On a recent adventure to Boston’s North End, I stumbled upon this:

Puzzled in the North End

Puzzled in the North End

The beauty of this image lies in its simplicity for me, and in its symbolic resonance at the beginning of an intentional journey.

SIDEBAR #1: I told myself I’d try to stay away from metaphors for this post, but I just can’t control myself! Indulge me one more time, and next time, I will seriously go for something new.

The last two weeks of the Abreu Fellowship have been spent flipping over various metaphorical puzzle pieces, examining them closely, and piecing them together in various configurations to figure out (a) what they look like, (b) how they fit together, and (c) where the heck they go in the bigger picture. Underlying all of this is my urgent sense of wrapping my head and body around the big picture: what is it, anyway?! We’ve been regularly exploring the umbrella question: “What is El Sistema?” We have an urgent need to also explore: What does El Sistema do? And what can it do that it isn’t doing already? We are already burrowing our way through all of these questions in our various seminar discussions, readings, site visits, independent projects, and all of our informal learning opportunities (of which there are so many!).

Specificity: For those who are interested in the nitty gritty details, here is a sampling of the juicy puzzle pieces the Abreu Fellows have been examining. We have had seminars on:

  • non-profit strategy with Beth Babcock, President and CEO of the Crittenton Women’s Union;
  • sociological perspectives on poverty and social mobility with Dr. Tom Shapiro, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Brandeis University, and Director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy
  • public benefit systems analysis with Dr. Randy Albelda, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts;
  • an ongoing public speaking seminar with Tony Woodcock, President of New England Conservatory. (The public speaking seminar is more like a puzzle piece that you pick up and realize is a mirror, for better or for worse, but it clearly fits together with the other pieces.); and
  • a set of seminars on the fundamentals of El Sistema education and organization with teaching artist and author Eric Booth; our fearless program director Erik Holmgren; Executive Director of Play On, Philly (and former Abreu Fellow) Stan ford Thompson; and most recently, Dan Trahey, Director of Artistic Program Development at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids.

PHEW! An interdisciplinary whirlwind, yet it all so beautifully fits together–in many different configurations, too. My brain is on overdrive–just the way I like it. We also just took our first expedition together out to visit Community MusicWorks in Providence, RI. (Post on this expedition forthcoming.) I’m really itching to get into some real music-making and music-teaching soon though, which is on my docket for this week!

Zooming Out: This bigger picture on the face of our metaphorical puzzle box is the ‘El Sistema movement’ in the U.S. There is indeed a movement that is emerging and rapidly developing across the country. What this movement means and looks like specifically is still yet to be clarified. One of the exciting projects that the Abreu Fellows are undertaking is a needs-assessment research project, aimed precisely at clarifying the work being done in ‘núcleos,’ or music centers that run El-Sistema-inspired programming in the U.S. We will be doing this in conjunction with the LA Philharmonic and the Longy School of Music. We will present our research findings at a Symposium in LA in January.

SIDEBAR #2: Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra will be performing at this Symposium as well. If your stomach and heart just flipped and fluttered with envy at that announcement, you should book it to LA for the symposium and to experience them in action. You will never be the same. If your stomach and heart experienced zero movement and sensation, you should watch this, and then you should spend the next half hour obsessively watching other clips of their performances on YouTube. Really.

Common Denominators: There are tons of ideas to unpack here related to an El Sistema philosophy and movement. All involve a continuous act of toggling back and forth between theory and practice, specificity and big-picture-context. With all of this toggling though, common denominators are helpful to consider as lenses or frames, while also remaining open to exploding old categories and creating new ones.

I highly, highly, highly recommend Eric Booth’s essay “El Sistema’s Open Secrets” for an analysis on philosophical elements that drive the success of El Sistema’s programming in Venezuela, across sites. Eric describes “four under-the-surface aspects of El Sistema that give it such power”:

  • Sustaining the dynamic tension between polarities.
  • The inquiry of continual improvement.
  • Embodying the mission—80% of what you teach is who you are.
  • The power of beauty, craft and community.

In what ways do these ideas apply–and not apply–to the work that you do? As a student, educator, activist, organizer, family member, or any other role that you play in your life? I’m always a firm believer that these ideas can have real resonance if you try them on for size, transfer them in different contexts, and test their limitations in new situations. In fact, many of the organizations that I’ve worked with in the last several years (e.g., Chester Children’s Chorus, Chinatown Youth Initiatives, CITYterm) are continually striving toward these ideals as well. These overlaps are telling, I think, and critical to keep in mind.

In terms of common denominators, I can also offer you a working definition that Dan Trahey of OrchKids and the Abreu Fellows generated today: El Sistema is a reaction to the decay of equal access to music education. It is accessible to ALL. It is ensemble-based. It is inherently and undoubtedly collaborative, with the ultimate goal being the well-being and success of the group. It embodies and promotes joy. It seeks to build an orchestral society that is a model society, propelled by love, struggle, intensity, and passion.

And yet, flexibility and spontaneity seem also to be critical components of El Sistema’s success, making common denominators helpful, but never definitive Gospel. Ultimately, no discussion of common denominators can be had without a focused emphasis on outcomes. This brings me back to our framing questions, that I’d like to think of as truly being in competition–NOT as rivals, but in the etymological sense of questions that “strive together.” (Thank you to Eric Booth for bringing this etymological definition to our attention at his fantastic seminar last week. A beautiful portrait of questions and ideas in Jennifer Kessler’s blog post on that particular seminar.) These live questions, again:

  • What is El Sistema?
  • What does El Sistema do? What can and will El Sistema do that it isn’t already doing?
  • And where do these principles already exist in ways that are live, dynamic, and transformative for all kinds of people?

And really, all of this discussing and thinking is helpful only to a certain extent, as a way to begin to paint one version of a bigger picture, in very broad strokes. Our outcomes need to be lived, achieved, done, experienced. If I could jump into a massive pool of puzzle pieces and swim around in them to get a better feel, that might be a neat way to take those small puzzle pieces and experience them newly, in turn creating a new bigger picture with new sensory components.

Itching for our next steps. More to come!