Monday, March 18, 2013

Venezuela 8: The Cake Batter of El Sistema

Yesterday we had lunch with Bolivia Bottome, the International Relations Director of El Sistema. Her main goal is to develop loose relations with international programs and give what she can, but does not want a leadership role in these. "Each program needs to be adapted to its own country, in its own culture and with its own particularities."

I'd like to make an analogy to cake after having a delectable smorgsbord of cakes at a delicious dinner at Dani Bedoni's beautiful home. Thank you, Dani! There are needed ingredients in every cake and there are varied ingredients, catered to each taste. The basic ingredients (according to Bolivia) of El Sistema are 1) Inclusivity 2) Free of charge 3) Weekly Intensity 4) Frequent performance and above all, 5) the musical excellence. "But within this, it's up to you what you want to do." She assumed every El Sistema program had these things, but I don't think the US has our basic batter recipe together yet, or they're trying so hard to replicate their grandma's cake that has an ingredient you can't find in the US that they're missing the fact they could still use the batter as a base but make just as delicious of a cake by altering ingredients that are easily and readily available.

As I witnessed with ACME, performance is a powerful tool and essential for "social change." We have two main ethnicities: African American and Latino and at the beginning of the year these two groups were incredibly segregated. Trying to partner them randomly would be unsuccessful. But after they had their first large performance two months into it, they all feel they were part of something together and thus have something to relate to with one another. The teachers numbered them off and there was no opposition. This increase in diversity respect was directly caused by that performance and the preparation of it, sharing the hard work and celebration of a successful performance.

I am fully aware of the fact I am a vocal person and I think the real reason what Bolivia said held so much weight is I can write as many blog posts and advocate as much as I want, but the real demonstration is in the results (the taste of the cake if you will). If we can actually taste the cake by showing what El Sistema "should be" through our program and the success of producing good citizens through this musical excellence, that is far more powerful than anything I or anyone can say about how to make a cake. Bolivia's opinion was you can't achieve good citizens through music without musical excellence. As much as I would have disagreed with this earlier in the year, I am starting to understand how imperative it truly is. She also posed an interesting question, "Are we trying to influence or educate?" By us telling people how to be good citizens we are educating them, but that's it. How can we turn this education into real influence? By demonstrating musical excellence and stressing that we can apply this excellence to other areas of life.This is a very interesting difference and one I had not thought of before.

Another huge topic right now is should we centralize the US movement in a country that is so decentralized, not just by state, but by district? And if we do so, shouldn't we respect Maestro's wishes of not having a taxonomy and lead by example? I will admit the idea frightens me because El Sistema has incredibly marketing power right now and without a taxonomy anyone can say they are "El Sistema." However, like most things time will tell and only true significant results will survive sustainably. If everyone here is telling us to take what works for us from here and not have an objective of replicating, how are we able to make a taxonomy anyway? Especially with such a decentralized movement. How do we connect El Sistema to all the other beautiful resources we have in the US, can access and should use and take advantage of: youth development programs (YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs), youth orchestras, public school music programs, community centers, social programs/support, school psychologists, family clinics, etc etc etc? The five things above are the "preserve the core." the fundamentals, or the cake batter. But think of how rich this cake could be with all the ingredients I just listed. And the beautiful thing about cake is there isn't just one favorite recipe or list of ingredients, you make different types of cake for different people based on their likes/environment (a wedding cake for a large wedding vs. a two year old's birthday party for example); programs should be no different but catered to community needs. And when the cake party comes where we can try a slice of each of the myriad homemade different cakes, think what a delectable and satisfying day that will be. Far more so then trying a slice of only one cake that is mass produced.

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