Response to Jonathan Govias, “Sistema through the noise”

[27/2/15] Jonathan Govias has just published a new definition of El Sistema (see here for the full article, “Sistema through the noise”):

“El Sistema is the public applied music instruction network of Venezuela. Under a social mandate of accessibility, Sistema uses conventional pedagogical techniques to offer program participants the established benefits of music education.”

Here is my response beneath the article:

In some ways this definition seems like a step forwards: it strips away some of the more problematic aspects of earlier attempts to define El Sistema. But it also seems like a step forwards down a path that goes backwards. I find myself (surprisingly) concurring with Christopher Nicholls’s comment: what is the point of this?

It takes me straight back to an exchange we had last year (see my post “Searching for complexity”), and I maintain the same position: that defining and simplifying is actually counter-productive in the process of trying to understand El Sistema. One of the program’s biggest problems is its love of slogans and soundbites, which makes it more like a brand than a serious enquiry into music education. We should be trying to unpick and examine these aphorisms rather than create new ones, since they hinder rather than help understanding.

To take a couple of aspects of your definition: you describe El Sistema as “the public applied music instruction network of Venezuela.” This simplifies a complex reality in which there are multiple public music education networks (most of them now much depleted, thanks to the monopolizing tendencies of El Sistema) – in public schools, via the old conservatoire system, the music schools provided at state level, the municipal band system, the orquestas típicas, etc. It also obscures the issues around the “public-ness” of El Sistema, which, as you know, is only available to a minority of Venezuelan children, and is publicly funded but operates to a large extent like a private organization.

Your “social mandate of accessibility” is uncontroversial, but your accompanying statement “there’s nothing wrong with this” again obscures a complex topic. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing right with it either. Access is only positive if the thing being provided is positive. Giving people wider access to sexism or racism or fascism would hardly be laudable. This is the conversation that needs to be had: is El Sistema providing children with access to the best possible music education? For me, a definition is only really worth having if it opens up that kind of question.

Finally, to say that El Sistema offers participants “the established benefits of music education” only tells half the story. To be meaningful, it should read “the established benefits and drawbacks of conventional music education.” These drawbacks have been well known and widely discussed by music education experts for at least 40 years. A definition that fails to acknowledge this huge and highly relevant area of scholarship simply perpetuates the division between El Sistema and music education research, which is another of the program’s fundamental weaknesses.

Now, I could contradict my own argument by saying that Christopher Nicholls’ response points to the capacity of your definition to promote debate, and since debate is the top priority, the rightness or wrongness of your definition is of secondary importance. I’ll buy that up to a point. But I do think that abandoning the whole urge to simplify and define in favour of complexifying and unpicking would be an even more positive step. It would allow the voices of ordinary Venezuelan musicians, and their complex reactions to El Sistema, to enter a debate from which they are largely excluded.