and musicians in Venezuela that have existed for a very long time outside of El Sistema. But I have seen that one of the great achievements of El Sistema in Venezuela in its mission to develop citizens through the pursuit of excellence in music has been its ability to reflect on what’s working and what’s not working, to look beyond itself, to trust the community leaders who are running the núcleos as much as possible, and to adapt to each community’s needs as realistically as possible.

    In regards to your comment to Stan, “So, for example, there’s no comparison between what you’re doing and what Abreu did.” No? I see several comparisons not only by what my colleague Stan is doing in Philadelphia, but by what many people inspired by Abreu’s vision are doing across the world: taking a vision to give young people an opportunity to broaden their view of the world and develop their place in it through participating in music. Arts leaders in the U.S. like Stan who are inspired by Abreu (as well as other arts leaders who were doing great work long before we knew what El Sistema was) are constantly assessing what’s working and what’s not working, listening to the teachers who are teaching in their programs (as much as one can), adjusting the program according to the needs of the community, and believing in a vision so strongly that they’re always looking for ways to achieve it and improve it.

  7. Jennifer,
    Thanks for contributing such a full response, it’s very interesting to hear your perception. Your post is full of ideas and I’d love to respond to all of them, but even just my partial reply got so long I’m actually going to turn it into my next blog post.

  8. Geoff,

    I applaud the clarity and passion of your writing, but I get the sense that you have it out for El Sistema. Your arguments tend to cherry pick in order to fit your preconceived bias against the program. Did you have a bad experience with them?

    For example, note the fallacy here:

    “the regional youth orchestras also pay salaries; and promising students are regularly fed into the professional symphony orchestras in the state capitals.”

    It is beyond a far leap to go from this to your conclusion that “developing local professional talent was precisely what El Sistema was originally created to do, and it continues to do it today.” Over a million children have gone through El Sistema, and the vast majority have NOT become professional musicians. By virtue of the enormous volume of students whose lives are transformed by the program, some are going to become professional musicians.

    But the program was clearly created to serve the millions who do not become professional musicians. Through ensembles of all types, from folk music to choirs to the romantic symphony orchestra you single out, the students learn to view the arts as a microcosm of society. This is why the 2007 Inter-American Development Bank study of El Sistema found a $1.68 return in societal benefits on every dollar invested in El Sistema. The program exists to reduce youth incarceration, violence, school dropouts, and underemployment.

    This is the sense in which contemporary El Sistema teaching artists are the perfect corollary for “settlement” teaching artists. Your focus on a single or multiple specific arts is misguided. The essential quality is that both groups of teaching artists used the interpersonal interactions that occur when practicing the arts as a model for the functioning of civic society.

  9. Thanks for commenting Isaac. It’s interesting that you assume that I had a preconceived bias or bad experience, rather than, say, simply finding that things weren’t quite as rosy as people had made out. I’ll pick this theme up again in my next post, along with Jennifer’s ideas.

    The fallacy that you identify is no such thing. It would have been if I had connected the two sentences with “therefore” or something similar, suggesting that the second derived from the first; but they are simply two separate statements, based on separate research. You, on the other hand, state confidently that “the program was clearly created to serve the millions who do not become professional musicians” – I wonder if you have evidence on which to base that statement, other than many other similar but unsubstantiated statements.

    I’ve covered some of the other points in earlier posts – for example, the IDB’s dodgy cost-benefit analysis, which was disowned by the IDB itself in 2011. Or the problems around the “orchestra as microcosm of society” argument, given that the society modelled is a hierarchical, autocratic one (alternatively, Marx uses the figure of the conductor to explain the idea of a capitalist extracting surplus value and exploiting labour power to the maximum). In other words, not a particularly civil society. I think I may have to write a longer post on the orchestra question as well.

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