I've spent this week using some of my few Fulbright vacation days to go back home to the US, so I thought I would use this lack of activity as an opportunity to reflect on my experiences in Brazil so far as this is about the halfway point of the grant period.
During my visit to Projeto Musica nas Escolas in Barra Mansa, Vantoil de Souza, the founder and director, told me that their project is inspired by El Sistema and uses their philosophy while adapting it to their own unique set of circumstances. Now, I didn't have time to ask him in detail what he believes the philosophy of El Sistema is and what exactly they have changed about it, but the project does not openly label itself as an El Sistema-inspired program and it certainly wasn't started with the goal of being an" El Sistema program" in Brazil. Additionally, some other people I have talked with here in Brazil who know of the program tell me that, in their opinion, it's not really El Sistema.
But, does it matter?
I think what matters most are the goals a project has and the results they attain. Because I only visited the project in Barra Mansa for a couple hours, I don't know how much of an impact it has made on the children's lives. But one thing for sure is that in 10 years they have been able to bring music education to a large number children in their city (currently 26,000.)
Still, does it matter whether a project is "authentic," to what degree it has been changed and adapted or not from the original El Sistema? (And even within Venezuela, many things can vary drastically between different nucleos.)
It seems to me that the reason we are all mesmerized by El Sistema is that we all see how wonderful this is working in Venezuela and we simply want the same results in our own country for our youth. However, part of El Sistema's success in Venezuela is its own built-in flexibility, its own anti-systematic approach which gives the freedom for each city to design and do what they feel would be best for their kids and their community. At the same time, what is vitally important is that all of the nucleos are connected, united, share experiences and resources, and feed the same more-advanced orchestras that are higher up on the pyramid.
Yes, I think there are some principals, philosophies, and practices that define El Sistema, and we can take and learn from (although I think these have naturally developed through their sharing and finding out what works best.) But what about the name "El Sistema"? Do we exclude or ignore those that (1) don't openly profess themselves to follow "El Sistema" philosophies, yet still have the same noble goals, achieve wonderful results, and are overall pretty similar to El Sistema? Or those projects that claim to be El Sistema-inspired, yet actually are quite different from El Sistema, which could mean they (2) are insincere and are just using the name recognition and currently popularity of El Sistema to improve their image or something (and I have been told that unfortunately there are some like this here in Brazil,) or (3) are substantially different yet are still doing great work?
I think it would be against our best interests, and against the philosophy of El Sistema itself, to exclude and ignore the first and third of the above types of projects. We should be connecting all these different projects/nucleos together into a "system" (perhaps a better name would be a "network" or "alliance") so that they can accelerate their success and help each other, and then as a result they will naturally share and adopt the methods and practices that work best. (Unfortunately, I am finding that connecting and creating such an alliance is one of the things that Brazil is truly lacking and could learn some from what we in the USA are doing in this respect.)
In fact, I think that this may be one of the secrets of El Sistema, that it uses the concept of an orchestra as a model for society on all levels of organization. At the smallest level, each child works to be the best individual player he/she can be, and their playing is magnified when they are brought together in an orchestra as they create something greater and more beautiful than they ever could alone. Then all the orchestras and ensembles together create the effectiveness and greatness of a project/nucleo, and the nucleos then work together, share repertoire, ideas, and experience, and feed their best players into more advanced regional orchestras. So each person in the orchestra helps each other, and each project helps each other so that everyone is always creating something that is bigger than themselves.
Currently we see this in its largest and most advanced form in Venezuela, a network covering a whole country, but the next levels up would be that of a continental and then a global network of all these programs, hereby crossing all artificial boundaries. I think that Abreu himself believes this is the next step: a global system, not just similar programs doing similar things, but connecting them together matters just as much. Each country would then have regional and state orchestras, orchestras that represent the best players of the entire country (like the Simon Bolivar Orchestra does in Venezuela,) continental orchestras, and one world orchestra at the very top. All projects would share everything and help each other, yet would be very different in many aspects due to their own circumstances. Still, they would all have the same goals, just like a group of diverse people coming together to create a great orchestra.
So in a sense, "El Sistema" isn't a Venezuelan thing any more than it is anything else. It is just that the Venezuelans have figured out how to organize the first nationwide network of social music education programs and use the most effective core practices and principles, treating the orchestra as the model for everything it does.
The orchestra, or any large musical ensemble, is an incredible vehicle for demonstrating the concept of the collective being more important than the individual, yet each part is important and vital to creating the whole. This is true social counterpoint. This is truly living in harmony. This is why the orchestra is such a wonderful model for society: how we should deal with other humans, other forms of life, our environment, and our world itself. Yes, the orchestra has its flaws, it needs to be updated instrumentally and the professional culture has turned into something lamentable, but El Sistema has proven what amazing things the orchestra and this concept can do. (And, of course, the role of the conductor should not be of a dictator but of an inspiring leader, as most all people need at times.)
This awareness of our interconnectedness and our ability to act and think selflessly is something that is critical to solving perhaps all of the global crises we are experiencing today. Our society today teaches us to regard ourselves as the center of the universe, to prioritize our own needs and wants, to believe that our matters and problems are the most immediate and important, and that our actions often only effect ourselves.
But when we flip this worldview around and start realizing that we are all so deeply connected through something greater than our own selves, that everything doesn't exist in order to make us happy but we exist in order to make others happy, this in turn will give us the most fulfilling contentment we can find. Of course, this isn't a new idea at all. For example, Jesus said "If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all," and today there are many secular efforts underway, like this, this, and this, to help remind people of our inherent interconnectedness.
Beyond the organizational concept of an orchestra, the music itself can be a great example of this principle. I once read a great quote that went something like this (paraphrased as I don't remember it exactly) "All art is either selfish or selfless." It can either be created from a desire to gain praise ("Look at how fast I can play this piece!") or a desire to share something beautiful with others ("Listen to how beautiful this piece is!") I certainly confess that I am far from perfect in this respect, musically and in life in general, but I am trying to keep reminding myself of it. A great performance of a great orchestral work gives everyone, the players, audience, and composer, a sense that they have connected with something bigger than themselves. After all, a composer cannot perform an orchestra work him/herself, the players would have nothing to play if the composer didn't write it, and the audience nothing to listen to, so it only exists through the efforts of many coming together as one.
In this way, dedicated and great performances of large ensemble works foster this sense of connection through something that is greater than the sum of its parts and remind everyone involved of their deep interconnectedness. This is why I have dedicated my life to creating great music and am so interested in this fantastic model of music education which has the enormous potential to do so much good in our world.
This is why music can, to use the cliche, change the world.