Some years ago, I was mocked by a Sistema critic for my statement that the essence of Sistema learning environments is to love children into wholeness. Although my statement was taken out of context, to make a point (as Sistema’s most polemical critics tend to do), I took the critique seriously. I set that word on the side of my work advising and coaching Sistema programs to greater learning impact.
The quotation that was attacked was this: “Knowing how to love children into wholeness fills every hard-working hour of our practice.” I subsequently refrained from talking about love because it seemed too vague and soft in a music learning ecosystem that trades in accomplishment (preferably measurable), methodologies (with their lineages and politics), and economies (in the U.S., all serious social issues somehow begin and end in considerations of the economy).
However, the presence and power of love was sustained in my attention to the work, if not in my vocabulary. When I have cautioned the field (so many times) that “the gig mentality” is the biggest problem in the Sistema teaching field, I was thinking of love. The kind of professionalism that delivers a perfectly good sectional rehearsal and improves the difficult parts is not the same as love that is going to achieve the Sistema goal of social transformation. Yes, playing the music well can do a lot toward that goal, but children learn by example as much as by achievement. And if the example is the proficient delivery of a service while the heart, the genuine gut-felt care for the participants, is elsewhere, then the instruction by example is going to leave most of the learners in that room unaffected and disengaged.
Those who know me have heard me refer to the Law of 80% many times—eighty percent of what you teach is who you are. Yes, good instruction to improve intonation is important and valuable, a crucial 20% of our pedagogical potential. But the vast majority of our Sistema impact has to be the learning environment in which every teacher and staff member sees each young musician as a whole person with a burgeoning and variegated musical life, and actively see, hears, and loves that person into that potential. Many of our learners have experienced trauma in their backgrounds; they need this environment to incubate a sense of their own direction. Many learners have not experienced particular traumas, but they need it just as much, to find their way into voice and personal agency.
This kind of love isn’t floppy and unfocused. Quite the contrary. Love is expressed in endless improvised variety, and the Sistema environment kind is strong in its invitation and flexible enough to see and connect to individuals. It is unconditional—yes, we love even those who are struggling to respond to the invitation, and we love them when they mess up and as we help them back on track. It is the love we feel when we are most in love with music, and we yearn to bring them into that golden place, into knowing that they themselves can create that place. We love them into the place where they can put their own arms around beauty and hold it hard.
We need to do this as individual teachers and as a coherent faculty, if we are going to succeed in creating a Sistema environment with sufficient force to draw young artists into trusting its offer and spending enough time in it to find their own way.
Yes, this is hard to do as a busy individual teacher, and hard to do as a faculty that doesn’t get much time together, and as a program that is short on resources and time. And yes, this love is hard to sustain over time and through difficulty, sometimes relentless, difficulty. But it doesn’t require extraordinary people to accomplish it; it requires ordinary people who find their own aspiration to wholeness fed by the opportunity to provide the wholeness that young potential requires. This is the opposite of a gig mentality.
My plea to Sistema programs is to keep this priority in mind, even if you never say the world “love.” Don’t take it for granted. If ignored (in hiring people who don’t bring this interest) or unsupported (in providing no opportunity to grow and sustain this awareness in a faculty), then you will not achieve Sistema’s transformative goals.
Loving our adult selves into wholeness amid the stresses and scarcities of life-as-lived is plenty difficult. It takes courage, creativity, determination, and motivation. It is supported by the power and beauty of music, and by the bonds of connectedness we find in making music together. Work in a Sistema program can be, maybe must be, a contributing part of that full-life process. That is the Sistema environment in which young people can grow into their whole selves.
I am often asked why the Sistema movement doesn’t have a curriculum. The question often comes with a timbre of disbelief or irritation. I give true answers that usually close the conversation, but I rarely share the true reason I honor that no-written-curriculum choice made by our Venezuelan parentage. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for his anti-Nazi activity, said this: “The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy the community. But the person who loves the people around them will build community wherever they go.” Idealistic as it may sound, that is how we love a community into wholeness.
Author: Eric Booth, Publisher, The World Ensemble
Date: 28 May 2019