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.