The Generous Laboratory:
El Sistema-inspired Programs as a Part of the Music Education Ecosystem
By Eric Booth
All dedicated music educators share the same DNA, and even share much of the same heart, gut, intuitions, and sets of skills. We share core beliefs, common aspirations, and many similar practices. Good practitioners can move from one kind of program to another without much adjustment. Whether we remember this or not on a daily basis, we are all in this together and made of the same stuff.
While there are differences between different kinds of music learning programs and traditions, different artistic and cultural priorities, those differences are more like different outfits than different anatomy. However, the way our shared DNA and goals play out in the organizational realities of our field tends to make us take the commonalities for granted and exaggerate the differences. We feel far more separate than we actually are.
In our best selves as music educators, thinking with our common DNA, we recognize that success in any part of our ecosystem is success for all of our ecosystem. Our shared beliefs are not in a competitive league in which one program loses when another one wins. However, the scarcity thinking that music education organizations live within can make us think more like corporations fighting for survival and market share in a competitive environment. Such thinking is unsurprising in a field that is peripheralized, under-resourced, and under-respected—a field that requires heroic efforts to provide even modest results—when we all know the enormity of the potential benefits we could provide if allowed. Scarcity-thinking entrenches envy and thickens the walls of the silos we work within. Scarcity-thinking, natural as it is given the stressful realities of our funding, contributes to our weakness as a sector, within the education system, within the arts industries, in the eyes of our communities and culture. Yes, yes, lots of good work happens in many locations in spite of everything stacked against us, but as a sector we have not found a way to add up to more than our separate parts.
This essay does not propose a lofty (but impracticable) way to rethink the ecosystem of music education. Rather, it focuses on one small and relatively new part of the field; one in which I have been able to pour in a lot of energy and observe its recent growth. I propose a way for that one subsection of the field to enact in small what could be a productive example it could set for all.
The sector I am focusing on is the El Sistema-inspired (ES-i) movement of programs launched in the last handful of years that aspire to bring the accomplishments of El Sistema in Venezuela to our children on U.S. soil. How can this disorganized young movement, currently active in some 65 cities, and over 100 sites, with some ten thousand students involved, constructively contribute to the larger whole? The international movement can boast almost one million students, in some 55 countries, with Venezuela involving about 400,000 students at this time.
I call the U.S. ES-i movement disorganized because it does not have a national organization or leadership to guide it. (A nascent membership Alliance may begin to provide some coherence before too long.) Its growth has been something of a wild west boom town phenomenon. Programs pop up independently, wherever inspired individuals find a patch of fertile soil in which to plant the seed of inspiration transported from Venezuela. The programs look very different, have different partners, use different practices and language, but share core values and are beginning to communicate with enough regularity to learn from one another’s experiences. Their funders are not the usual arts education funders, but are a jumble of private and public sources that have enthusiastically caught the same gut feel of potential significance that the local founders have. I often argue that sustainability for the movement depends on programs convincing public agencies they actually deliver on the promises of social change—but that is a topic for another essay.
The ES-i movement has been so busy getting started, with the leaders of the sites working so hard with their heads down trying to grow organizationally and educationally, that they often neglect communicating with and partnering with other parts of their local music education community. Few have been active partners connecting with their local ecosystem to date because the leaders have been so swamped. To me it feels like an entrepreneur ignoring his or her family for a time in the crazy demands of starting a business. Such inattention is not to be ignored or condoned, but, given reality and the limits of human capacity to do everything we would like to do, it happens. It is time to remember the local music education family and start attending to what is important in the bigger picture—which prompts this essay. Actually, I think this process has begun. A number of ES-i programs have developed promising relationships with other music learning organizations in their area, and some present excellent examples of partnership with school music programs. I recommend readers explore what is being accomplished at the San Diego Youth Symphony’s Community Opus Project (http://www.sdys.org/community-opus-project), at ORCHKids of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (http://www.bsomusic.org/main.taf?p=11,1) and at El Sistema Colorado (http://elsistemacolorado.org) where deep relationships with schools are deepening, and eloquently demonstrating the synergy that is possible. Those are just a few examples of what is possible and are not the focus of this essay—but deserve at least an essay of their own, and soon.
