There seems to have been an upswell of interest in research on El Sistema since I last posted, with new research-oriented groups launched: the Sistema Special Interest Group at ISME and the Sistema Research subgroup of Sistema Global on Linkedin. I’d love to be able to say that my last post played some tiny role in catalyzing this activity, but it clearly didn’t, since with one exception, the only reaction it provoked was dismay that I was taking a critical line rather than engagement with what I was actually saying.
One of my subsequent concerns was (and continues to be) a certain resistance to genuinely critical thinking among the Sistema community, so it was good to see Richard Hallam posting his thoughts on Linkedin about colleagues’ motivation for evaluation and research: “If the purpose of their research is to secure funding to continue their good work then there is the potential danger that they will not be sufficiently challenging of what they are doing or only report the positive elements that support their case.” I hope these new research groups will heed Richard’s words. There seems to be a widespread view that critical research constitutes a betrayal of the children, whereas in reality it is a failure to do such research that would be a betrayal.
Richard’s comment reminded me of a review article on studies of music and conflict transformation (Music and Arts in Action, Vol 2, No 2, 2010), in which Arild Bergh and John Sloboda demonstrate a healthy scepticism from which students of El Sistema could learn. Among the problems they identify are that participants’ opinions are rarely heard (they tend to be overshadowed by the views of those in charge); music’s role is often exaggerated via sweeping statements about the power of music; and real power issues are downplayed or ignored. According to the authors, it is in everyone’s interest to focus on claiming success, which is usually vital for funding, so evaluations are often done by project organizers themselves and rely on anecdotes as proof. What is salutary about this article is that the authors are personally invested in the processes and phenomena that they study – they want music to play an effective role in social healing – yet as researchers, they continue to believe in the importance of a critical attitude.
My own thought for the day is that the first step in conducting research of a qualitative kind is to see what’s staring us in the face. Let me take three examples from Tricia Tunstall’s book on El Sistema, Changing Lives. Most people who have got as far as this blog will probably know Tunstall’s book and appreciate its lively, engaging, engaged approach to El Sistema. But there are some moments in the book that raise big questions and seem to cry out for further commentary.
Tunstall describes a visit to a class in Venezuela: “We watch her [the teacher] lead the group in playing a D scale as she claps out a beat so strong it cannot be resisted. Over and over, they play that D scale… over, and over, and over.” Eventually the children are allowed to move on to some real music – a piece of Corelli; but “it is rehearsed in the same way the D scale was – phrase by phrase, over and over and over. The teacher is as ruthless as any symphony conductor about their entrances and cutoffs being exactly, precisely together.” This kind of authoritarian, mechanical learning, with its “ruthless” teacher who “cannot be resisted,” clearly draws its inspiration from earlier periods in Western music history. Why the excitement over this antiquated pedagogy that proceeds as though progressive movements in music education since the 1970s never took place? Does this class sound like a model for music education for the 21st century?
This vignette is all about discipline and obeying authority, two of El Sistema’s fundamental features – yet ones that have been much critiqued in (music) education research of recent decades. If we want to do research, why not start from the nuts and bolts – the pedagogy – and hold it up to current thinking on education and social justice?
Here is Alejandro Carreño, concertmaster of the SBSO: “Everybody who has been in the Sistema understands that the way you behave in an orchestra is the perfect way to behave in society.” That’s fine for the concertmaster to say… but what about back desk of the second violins? Is the perfect way to behave in society to keep your mouth shut, follow the person in front of you, and do what you’re told by the boss? Those who make these kinds of utopian pronouncements about Sistema orchestras usually seem to be either conductors (Abreu, Dudamel) or principals (Carreño), and it’s perhaps no wonder that they are extremely enthusiastic about a social microcosm that invests them with great authority. But if we’re interested in researching key issues like social inclusion, we might want to listen a bit harder to the back of the seconds – or perhaps even to the guy who dropped out of El Sistema.
We are told over and over again that orchestras are all about collaboration. Yet here is David Ascanio, a senior Sistema figure, on his experiences in the early days of the national youth orchestra: “José Antonio [Abreu] was obsessed with working on the sheer beauty of the orchestra’s sound. In rehearsals, he would say, ‘I want this sound!’ And they would play the same passage over and over and over, trying to get at what he wanted, until he would finally say, ‘That’s it! That’s the sound!’” The idea that someone other than Abreu might have a say in the orchestra’s sound seems not to occur to anyone. In most orchestral settings, as in this one, “collaboration” seems to be a euphemism for submitting yourself to someone else’s authority and working to achieve their goal.
I have chosen examples from Tunstall’s book precisely because it is so well known among Sistema followers. This is not obscure information dredged up from a distant corner of Venezuela, but examples that have been staring us all in the face for some time. If we are unable to analyze these simple vignettes properly, if they do not throw up urgent questions about the source from which all the Sistema-related enthusiasm and activity stems, then what hope do we have of carrying out meaningful research on more complex issues?
Yesterday, as I was sketching out this post, I kept being reminded of the phrase “the emperor’s new clothes,” one that I had heard from a couple of prominent musicians in Venezuela, and then I saw that Jonathan Govias riffed on the same phrase in his own blog, though coming from a very different angle. My interlocutors’ point was that there are big issues around El Sistema that are never publicly acknowledged despite lying in full view. My own adaptation here would be to say that if we cannot acknowledge these issues, we will not get very far with research.