EDITORIAL: The Transformative Power of Big

Sistema Side-by-Side Final Performance, 2019

I have been lucky enough to attend the last three gatherings of the global Sistema’s biggest events—Side by Side by El Sistema Sweden, Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra, and the YOLA National Festival.  There is no getting around it—these are gigantically complex efforts to design and manage, and they are expensive.  Thank heavens that the leaders of the organizations take on this commitment for the benefit of so many—thank you Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and El Sistema Sweden; thank you Los Angeles Philharmonic; thank you to the collective of leaders of Sistema Europe.  Thanks to the funders, partner organizations, countless volunteers, parents, and faculty who provide such powerful experiences for these young people.  Having talked with many of the young musicians involved, I can confidently state that it is no exaggeration to describe the impact as powerful for almost all, and life transformative for many, if not most

The idea of a big gathering has ancient roots, of course.  From clans and tribes, to families, affiliates, and Olympics. Venezuela’s El Sistema prioritized seminarios when groups of regional programs would gather for a madly ambitious event, and festivals when, for example, 250 oboe players from a region would come together for an intensive week around a visiting master.  Many national or supranational youth orchestras tap this powerful idea, including the European Union Youth Orchestra, several Arab-Israeli youth orchestras, and the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. 

The same power is regularly tapped by Sistema programs in less grandiose forms as well. Many Sistema programs come together in seminarios by twos or a few more for a special gathering; the New Jersey Alliance brings kids from every program around the state together bi-annually; regional seminarios have been crafted in the Boston area and in the East Coast and California.

Here are a few thoughts about why these gatherings are so powerful for the participants.

Same-different.  The disruptive “differentness” of location, of people, of schedule, of workload, sets the experience apart for learners, setting up the chance for it to become significantly better (or worse) than regular norms – risk and vulnerability expose participants to fresh and charged experiences.  The preparation and design of the gatherings are savvy in providing enough familiarity of peers, musical processes, and preparation of the pieces, so that the risk isn’t too scary.  These remarkable gatherings manage to bring almost everyone into the “flow experience” of maximal engagement, rather than having participants slip into negative spaces of anxiety or boredom.  I’ve witnessed brilliant ambition management by the leaders and teachers of these programs ­– reaching well beyond normal expectations, setting hard challenges, maximizing growth.  We learned this from the Venezuelan Sistema.  I used to quip that Venezuelan leaders first determined what was flat-out impossible to accomplish, and then set the goals just one notch below that.  This mobilizes everyone’s best motivation and maximizes impact.

Tight, motivated faculty.  In all three events, the program leaders and faculty plan far in advance, work long and exhausting days during the action, and merge into a strong team’s collective endeavor to pull off a miracle.  They are exhausted, elevated, at their most creative, and having a great time, even though they are naturally sometimes frustrated and concerned.  A high percentage of them make this occasion a beloved event in their annual calendar, and build a comraderie and collective energy each year and across years.  They are all-star teachers, playing at the height of their game.

The social-musical mix.  In interviewing young musicians in these settings, I listen to learn whether the social or the musical impact was predominant.  While there is some variation in the balance for individuals, the answer is clear – both are important, and they are inextricably interconnected in exactly the way we proclaim that Sistema impact is supposed to work.  The energy bursts of new personal connections across difference, the speed and intensity at which everything is moving, and the real stakes involved – all these elements suffuse the personal and the aesthetic in a healthy artist’s chemistry.

The sound.  In a short burst of days, every learner hears the group’s sound get far better; there is nothing vague or subtle about it.  As one student put it, “We went from ‘We suck’ to ‘We rock’ in a week.”  Their success is bigger and better than any musical success they have ever been part of.  And they are in it with their peers, who also began uncertainly, and with professional conductors (even famous ones), and with a big audience.  And there is … the sound.  They internalize that big, clear, beautiful sound, and it changes their ears forever.  It educates their aesthetic, and their hunger for more of that high quality.  Faculty members report a strong impact on technical improvements in intonation and rhythm, but more significantly, I think, these events fuel motivation.  And ambition.  It is drive and ambition that fulfill the primary Sistema goal of youth development, because they carry beyond musical expression into composing life choices.

Having witnessed these three event markers in the Sistema field, appreciating the impact and the distinctive elements of each, I began to allow myself the indulgence of a further vision.  At some time in the not-so-distant future, there will be a World Sistema Orchestra.  It will gather for two weeks.  It will contain elements from all of the current big events.  It will be difficult to organize and expensive to fund.  Some funder will recognize the value.  We know how to do it. 

Tricia Tunstall and I once listened to the excellent, advanced Sistema Orquestrandro A Vida, in remote Campos, Brazil, rehearse Mozart’s Missa Brevis, adjacent to the dangerous favela where the young musicians lived.  After their rehearsal, they asked us funny and quirky questions about Sistema programs around the world.  Finally, one student asked if there would ever be a world Sistema orchestra.  We answered together, “Absolutely. No question. And it will happen in your lifetime.”  The young musicians who live in a seemingly-forgotten corner of the world cheered loud and long. 

It will.  It’s coming. Because it is such a powerful idea.

— Eric Booth, Publisher of The World Ensemble

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