In all honesty, I must admit that the ES-i movement sometimes unintentionally exacerbates its separation from the local music education ecosystem. The passion that explodes into these new programs can seem self-important, and can seem disinterested in, and disrespectful of, the existing ecosystem it enters. Even worse, the zealous enthusiasm for the success in Venezuela and the chance to bring it here can feel cultish and exclusive. This isn’t the attitude of ES-i leaders at all, but given the established ecosystem they enter, lack of respectful attention and genuine partnering can lead to negative attitudes. I have heard more than a few longtime heroes of music education say, “Here comes the new flavor of the month, and what is my 27 years of success—chopped liver?” And even more urgently: “Are they going to take away some of my already-inadequate funding?”
Such sensitivities are fuelled by the typically-American competitive-commercial “market” framework in which we see tend to view a local scene. Programs fight for funding and growth—the winners are not always the most effective at producing musical results, but those who have used their assets well, who have marketed and fund-raised well. Good work does matter in the short- and long-term, but often does not win out over other organizational strengths like charisma, powerful champions, and history. Living within this dominant framework, many in the music education world are less than enthusiastic about the arrival of El Sistema-inspired programs in the U.S. We can change this. The ES-i movement can create new space in which all music education can benefit and improve.
A fourth cohort of Sistema Fellows at New England Conservatory graduated this May 2013. These ten young leaders, from many different perspectives, came to consensus about a key issue of the relationship of El Sistema-inspired pedagogy in relation to the many other good music education approaches. Their year of intense study and practice brought them to this conclusion: They feel it is not productive for the ES-I field to try to identify distinctively “El Sistema” music teaching practices. They say it is the wrong question—many good music pedagogies can be effective in an El Sistema-inspired program. This group of Fellows says the productive questions delve into the atmosphere, the learning conditions, the mission, and the structures of a program. They feel it is the context that matters most and that deserves study and research because within a strong ES-i context almost any good teaching practice will lead toward El Sistema-inspired goals for students and communities.
This group of Fellows offer their conclusion to the entire field. Does it seem true to you? If so, that is consistent with the example from Venezuela, where the leaders are hungry to learn from and adapt good practices from every possible source.
If this view is true for our field, it has implications for our relationship with the other players in the music education ecosystem. The laboratory of El Sistema-inspired programs is studying how to create learning centers that produce results as powerful as Venezuela’s. ES-i programs are not labs researching distinctive teaching practices; they are labs that use tools others use, but experiment to create motivating and caring contexts that intensify existing learning tools to produce life-transformative results for children and communities.
A NEW FRAMEWORK FOR SEEING THE ECOSYSTEM
In October 2010, the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium convened a small, invited national forum of leaders of the El Sistema-inspired movement to meet with other key leaders in the music education field. The goal was to introduce the El Sistema movement to the rest of the field. The meeting was prompted by a growing awareness of misunderstandings and concerns in the music education field because the El Sistema-inspired movement had not communicated well about its identity, its goals, or its view of the larger field it was playing within. El Sistema was gaining visibility in the popular media (a series of segments on 60 Minutes, feature films, enthusiastic articles, widely viewed YouTube segments, etc.); the movement had a celebrity superstar in Gustavo Dudamel, programs were proliferating, but no one had properly introduced the movement to the larger field. Participants in the Forum included: a handful of ES-i leaders (Mark Churchill and Stephanie Scherpf from El Sistema USA, and ES-i program leaders from San Diego, Los Angeles, and New York), and the leaders from MENC (Music Educators National Conference, now NAfME, National Association for Music Education, at the time called MENC), NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants), MTNA (Music Teachers National Association), VH-1/Save the Music, ASTA (American String Teachers Association), Arts Schools Network, The League of American Orchestras, Chorus America, Arts Education Partnership, Carnegie Hall, The National Guild for Community Arts Education, and the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium.
