Friday, September 5, 2008

Liberating the Creative

Perhaps you saw the feature on 60 Minutes about the extraordinary success of El Systema, the state administered music education program in Venezuela which reaches deep into the ghettos, to the lower rungs of the socio-economic system and recruits young Venezuelans into an extensive orchestra training program. Regular listeners to KPAC may have even heard a recent edition of Itinerarios in which I exhibited some recorded evidence of the success of El Systema. As we anticipate the live recording in San Antonio of Christopher O'Riley and his delightful weekly public radio program From the Top, I thought it would be appropriate to make a few comments about music education and its importance to the continued nourishment of classical music, both as a performance art and as an entertainment for the public.

Although there are a few fundamental differences between Mr. O’Riley’s approach and the rules of engagement for El Systema, there is substantial common ground. First, the most apparent differences: From the Top concentrates on solo playing and chamber music; it also invites participation of singers, pianists, composers and even aspiring conductors, in addition to players of orchestral instruments. El Systema is all about orchestral training; the focus is on teaching young people to play instruments well enough to work within the fabric of a symphony orchestra, though there is also some attention given to the training of conductors.

The similarities between our American programs of music education and “The System” in Venezuela are apparent. They both strive to teach and cultivate high levels of technical and artistic proficiency. But do both systems guide young people to the same career aspirations? I believe on this matter we may find some substantial differences.

Music education in America is under siege, or so we are told. Thankfully, there are still many dedicated band and orchestra teachers in our public schools (and let’s give thanks for the chorus directors, too, though I will say little more about this area). There are also many private instructors who give excellent guidance to aspiring instrumentalists across the country. In many ways, we still have an embarrassment of riches. Just listen to the many fine public school bands and orchestras and it is impossible to deny the results of our public school instruction. But there is some truth to the “siege” to which I earlier referred. There is such demand to answer the various measuring rods of educational success (in Texas it is TAKS – Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) that energy is drawn away from curriculum more creative in its intention (visual arts, music, creative writing). I am certain many music educators are frustrated by the time and other resources which the TAKS (and similar tests across the country) siphon from their band and orchestra programs. Again, I am frankly amazed at what many music educators continue to produce, given the current atmosphere of test, and test some more.

I suspect a program such as El Systema would not work verbatim in this country, though there is much we could learn. How often do educators in the U.S. actively recruit students from our own ghettos? How often do our educators encourage students onto an artistic path, one which is less likely to create wealth and economic standing?

As I understand El Systema, the focus is upon the underprivileged. I don’t know if this implies that the program of free music education found in Venezuela is closed to children of the middle and upper classes. It seems to me that this should be governed by something between pragmatic and ideal. But this is for others to ponder and solve. The important matter here is that we must place a very high value on educating children, young people and adults in matters creative.

As I contemplated the success of El Systema while writing and producing that particular segment of my radio show Itinerarios, I felt it imperative to remind us all that there is a value to the creative arts which cannot be measured in dollars or Venezuelan pesos. I read an interview with a young Venezuelan man who had taken advantage of the music education offered him by El Systema. He came from the ghetto, detoured from a path which would have insured for him nothing. He commented that he was the first in his family to ever aspire to meet the world outside of his squalid surroundings. He got a passport and traveled to England to further his studies as a cellist. Within the past 5 years, numerous of the student-musicians in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela have received their passports and have traveled forth to entertain in the U.S. and across Europe. They were awarded tremendous ovations at the Proms, in England.

Impressive? Yes! But more important, in my humble opinion, is that these young people have been allowed and encouraged to express themselves in one of society’s most creative languages, the language of music. And they are being encouraged to pursue careers as orchestral players and teachers. Here we find the brightest success of El Systema, and here we learn how we ought to encourage our own youth to explore a creative path. How often as teachers, parents, and councilors have we guided our young charges toward careers where success is measured in dollars? We do it with best intentions. But maybe, just maybe, we ought to suggest to young and old alike that there is merit beyond wealth to exploring our creative sides. And we should definitely encourage, rather than discourage, a young person’s inclination to declare the artistic path over the traditionally more lucrative paths to careers of wealth and power. You are right to protest that many will find a dead end to their creative paths if we are only talking career. There just aren’t that many orchestras or, in the case of visual artists, gallery spaces. But the creative path has many destinations and we ought always to encourage that exploration. It will liberate us and show us worlds heretofore unimagined.

James Baker

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