Saturday, March 13, 2010

On planning, repertoire and curriculum in El Sistema

One more generalization that I had been a bit uncomfortable with is the idea of curriculum.  Before coming here, I felt that in applying the idea of an El Sistema curriculum and a pre-designed repertoire list in the US would be like admiring the beautiful freedom of a bird and then starting to look for a golden cage to capture that freedom at home.

In the past weeks in Venezuela, I found I was not that lost in my idealism.  The word for curriculum (pensum) has come up just a couple of times in conversations, but I have heard a lot of "academic planning".  It makes sense.  In planning, the focus is on the larger goal. A curriculum gets easily caught in the procedures and the rules.

Here in Venezuela, academic planning starts in the local núcleos, then at a regional level, and then at a national level (I'll write more about organizational structures later).  Each local núcleo can create their own strategies to reach the common goal.  And everyone can assess if any particular strategy is working or not, and if not, it can be easily fixed of substituted by a strategy that has proven successful elsewhere.

In the case of the repertoire that El Sistema has been famous for, it turns out that there is no manual, mandate or official list of repertoire.   It gets determined on a local level, and local núcleo directors choose by following trends and examples from other núcleos or from the national selection ensembles in Caracas, like the Simón Bolivar or the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestras.

My feeling is that the challenge is not creating a sound ideal curriculum, but creating a solid network based on human contact, gut feeling and support to others' efforts. With this, conversations about goals, strategies and respectful assessment will make this movement grow rapidly and strongly throughout the World.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On El Sistema generalizations

When asking the question "What is El Sistema?", or "What is its essence?" I noticed people usually have their mindsets framed in what they are familiar with, and that leads to certain generalizations. Preset ideas of methods, curriculum, schooling, arts policy, and many others come to mind.  I am uneasy with the idea of generalizations. Early on I noticed that detaching from the usual U.S. generalizing mindsets would be a big challenge.  I understand they are sometimes a strategy to give order to our thoughts, but I would think that in order to understand the essence of El Sistema the first step would be not to try to fit it into any of our regular generalizations.  Think out of the box.  Now, really, get out of the box.

A couple of weeks ago, José Antonio Abreu explained to us –the Abreu Fellows–  the origin of the "El Sistema" brand, which has to do more with Venezuelan government bureaucracy than its organizational structure. Furthermore, Abreu called it a permanent ser no-ser todavía –"not-yet-being being".  That idea alone may define the essence of El Sistema....but even still has to think outside of that box.   As we have been getting deeper in exploring the Venezuelan Orchestra System, I realize that not even the ser no-ser-todavía statement cannot be taken as a generalization of how things work here.  

In my next blogs I will try describe with examples and try to explain our expericences.  This trip started on Febrary 18th with the 10 Fellows in Caracas, and now continued in the Guárico province, right in the center of Venezuela, where along with 3 more of the Fellows, we have visited multiple programs and met amazing people, young musicians and leaders.  (I hope I can blog more frequently, sometimes internet is spotty here, and most times, we are out and about.  No time to stop and turn on the computer!)

I don't think I will come up with the right words to give a definite answer to the question of what is the essence of El Sistema.  For one thing, because any example that I describe here will be soon outdated.  Things evolve freely and fast around here.  And then, as much as we are trying to catch as much of the essence of El Sistema in Guárico, any idea that I write here which may be seen as a generalization, will be challenged by what we find in the next province we visit.