I had provoked the Forum and co-facilitated it (with consultant Greg Kandel). I had been concerned by the false assumptions arising in the vacuum of good information, and was impressed to witness how readily those concerns fell away as key players got a feel for the true hopes and realities of the movement. No, ES-i was not a franchise model that hoped to spread fast to every city and town. No, it did not intend to supplant or absorb youth orchestral programs in the U.S. No, it did not want to damage or deplete support for school music programs—quite the contrary. ES-i leaders had aspirations to dramatically contribute to in-school music programs, but had never had the occasion to broadcast that wish. In just a few hours, the distrust dissipated and the common DNA began to appear.
After that Forum, two ideas surfaced that all agreed would lay a healthier foundation for everyone’s success. Neither of those ideas has yet taken hold, mostly because the disorganization in the El Sistema-inspired movement has prevented proper communication and focus. Thanks to those Forum members and their organizations for their patience—we will get there. This essay re-introduces those two ideas to re-invigorate our true intent to be strong contributors to the larger field of music education, and proposes two courses of action.
ACTION ONE: A STATEMENT OF INTENT
Right after the Forum, I drafted a statement that reflected what those in the Forum offered as essential views for the ES-i movement to announce loudly and clearly, and that the ES-i participants agreed with. I hoped this statement would be adopted by all ES-i sites in the U.S.—indeed, I hoped it would appear on every program’s website across the country. My fitful efforts to enroll the movement in endorsement and public adoption of the statement never gained enough momentum, and the initiative languished. Here is the statement drafted at that time (slightly adjusted). Does the ES-i field wish to adopt it at this time? Perhaps we can do so. Perhaps bolder versions of it can now be proposed and adopted? What does it say if we continue to let it languish, unattended to?
"The El Sistema-inspired (ES-i) movement is honored to enter the rich, historic, and evolving ecosystem that provides and guides music learning for young people in the U.S. As new members of this dedicated community, ES-i movement leaders work diligently to develop their growing number of sites and also to become active, supportive colleagues to the existing players in the field.
All stakeholders in the music learning field share many core beliefs, among them that, if given adequate resources, music education can transform young lives, can contribute significantly to the health and vitality of communities, and can make a powerful contribution to solving social problems. All stakeholders in the ES-i field recognize that each contributor, whether in-school or out-of-school time, and whatever the musical genre, instructional emphasis or location, offers a distinct and valuable contribution to the highest shared aspiration to tap the power of music in young lives for lifelong benefit.
The El Sistema-inspired movement recognizes that its particular contribution brings some distinct advantages that could catalyze the provision of resources and visibility for the entire ecosystem; these include a highest-priority focus on developing the social capabilities of underserved and at-risk populations through ensemble musical endeavor, a priority to engage and activate family and community involvement, a connection to the world-celebrated model of El Sistema in Venezuela (an historically unparalleled accomplishment), and a requirement that all students commit an unusually large number of hours every week.
All El Sistema-inspired sites in the U.S. will be watchful for any harmful unintended consequences of the launch of new programs and will work with local partners to raise the level of all stakeholders to deepen the impact on young lives. It is our hope that the healthy growth of the El Sistema-inspired movement in the U.S. will spur the commitment to increase school music programs and greater engagement by the music industries and professionals in support of music learning by all our young people.
Beyond the wording of good intentions—actions speak louder than words. I urge all El Sistema-inspired programs to examine this statement, see if they can get behind it (or if they need to amend it), and actively present this view to their local music education ecosystem. (In some time the emerging Alliance may be able to lead the movement to a national statement, but let’s not wait any longer, when we can begin to build bridges now.) I use the word “active” because we are delayed in building good friendships, and we have some goodwill to earn. It would be a good start to place such a statement prominently on every website, but it seems to me that more pro-active efforts are needed at this point."
ACTION TWO: INITIATE A NEW FRAMEWORK
Here is the alternative framework I propose to ES-i programs which are another offering within the current competitive, silo-ed, disempowered status quo: The El Sistema-inspired movement in the U.S. is a laboratory that develops and new and intensifies existing approaches and practices which can be applied by others to enrich all music education programs.
