Three Take-aways from the World Sistema Movement in 2018

Collage of the wide range of experiences for the Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra 2018, Birmingham, England.

I crawl away from the excruciating geopolitical year of 2018 with three new conclusions about the global El Sistema-inspired movement. I am slow to adopt new assertions, for several reasons: because we have so little statistical data that provides clarity and solid foundation; because we didn’t improve our communications patterns this year to support more exchange, and so we haven’t learned together as I hope we will someday; and because we have been accused of over-claiming our accomplishments. So I am cautious; but offer these three observations as claims we can make, if we make them carefully and build on them.

1. Sistema goals can be more fully realized when rehearsals and sectionals are supplemented by other kinds of musical learning, if well done.

An increasingly big question for our field is: do we best achieve the primary Sistema goal of social/personal change through dedicated focus to orchestral music (following our Venezuelan model, until it too began to diversify in the last decade), or does a mixed-focus musical model work better in many countries? Having been around mixed-focus experiments and heard about many others in recent years, I finally feel sure that musical achievement is not set back by taking some time away from orchestral rehearsal to dedicate to creative and exploratory work.  In fact, high engagement in musical activities like composition, improvisation, and ensemble exploration can improve the quality of the orchestral performance.  The gains in terms of increased student intrinsic motivation and engagement, and the activation of student voice, more than compensate for the decreased rehearsal hours; the gains are both in student social/personal development (our primary goal) and in musical mastery.  Of course these musical explorations need to be well done, to succeed in this way, but they don’t have to be perfect.  If the teaching is enthusiastic and genuinely musical, if it really does turn over creative challenge to the learners and welcome their musical ideas and voices, and if students care personally about the music they are making and are proud of the results, it works.

2018 was the year we learned that such experimentation can become more than experiments or one-shot events; it can be a consistent features of programs. This inaugurates a new chapter in field-wide Sistema learning for 2019.  Of course this doesn’t mean all programs need to change their structure to include individual and collaborative composition and improvisation, partnering with non-orchestral musicians, or creating student-designed and student-led ensemble performances.  But it does mean we have to listen hard to colleagues who are trying new work like this, and we have to increase our experimentation.  If you read about an experiment in The WE that interests you, please follow up by contacting the program directly.  This is how we learn as a field, and 2019 is the year for accelerated learning in this area.

2. We are succeeding.

We all wish we had reliable data on student high school graduation rates, college matriculation rates, police-involvement rates, and measures of family and community impact. We don’t. But the lack of hard numbers doesn’t mean we aren’t succeeding, and we can offer some careful statements of success based on widespread anecdotal reports.

Strong Sistema programs seem to be having a significantly positive effect on high school graduation rates around the world.  In many communities that have long suffered with low graduation rates, there are dramatic increases – in North America and some Western European areas (two regions where reports of such findings are more common), these numbers are approaching 100% graduation rates, or are at least significantly higher than community averages.  This is a strong marker for success in the Sistema movement’s highest goal. Similarly, there are accruing reports that students in Sistema programs achieve dramatically higher rates of college matriculation than do their non-Sistema peers.  Let’s remember that we can’t claim proven causality – that the increased educational attainments are the direct result of the Sistema program – because there are many factors affecting these young lives.  But the correlative and anecdotal case is so consistent and strong that we can now share it proudly.

No statistics are available about police involvement with Sistema youth in communities that struggle with painfully persistent youth “offender” realities.  However, the anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that police involvement with Sistema youth is clearly less than with other youth in their communities.  Again we can’t claim causality based on such insubstantial evidence, but we can start to recognize that we are achieving the goal that parents, community leaders and program leaders care deeply about; we are keeping our students on a positive path through dangerous years.

3. We are struggling with retention.

In general, our student retention rates seem pretty high, especially when we consider that we demand a significant commitment of them, and that some percentage of students will always drop out as they discover their interests in other kinds of exploration have superseded their passion for music. However, in the past year, I have heard many programs express increased concern about retention between middle school and high school years. Among programs that end before high school, I have heard increased frustration that their plans for feeding students into other rewarding musical experiences during high school aren’t working as well as they intended.  This is another area where we need to focus our communication with one another this year, to learn more about both realities and experiments.  This is the year to hold focus groups of students who are leaving and those who are staying, and share what you learn.

As the year unfolds, The WE will continue to provide a forum for sharing your learning, asking key questions, and disseminating essential information.  Please let us help you to help others – send us your news and your ideas for articles.  Please forward this to colleagues to update them on what we are learning as a field, to improve our communications patterns in 2019 so the reflection a year from now accurately reflects our collective accomplishments.

Author: Eric Booth, Publisher, The World Ensemble

Date: 31 December 2018

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