Editorial: When the Arrows are Words, Best to Just Let Them In

by Marshall Marcus, President and Founder, Sistema Europe

It’s that moment that threatens to undo many of us. I had just finished giving a Sistema presentation to the Alliance for Childhood at the European Parliament. It had seemed to go pretty well. And then came the first question; an apparently well-intentioned and gentle lady from Finland looked me straight in the eye, and asked in a low, steely voice, “What do you think about the criticisms of El Sistema?”

The fact is that most of us don’t react well to criticism. We feel attacked. And so we deflect, we avoid, we crumple, or—most often—we fight back. And it happens more quickly than you might imagine: psychologists tell us that our reaction to perceived hostile questioning shows up in our bodies way before the great lumbering frontal cortex that characterizes humanity’s most profound utterances has even started to slowly whir into action. Before you even begin the response, your body has probably already shown its own answer.

With El Sistema, the “Fight back” response can easily become automatic, as the incredible passion that drives so many advocates and practitioners in the Sistema field takes over. That passion is a vital vehicle for the advancement of the El Sistema approach, but as I wrote in an article about critiquing El Sistema in 2012, “It is precisely when a set of ideas become so universally supported, so glorified and praised, that we need to start interrogating these ideas to make sure that there is something here that we are not missing, and that we have not ended up in ‘glorification city’, getting a bit too clap-happy on a kind of emotionally charged joy ride.”

And then there is the echo chamber produced by the structure of contemporary media that often ends up de-skilling us from listening to those who disagree with us. It’s as if, as a species, we are becoming hardwired to communicate only when there is agreement. Of course fighting back has its uses, and often feels very good at the time. But in the long term, it closes us off from critiquing ourselves, and from developing. As a board member once said to me: “You have to be your own organisation’s harshest critic.”

Being specific about El Sistema, I don’t believe that we are wrong about the key pedagogical aspects that are important (e.g that the work should be ensemble driven, high frequency, community based, joyful, open to all, with a social action motivation, etc.). More often, it’s the implementation that we may be tripping up on. Is my relationship with the community as good as it should be? Are the kids improving and developing? Do I have the right teachers? Am I being ambitious enough? Is my organisation fit for purpose? Should I be focusing more on evaluation?

And I try to observe a few ground rules about responding to critics. I try not to feel anxious, angry, or threatened. Instead, I try to give myself the space to look objectively and calmly at the content of what is being thrown at me. And I try to show the other person that I take them seriously. This often means asking for more detail about the criticism. I’ve noticed my reply is usually better when it starts with “Well, you raise an interesting question there;” “This is really worth looking at;” or “I’m interested to understand a bit more from you;”—rather than with sentiments like “I don’t agree with you because” or “That’s not correct.” (And to be clear: this is not a diplomatic Englishman speaking, it’s simply a person making an effort to respect and understand a critic.)

Back in the European Parliament, the soft but steely lady from Finland has just finished her question. I take a breath, count to three, and then ask her to say a little more—trying, as we say in England, to bring her inside the tent. Turns out she has a very particular criticism in mind: When a country has a great music education system, shouldn’t El Sistema be a part of that rather than keep itself to itself? As Maestro Abreu knew only too well, every Sistema project needs to respond to local context. And, let’s be honest, maybe El Sistema programmes have not always done that as well as we could have. And that is worth admitting.

You know, when the arrows are words, it may well be best to just let them in.

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