We have a responsibility to the larger music education field, given that we build upon what exists, and that we are in a fortunate position with: more hours with students than traditional programs; the greater freedom to experiment that after-school settings provide (most ES-i programs fall outside school hours); a sense of newness, momentum, media visibility, the stupendous example of Venezuela, and rock star Gustavo Dudamel that give our work extra (perhaps temporary) excitement; a clean slate to work with since our students usually have little background in ensemble music; the focus with youth development goals on artistically-underserved students which activates non-traditional stakeholders and supporters. This fortunate position, supported largely by funders who are not the usual arts education funders, enables us to serve as a laboratory for the larger music learning ecosystem. As we experiment to realize “El Sistemaness” with our students in our communities, we will pilot, develop, and refine approaches and learning contexts that achieve the youth development goals we seek above all. These are goals that all music learning programs also hope to provide—we must never forget that. As we learn from our fortunate laboratory situation and distill new understandings, we can and will share them with our colleagues in other music learning programs for them to use in ways that increase their impact—we contribute our best to music learning for all young people.
Some music educators think El Sistema-inspired work is merely the work good other programs already do with a few added hours of contact per week. They wouldn’t buy the laboratory metaphor; they think of ES-i work as merely a schedule enhancement to current practice. I disagree. Here is a thought experiment I have offered in workshops to clarify my point. You know a bit about, or can imagine something about, soccer development programs. They start with little children, and develop their skills through practice and competition over many years, producing good learning along the way, and identifying a few kids with extraordinary talent and drive. Imagine a different kind of soccer league. One with a different set of goals, and one that was allowed to develop over three decades, apart from contact with the normal soccer programs. The goal of this imaginary different soccer league is to develop great citizens, not great soccer players. Can you imagine what three decades of fierce dedication to creating great citizens through intensive soccer play might look like? In what ways might that league’s practices (allowed to develop apart from other leagues) come to look different than a traditional soccer program?
In workshops, people imagine significant differences. They see big differences in the priorities for “who plays,” with different rules for who sits on the bench and for how long. They imagine the feel of competition in games becoming very different, with another set of criteria for what makes a good game, for excellent play, and for success that is more complex than the winning-or-losing definitions in traditional play. They imagine different relationships among players, different kinds of drills and practice techniques. They imagine a different locker room vibe, and differences in players’ lives outside of practice. You get the idea.
Three decades of passionate dedication to the goal of developing citizens through intensive musical striving is likely to produce different teaching and learning atmospheres and practices than our norms. El Sistema in Venezuela has. And the El Sistema-inspired movement beyond Venezuela is committed to discovering how we can follow that beacon of inspiration from Venezuela in our own way on our own nation’s various cultural soils. Peek into an ES-i rehearsal on any given day, and what you see would not look much different than what you would see in a typical music education classroom. Just as a glance at that citizen-soccer program practice would not look very different than a traditional soccer practice. But there are differences, important differences. That is why the work of ES-i programs is a lab. A laboratory for discovering new ways to more effectively: develop our young people as responsible, joyful, contributing citizens; nurture their intrinsic motivation to strive, risk, persist, and create musical excellence; build a safe and energized community within the learning center that radiates into the local community; and find a lifetime of joy in music. ES-i programs must commit to eagerly and effectively sharing what we discover with the entire music education ecosystem.
We must also be patient in sharing; the rest of the field may not be eager to learn from our learning. Persistent generosity with learners is the very nature of El Sistema work; we don’t give up on those who don’t warm to the work right away. It is our responsibility to share what we learn, patiently, persistently, and effectively, for the benefit of all young people who engage with music.
El Sistema is not a program or a curriculum; it is an inquiry. As ES-i programs invest in the inquries of their local labs, I propose that they are particularly likely to learn in the following areas. These are key accomplishments in Venezuela, and they brighten the beacon our paths of inquiry find and follow. We are learning about:
Nurturing student motivation
I believe that the extraordinary accomplishments in Venezuela principally result from their ability to awaken, nurture, and channel passionate hunger in young people to pour themselves into music, and to achieve the highest excellence individually and as a group. As the Harvard Project Zero research reminds us (in The Qualities of Quality), and as we know in our bones, there is no more important area for experimentation in our fortunate laboratory than into ways we can even more effectively nurture students’ intrinsic passion to make beautiful music with others and for others. [The HPZ study reports that the single greatest determinant of quality in arts education is not the instruction but the motivation of the learner.] Not just for the few who happen to explode with inherent musical enthusiasm, but for the many, including those with no special talent nor inborn or familial zeal. The lab is working on ways to awaken and cultivate this yearning in all young people, and on ways to create a learning environment that embraces everyone in the pleasures and satisfactions of artistic pursuit. Strong intrinsic motivation fuels the intensity of El Sistema work, including the long hours, the high quality of attention and intention during those hours, the extended learning beyond those hours, and the productive, playful, sustainably focused culture of the learning center. I have described the El Sistema approach as “passion provokes precision”—meaning that personal investment in the music accelerates the improvement of technical skills; and they don’t lose this balance of priorities in their teaching. Pressure about technique disconnected from musical pleasures and public successes that the learner cares about discourages longterm social and musical development. Conversely, situating technique in the service of desire for better expression of what you care about accelerates technical, musical, and social development.
