Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Playing for Their Lives" - Telling the El Sistema Story

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on............................"

When I was the Director of the California Arts Council, I was invited to accompany the chair of the small California Commission on the Californias - a public / private agency that sought to promote bridges between California and North and South Baja California in Mexico - for trade, culture and historical relations - to Baja Sud on a cultural visit.

We spent several days in meetings and site visits in the charming city of  La Paz in the southern province of Baja California, and had the opportunity to see and hear a local children's music group - premised on the El Sistema model of involving children in orchestral music as a means to promote values and hope to kids whose impoverishment may have rendered them hopeless.   The positive, and transformative impact of the program was relayed to us by the program's organizers, but nowhere more obvious and apparent than on the kids faces and in their enthusiasm when rehearsing and performing.

One student was not yet a part of the orchestra as he was waiting for the organizers to find a bassoon for him to play as that was one of the missing instruments in the group.  When I got back to Sacramento, I asked Juan Carrillo, then Director of Grants for the CAC, if he could help locate a used bassoon we might send down to La Paz so this patiently waiting student could join his peers and be a member of the orchestra.  Juan found one quickly (thanks I think to a youth orchestra organization in San Diego), and we were able to play a very tiny role in promoting this small version of the El Sistema experiment that has grown into a global phenomenon.

Indeed, El Sistema may be the finest calling card for the value of the arts yet in existence.  Arts Educator, Eric Booth has championed the project for a long time.  Now he, and collaborator, Tricia Tunstall, have published a book on the phenomenon - Playing for Their Lives.  In an email announcement, they describe the effort as follows:
"Our visits to 25 countries, to one hundred El Sistema-inspired program sites, was the most hopeful, uplifting testament to the power of learning in the arts we have ever seen.  We've been eager to share the stories (and photos) of the remarkable citizen artists and students, of the similarities and differences of programs in so many different cultures, of the reasons that this movement seems to be disrupting the entrenched cycles of poverty in ways societies have long struggled to achieve.  From Kabul to Palestine, from Maori villages to Brazilian favelas to Nairobi slums, from Srebrenica to Fukushima, from Greenland to Caracas, from Vienna to Los Angeles – vastly different cultures, programs that are the same and different, results that astonish.  
Tricia and I have a clear mission for the book: to activate new support for Sistema-inspired programs around the world.  We do not have an advertising budget, so we need your help to get this book into the hands of people who can make it visible outside of already-Sistema-enthusiastic circles.  We are doing everything we can think of to give it a wider reach, and thus give Sistema programs connections in new circles; please help us."

I haven't read the book yet, but I have ordered it.  And I am familiar with not only the El Sistema successes, but with Eric Booth and his passion, intelligence, and decency - and I urge everyone to support him and consider going to Amazon and ordering the book too. I'm sure it would make a perfect holiday gift.

In a excellent article on the book and El Sistema in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Turnstall and Booth offer this introduction:
"Four decades ago, Venezuelan economist, musician, and government official José Antonio Abreu founded the music education program El Sistema on the belief that musical collaboration teaches children the values and skills needed to become productive, fulfilled members of society. The program, which Abreu continues to lead, features intensive, inclusive participation in ensemble music-making, and a primary focus on empathic collaboration, disciplined practice, and positive energy. Over 40 years, Abreu has sought to bring this opportunity to all children in Venezuela—especially the most impoverished and neglected—and the program is increasingly seen as a novel and promising approach to ameliorating the effects of childhood poverty and trauma. In recent years, programs in more than 65 countries across the world (including 120 in the United States) have adopted and adapted the model. In an effort to discover what makes this movement successful, we visited programs in more than 25 of these countries. 
It is the ownership of not just the instruments the students play, but the ownership of the actual playing that so invests the positive aspects of the program with the participants, for it is this ownership that promotes inclusion and it is that inclusion that is one of the hallmarks of the program's success.  As the authors state:

"Inclusion is the first principle of El Sistema. In visiting over a hundred núcleos around the world, we found that no matter how vastly different their cultural settings are, they share a profound dedication to this ideal. The citizen artists who launch and run these programs have chosen to work with children and families who are sidelined— by poverty, discrimination, or other kinds of adversity—from the flourishing centers of their societies. They commit themselves to bringing these children into a state of belonging. They encounter difficulties that are almost always greater than they had anticipated. In most cases, they keep going.
José Antonio Abreu has often said that of the manifold kinds of suffering caused by poverty, none is worse than the feeling of exclusion—of not belonging, of literally being “no one.” This feeling can be a complex tangle of perceived and reinforced rejection. A child in circumstances of poverty or ethnic discrimination, for whom exclusion is a material fact of life, will internalize the feeling of not belonging, of being no one. That feeling will become a psychic certainty that persists regardless of circumstances. Naadir lives in a community that feels excluded even as its host city goes to serious lengths to make the new-Danes feel included. He re-created his deep feeling of exclusion even within a program that reached out to include him with every kindness it could devise. It took more than a year of daily, patient welcoming before Naadir could trust that, in fact, he belonged. By the end of the second year, he began to feel he was valuable.
The phenomenon of social exclusion has been increasingly recognized by social scientists as one of the most damaging threats to emotional wellbeing. In 1995, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary argued that a sense of belonging is a fundamental human need, not simply a preference, and that the absence of this sense results in mental illness.17 In more recent research, brain scans have shown that the feeling of being excluded registers in the brain as actual physical pain."

I believe that the greater success we have in investing communities of people in the making and ownership of arts participation, the greater will be our success in winning over new audiences and supporters.  At the core of placemaking and engagement efforts ought to be the lesson learned from El Sistema - inclusion is both one of the principal tools for successful arts programs and one of the major benefits of arts participation.  We need more El Sistema programs around the world and here in America - from every corner of the arts.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit