U.S. Sistema Programs Respond to Pandemic

by Eric Booth, co-founder of The Ensemble Newsletters

In the U.S., Sistema programs shut down in early March—first one, then a few, and within a week, all of them. As safety issues were clear, there was little energy wasted on resisting the hard choice. All the predictable, wonderful energy that had been building toward culminating projects and special fundraising events was immediately redistributed into three basic concerns: money questions (Can we keep paying staff? Can we raise the money we need in other ways?), event questions (How do we provide a sense of celebration and culmination for the year’s work?), and student learning questions (How do we keep the learning going online?).

Sistema teachers have mainly focused on the last question. For years, many in the field have made some use of virtual connections—certainly for communications, and here and there for instructional purposes. Suddenly, almost overnight, everyone had to scramble to find ways to connect with learners via distance learning. A backburner question became an urgent front-burner opportunity, with the flame turned up high.

The creative, vibrant response to this opportunity has been unlike anything this field has seen before. An explosion of ideas, experiments, and plans, most of which launched into action in just a few days. Many programs benefitted from lucky timing that gave them an extra week or so, since an already scheduled school holiday fell right at the time of their school-shutdown scramble. All programs sent out special newsletters and communications to families and friends that prioritized safety while staying upbeat and realistic.

Program leaders connected with one another, decisions were made quickly, and teams of faculty connected online to plan their experiments in digital education. They found new resources (The Ensemble Newsletters pitched in with a special issue), providing links to free and useful learning tools rather than practical answers to questions about creating ensemble music online. Most programs found their way to connecting one-on-one with students to keep their music-making alive and provide some consistency in this turbulent time. There were plenty of other challenges, too—students without internet access at home, students whose family situations made practice difficult, students with legal safeguarding issues. As so many Sistema students already live with daily stresses and uncertainty, teachers were especially determined to provide some sense of continuity and sustained interest and care.

The flurry of action reveals how little we know as a field about ways the Internet can support and advance our work. The expedient solutions programs are coming up with don’t address the fundamental Sistema challenge: this is ensemble work, and we don’t have systems to work in ensemble ways online. As we had not done our advance work to find and develop ways to sustain that backbone of our program, this crisis is a wake-up call to advance our technical capacities. If nothing else, it will accelerate our understanding of the web as a tool for student learning; even when we emphasize the live, in-person community, we should expand our impact with virtual tools. We will return with a fresh appreciation for the luxury of hours spent together, in person, in the collective and safe artistic spaces that we so often take for granted.

We have heard more than a few of our colleagues say things like, “Ah, it feels like this year was just plain lost because we and our students were unable to complete any of our work.” There is truth in that, but there are other truths too. Our students and families see how much we care. They see what artists do when faced with a serious problem—get creative and resiliently experiment to keep making beauty and building better lives. And they see that a life in music gives you a wide range of skills and strategies to make the world, even a disrupted and troubled world, feel full of possibilities.

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