Imagine how useful it could be for all music programs to get fresh ideas from colleagues about additional ways to intensify students’ investment in music making. Imagine how much everyone might learn from the experiments in the lab about additional ways of improving musical technique.
Fostering peer-to-peer learning
It is said that the omnipresence of peer-to-peer learning in Venezuela arose from a lack of teachers, so learners had to teach one another. The foundational saying from Jose Antonio Abreu goes: “If you know how to play four notes, it is your responsibility to teach your friend who only knows three. And in teaching him the fourth, you become better prepared to learn your fifth.” Peer instruction in El Sistema emerges organically from student’s owning the responsibility for the ensemble’s improvement, from a compassionate empathy for those who are less adept, and from the natural youthful sense of the fun of playing together. The laboratory of ES-i programs is experimenting in two ways: 1) intentionally, by provoking peer instruction through mentoring, pairing more experienced students with less experienced in various ways, often enough that it becomes regular practice; and 2) intuitively, by observing and adding elements to the everyday learning mix that may result in students spontaneously helping other students in a dozen little ways, in a shared, empathetic, aspiration to improve.
Imagine how useful it could be for all music educators to learn from the trial and error discoveries of colleagues about ways that encourage students to kindly, spontaneously, frequently help one another get better in every kind of ensemble. Imagine the applicability of good ideas that could emerge from using mentoring of various kinds as a key feature of a learning program.
A distinctive feature of El Sistema is that almost all instruction is in groups, in sectionals, full ensembles, and choruses. While the precious bonus of private instruction does happen in Venezuela (with more time allocated for young people who enter their “academy” track for the most talented and most motivated, leading to conservatory study), the deep body of instructional accomplishment is group learning. The laboratory of ES-i teaching is learning how to become more effective in group instruction, to gain not only its cost-effective benefits, but the youth development benefits of learning in ensemble. I happened to be working in Colombia’s El Sistema program (called Batuta) right after the students in the country’s top national youth orchestra (comprised of Batuta students and others) had a monthlong learning retreat. The month included an intensive week with a team of the top U.S. conservatory teachers, and then a week with teachers from Venezuela’s El Sistema. I heard these young musicians compare the two approaches. They said the U.S. teachers had great technique, played brilliantly, were generous, and offered a wealth of technical tips and ideas they had never heard before. However, they found they were not very demanding in sectional work, were inconsistent in the way they taught, were overly serious, tired easily, and didn’t know how to advance the group as a whole. The Venezuelan teachers, they said, were not as good as players, didn’t have so many useful technical tips, but were consistent, demanding, fun, tireless, and moved the whole group ahead relentlessly. They said they admired and loved the U.S. teachers, but learned more from the Venezuelans. Smart kids that they are, they said they would prefer both kinds of instruction if they could have them (and Colombian and Venezuelan El Sistema programs seek to provide both), but the effective work in the group was the more important.
Of course many good U.S. music educators teach well in groups, certainly chorus, band and orchestra leaders have good ways of working. Imagine how useful it could be for all music educators to learn about new ways to advance group learning from the deep body of knowledge and unprecedented accomplishments in Venezuela, refined for U.S. learners in the ES-I labs.
