Friday, October 15, 2010

El Sistema for Dummies?

Wouldn't it be great to have a book, El Sistema for Dummies: a practical, step-by-step approach to development in the United States? If this book were to be published, wouldn't it create a more accessible way to further the El Sistema movement in the U.S.? Though this seems like a promising idea, the answer is emphatically No. To be sure, senior leaders in El Sistema USA, past and current Abreu Fellows, and others who have independently studied El Sistema, are working to create resources and literature that can help inform all who are interested. Furthermore, a forthcoming book by Tricia Tunstall and documentary by Jamie Bernstein will become invaluable resources for El Sistema USA.

However, to publish a Dummies book, or a handy step-by-step manual would belittle an incredible system that has been growing and evolving for over 30 years. I can think of three big problems with such a publication:

1. Every El Sistema inspired program in the U.S. will look, feel, and sound different based on myriad factors including community characteristics and demographics, leadership and partnering organizations, funding sources, and so on.

2. By the time the book would be written, it would be immediately outdated. El Sistema in Venezuela and in the U.S. is constantly adapting and evolving to better serve its mission of social justice through musical excellence.

3. A rigid, top-down approach will never translate into a successful U.S. nucleo. Instead, there must be a careful combination of organizational fluidity with a top-to-bottom commitment to mission, core values, goals, and pedagogy.

Along these lines, I want to briefly address a question that Eric Booth posed in one of his sessions this past Tuesday. What is the VERB for the El Sistema-related work we are doing in the U.S.? To put it a more Mad Libian kind of way, one of our primary goals is to (verb) El Sistema in the USA. There seems to be a sense that we have yet to come up with just the right verb to properly describe the goal of so many practitioners. Here are a handful that have been suggested, have been used in various publications, and that I have just come up with off the top of my head:

create, reflect, distill, imitate, translate, adapt, build, transcribe, develop, emulate...

I don't know that it is necessary to decide on one, and only one, verb to use, but it certainly exemplifies the difficulty inherent in any attempt to write El Sistema for Dummies. Every day we learn something new, something more, as long as we are willing to learn and be open to new and different ideas. While print and online resources are immensely useful and important to our work, I don't believe there is a direct path to El Sistema in the U.S. This reality is not a hindrance but, to borrow from Ben Zander, an opportunity to revel in the art of possibility.

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