Thursday, January 08, 2009

Towards a new Youth Orchestra Movement in the US (Part One?)

I’ve been fascinated by how the Venezuelan orchestra system gets turned into something that looks like a franchise (“El Sistema”), and how people become desperate to get its secret recipe, because the franchise includes a promise that results come fast and in large numbers. I experienced it in Guatemala about 10 years ago, and this let’s-get-this-franchise-going frenzy repeated itself there again, in 2008.

It is clear that one of the strengths of Venezuela’s orchestra movement is in the numbers; therefore, replication is a must. But it took me some time to realize that growth is not a franchise-like replication. It will not entail simply copying organizational structures, pedagogical methods, or artistic goals. I’ve been always curious to understand and willing to discuss what is the core of the Venezuelan system as it is today. With each new initiative, which parts of the Venezuelan model should be replicated and which not? And how?


I believe that the first and most important step is to nourish a movement of youth orchestras based on two principles: Social mobilization and the highest artistic standards possible. Having these principles as a starting point, core goals should be customized for every situation, then examined and adjusted. My personal experience has shown that it can be very irresponsible to try to copy a Venezuelan-like system outside of Venezuela. It is very easy to end up imitating the surface characteristics while ignoring the fundamental social agenda. Each country, each culture, each economy and even each town should find its own specific tools to accomplish this social mission: to build a movement into a structured organization –a system– with its own means and policies.

The key word here is “movement”. People forget that El Sistema didn’t start out from scratch as a completely formed organizational system, but as a social movement guided by the vision and charisma of Dr. José Antonio Abreu. When I was first exposed to “what is happening in Venezuela”, in 1989, Venezuelans referred to it as El Movimiento, “the movement”. El Sistema –the brand– was unheard of, although a solid, sustainable system with an international scope was clearly a goal of Dr. Abreu.

A social movement, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, is a “more or less spontaneous coming together of people whose relationships are not defined by rules and procedures but who merely share a common outlook on society.” In Venezuela, the movement started in 1975, and became officially a national system some 22 years later with the formation of FESNOJIV (State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela) in 1997. FESNOJIV promised to supply the movement with a permanent government support and funding, and began developing internal policies, rules and guidelines, that came about after years of trial and error.

The fact that this process has taken so long makes defining what El Sistema is and what it is not somewhat confusing. The Venezuelan system as it is today, is a network of organizations –núcleos–, schools, a lutherie center, a cinematography center, etc., working under the umbrella of FESNOJIV, which provides the strategic direction of all and each of these components. El Sistema is not a pedagogical system per se; it is not a set of teaching tools or a magical recipe that will make poor children play really well. Moreover, El Sistema is less about activism and more about pure action: It leaves policy-making for later. I’ve witnessed countless examples of individuals performing amazing actions, from Dr. Abreu himself to Esdras Patá in rural Guatemala. They put together orchestras in the most remote villages, sometimes without any big government or private support, and empower disadvantaged children to master the most difficult repertoire, changing their lives in profound ways. It is well known that this is what El Sistema is about: Doing amazing things as ridiculously impossible to accomplish they might seem. Then again, remember their motto: Tocar y Luchar, Play and Fight/Struggle. I have come to realize that more than a motto; “Tocar y Luchar” is a goal in itself. It is social action through music. The goal is to instill in underprivileged children that empowering spirit of “just get up and do it”.

The empowerment of the children is the goal. El Sistema is about pushing people’s “empowerment powers” beyond their limits. It is not necessarily activism or making changes in education policy. It is not a “keep music in the classrooms” activism, or the creation of world-class orchestras to compete with the establishment. Of course, if you push these “empowerment powers” to the limit, probably something incredible will come as a result. Actually, I see the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra as only a by-product of El Sistema, not as one of its goals.

My experience in Guatemala has been that the movement grows strong by instilling many individuals (mostly young) with these “empowerment powers”, then letting them produce their own projects and small programs. This way, the movement grows organically, and is far more effective. The changes it effects are more profound, though not as quick. This is far preferable than moving towards formal organizations that benefit its officers and bureaucrats. The problems in Guatemala and elsewhere, have begun when people assume the can build a movement simply by copying the Venezuelan system point by point.

The second attempt to exactly replicate the Venezuelan system in Guatemala resulted in a potential long-term institutional mess, and produced rivalries and power struggles that could easily have been avoided, while forgetting the fundamental goal of positive social change. When that goal becomes secondary, El Sistema has become a cover for corruption and been exploited for personal advantage by leaders with no accountability. Happily, outside these failed organizational attempts, the real Guatemalan Orchestra movement of about 25 ensembles and núcleos country-wide, keeps growing and resisting organizational exploitation. One leader, who went so far as to call himself “Guatemala’s music icon”, has been even declared persona non grata because of his abuses. When political agendas and self-interests come first, the real social outcome is left on the background, and the value of El Sistema becomes an easy propaganda tool.

The lesson learned once again, is that power corrupts. I am convinced that all energy has to be put on a grassroots level, maintaining a structure as horizontal as possible. Action has to be taken directly through engaging young people to participate. Participation should be mainly about teaching and playing. This of course entails a series of other side tasks that are easier said than done. But this is what tocar y luchar is about: nothing less.

2 comments:

Cristian Mejía said...

Triste y alegre encontrar tanto talento y dejarlo o aprovecharlo para el bien como lo hace Venezuela, He visto un par de veces a Gustavo Dudamel y el talento del muchacho es increible= fruto de "el sistema". Ya saldra algo en Guate, paciencia y conciencia, Saludos y buen articulo.

Armando said...

Dearest Alvaro:

Congratulations for your thoughts about El Sistema. I liked very much your paper. Your analysis points to key points that are essential to keep the spirit of this movement of social action through music. In fact, it is not enough to replicate point by point the organizational structure of Fesnojiv if the ultimate goal of Social Action through music is not there. Nevertheless, it should be a real franchise in the sense that commercial franchises take care to deliver the same product with the same quality everywhere keeping in mind the mission always in first place. It has not been the case in the replications of El Sistema outside Venezuela when SOCIAL is not written in bold letters. You are quite clear about that. In some cases it turns from a kind of Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. The same wonderful experiences and criticism that you express about El Sistema in Guatemala can be said about the neighboring Mexico, my country of birth. Your words are very useful and valuable, and should be taken in consideration for future attempts to create offsprings of El Sistema outside Venezuela.

Recibe un Abrazo de,

Armando