Designing a many-year continuum
El Sistema starts with children as young as possible, two and three year olds participating with parents if possible, and guides them through a developmental progression that takes them into high school and beyond. Beginning in musical play and singing, moving into instruments, and into passion for Mahler and more. They have created an intuitive progression that organically builds motivation, love of music, social responsibility, pleasure in the work, and determination to achieve excellence. Over these years, they instill the sense of value, courage, efficacy, and ambition to such a degree that students change their beliefs about what is possible for them in life. In the ES-i labs, programs are learning about ways this organic development of interest and skill can work in our locales. ES-i teaching artists and program leaders are experimenting with approaches that longitudinally build inner skills through musical success, and the teaching artists are early in learning what fascinates, challenges, and delights students at different developmental stages in ways that impel them into greater commitment and responsibility.
We don’t have the El Sistema luxury of so many years of sustained, extensive contact with young people, but imagine how useful it could be for all music educators to learn from ES-i colleagues about their discoveries in the lab setting that provides so many hours for years. Learning about how to lead students from musical play, into notation, into ensemble, into high achievement, organically and intensively. Even when such practices may not be adaptable to a particular music program, they can inform a local music education field about how to coordinate the learning journey for their young musicians in a network of programs. Also, the students of ES-i lab programs can serve as inspirational leaders for students in school music programs.
Changing the nature of performance
In El Sistema, students perform frequently. A visitor walking into the rehearsal room is an occasion for a performance, and so are occasions in the community, from a holiday, to a celebration, to a ribbon cutting for a new building. Frequent performances boost focus and ambition to prepare new material and to show your best, increase their public visibility and recognition of accomplishment. They also reduce the “special occasion” separateness from rehearsal, reduce fear, and foster courage during performance. It is an almost mysterious accomplishment of El Sistema that musicians are much less afraid of making mistakes than U.S. musicians are; they have a bold gusto in performance that energizes it, and enhances the fun for everyone. There is deep social learning in this subtle adjustment—the audience is not a critical “other,” but a “we”—a community that cares, is eager and appreciative, and wants what you have to give. In ES-i labs, ensembles perform more often than most learning groups, and performance is adjusted from the one shot “spring concert” pressure to a more natural and regular sharing of where they are at in a long, ongoing musical improvement.
Imagine how useful it could be for all music educators to explore additional ways performance can be used to reduce fear, to intensify improvement, and to build community with ES-i colleagues who have been focusing on such experiments and how they work.
Expanding teachers' roles
In El Sistema, students see their teachers in multiple roles, and some in the first cohort of NEC’s Sistema Fellows described them as CATS—citizens, artists, teachers, and scholars. Venezuelan teachers are actively visible as community activists to make good things happen outside of the “nucleo.” They perform in ensembles, and their students come to see them. They teach, but even more, they learn in front of their students, trying new things, experimenting, preparing new music, taking workshops the students know about. Teachers also get involved personally with young people, learning about the realities of their home life and becoming a reliable, consistent, loving presence, who is dedicated to striving for beauty. In the ES-i labs, teaching artists experiment with appropriate and effective ways to share their full artistry, their full selves, with students, and learn how this enriches the learning environment and student musical accomplishment. (And how it enriches the teaching artists’ own lives.)
Of course great music educators in the U.S. already expand their role beyond mere instructor. Imagine how useful it could be to be in dialogue with ES-i colleagues who have been trying to take the expansion further in appropriate ways, and have talked about it with their colleagues over time, and have some sense of ways that adding new aspects to their instructional roles benefits U.S. learners.
When I first met Gustavo Dudamel for a brief minute backstage before we made an entrance, I asked him why El Sistema works so well. He said, “Two things. Every child must feel like an asset. We never forget fun.” It is true. In El Sistema, students are having fun at every level of their development—from the toddlers’ play with plastic shaker-eggs to the teenagers’ struggling with a difficult passage in Beethoven. The accomplishment is that the fun is always in the learning, within the musical work. It sometimes includes a playful kind of competition, or gamelike ways of refining technique, but the experience of striving and pleasure are suffused. And the pleasures include satisfaction at improvement, joy in the emergence of beauty, slowly mastering a really difficult challenge, and love for one another. We may call it “fun,” but it is simply “how it is” inside an El Sistema nucleo. As an El Sistema student put it simply, “Making music with my friends is the fun. And it is endless.” In ES-i labs, teaching artists are hard at work, every day, in discovering new ways to bring relentless pleasure into the longterm intensive learning process. Learning how to meld and guide intentional work and playful experience. One of El Sistema’s mottos is “tocar y luchar”—to play and to strive.
Imagine how useful it could be for all music educators to learn new ways that dedicated ES-i colleagues have been exploring to make the processes of musical learning more fun and productive, and how to create a working environment where fun is just how it is.
ACTION THREE: HOW TO SHARE EFFECTIVELY WITH OTHERS
How can ES-i programs share their lab findings with colleague music educators in their local areas? Few programs have a working mechanism to accomplish this, so we are going to have to make it up. I suggest four approaches.
Get the Lab together. Most ES-i programs think of themselves as learning laboratories for the students, but not as labs for the larger music education field. To adopt this framework, program leaders need to pull together what they are learning on a regular basis, as part of the life and professional responsibility of the program. They need to make a commitment to being learning organizations. Reflective and evaluative work of this kind happens naturally in programs that dedicate themselves to continual improvement, and program evaluation practices provide opportunities (often required opportunities) to distinguish what is being learned. But an extra, intentional focus on this question would accelerate the distillation process to make their learning useful to others: What have we learned in experimenting with teaching practices and creating a learning environment focused on ES-i goals?
Begin partnerships. It may begin with a series of lunches with local colleagues or invitations to observe one another’s programs. Make connections with other local leaders and honestly, openly, see if there are mutually-beneficial connections to be made. For example, if you can make a good connection with the school district arts education coordinator, perhaps a series of after-school meetings with music educators could begin. Or if you resonate with the leader of a local community music school, perhaps faculty mixers or even exchanges could ensue. Can you build projects with the education program of your local orchestra? These can build to ongoing partnerships where both parties gain, and get better in their work by working together. Let me recognize that such partnerships are appearing in the ES-i movement in many cities. My impression from anecdotal report is that the vast majority of them go well, and are of mutual benefit. Also, I sense that the partnerships that are entered more slowly, with more exploratory investigation and planning on the front end, tend to work out better over the long term.
Build stakeholder networks. This is a stated article of faith in the ES-i movement: to achieve the youth development goals that are our highest priority, we can’t do it alone. We have to engage the commitment and support of organizations with special expertise, with parallel missions, including a set of non-arts dedicated enthusiasts. For our students, we have to build a net of support that will enable them to succeed, and we need others to make the net strong. The larger arts learning community is an essential part of that net, so is the local arts community. To earn their commitment as stakeholders, we must be actively generous to help them fulfill their goals. ES-i programs around the U.S. are trying to build stakeholder networks, with greater and lesser success. It takes a lot of energy because the old frameworks discourage or deflect the effort. Some get lucky and find one or a few willing partners, usually based on discovering simpatico individuals who can see the mutual benefit. However, we all must take on the commitment to patient and persistent cultivation of colleagues—individuals, programs, organizations and public agencies—who support, get involved, extend, and celebrate the ES-i endeavor. One of the most valuable things we can contribute to this cultivation process is our best learning about what works. The high end of stakeholder network commitment is “collective impact.” The term is used to describe a promising kind of multi-organizational initiative (coined and led by FSG Consulting) that focuses on an important community goal, and coordinates everyone’s efforts to achieve it together. An example of such a goal might be cutting high school dropout rate by half—and all the players align their efforts to achieve that goal. ES-i stakeholder networks need to grow over time into collective impact kinds of planning and effectiveness to maximize our students’ chance of achieving the high goals we aspire to. This is the work of many years of network building, and is in my view essential in the long run to achieve our fullest sustainable success; but it begins in knowing who we are and what our promising practices are, and sharing them with all, to build deeper partnerships.
Launch communications mechanisms. How do we effectively communicate what we are learning about the key areas above to others who care about such issues? Most programs now have a regular newsletter that shares the activity of the site—they tend to be celebratory and promotional. Are there other ways to regularly share the laboratory learning with local colleagues? Maybe it could start with a regular feature in that newsletter about what is being learned—not in a promotional way, but in a collegial way. Maybe there is an additional regular newsletter prepared for the audience of local stakeholders. Maybe there are regular open-house afternoons where you share the work, or where you go to others’ sites. Let others know how much you want to be in exchange and see what they can devise as workable ways to share. Over time, perhaps there could be an extension to The Ensemble, the national newsletter for the ES-i movement, dedicated to learning in a nation of ES-i labs. At this early stage, try things, see what works, and let your colleagues in the ES-I movement know.
That makes three action steps. 1. Actually become the laboratory for intentionally experimenting and discerning what is being learned that might be useful to others. 2. Experiment with ways to share your learning. Not just one-shot opportunities, but consistent practices that can make a program a regular contributor to the larger whole. 3. Build partnerships and a stakeholder network in which the ES-I lab becomes a valuable ongoing contributor to a wider set of music education and youth development players and goals.
The work of Colombia’s El Sistema program, called Batuta, provides some useful and inspiring guidance. Over 20 years old, it is the largest El Sistema program outside of its neighboring Venezuela, and was founded with support and guidance from Venezuelan leaders. A difference was that Colombia had more of an existing music education ecosystem than Venezuela did, when Batuta was founded. Batuta was formed to address the needs of children in refugee camps because of internal displacement from armed civil war conflicts. Successful in this goal, the program has grown across the country into areas with many existing music education programs, as we find in the U.S.. Batuta dedicates itself to enhancing music education success for all kids in Colombia. It has taken on two roles to make El Sistema-inspired activity work in their local ecosystems. 1. It provides direct services to the kids who fall between the cracks of others programs (largely the children of poverty or in more remote areas with little or no music education provided). These programs resonate with Venezuelan El Sistema practices (little surprise since Venezuelans did much of the professional development), although they have distinct differences from the learning in their own culture. 2. They undertake projects that challenge an entire local ecosystem together, to raise the level of everyone’s commitment and quality. These big projects (called “encuentros” or encounters) set everyone’s ambitions high, and Batuta provides professional development for all programs to help everyone succeed beyond what seemed possible. These big projects spawn a variety of ongoing partnerships and networks; they build trust and the experiential belief that they are all valuable parts of a larger whole. The programs in a region learn the core lesson of El Sistema itself—they are not just struggling alone, they are valuable assets contributing to a worthwhile, powerful, beautiful larger whole.
That is my vision for the U.S. too. Five years ago as El Sistema was first appearing on U.S. soil, Maestro Abreu was asked if the U.S. could succeed in bringing El Sistema to its soil. He answered, “We began with nothing. You have so much, how could you not succeed?” We do have a wealth of resources, which include our local music education communities. To tap that wealth, to become the catalyst our fortunate opportunity holds in potential, we have to become generous, effective, contributing learners for all. Now is the time. Adjusting Dudamel’s simple guidance: Every program must feel like an asset. Never forget that lab work is fun.
One last thought. This essay proposes a different framework for understanding the music education ecosystem—distilling and sharing learning from a particular music education program to effectively communicate with the larger whole. This kind of laboratory work is not limited to El Sistema-inspired work but applies to all the parts of that greater whole. If all the arts learning players embraced this framework as a practical functional way to advance everyone’s interests, were willing to be peer-to-peer learners, we might begin to change our frustratingly peripheral position in U.S. culture. I must remind everyone that “effectively communicating” your learning doesn’t just mean telling people what you know, and being discouraged if they don’t seem to “get it” or don’t seem to care. As described above, it means building connections and partnerships based on listening, and identifying the common aspirations so people want to learn from one another, and committing to succeeding together the way a musical ensemble does. Our current framework, and persistent history, makes many doubt they can communicate effectively with others in their local ecosystem, or that they have a potential greater success if they work together. We must begin there. I suggest ES-i programs can begin to break the entrenched framework, because they are new and energetic and gifted with unusual opportunities. To succeed in establishing a different framework, all of us in the music learning ecosystem must be willing to listen and be in dialogue, must be willing and ready to engage, must be the kind of active learners we hope to nurture in their programs. Let these habits and priorities begin with us. We are all experimenting colleagues in the generous lab. And the discoveries change and save lives, including our own.