an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

Finding The Road Paved With Clear Intentions

I came up with the name Dog Days for this blog because I knew sometimes the world around overwhelms all intention of being an active advocate. I now realize that it can overwhelm the intention of blogging. The name is my call to myself and everyone not to succumb to inertia since everyday has the potential of being a Dog Day.

Despite this admonition to myself, I had no choice but to take a blogger’s break. I’m back with months worth of experiences full of highs and lows. The highs were so incredible (a spring break immersion in Japan with my family) and lows so bleak (the tragic loss of a youth symphony student to predatory violence) that no energy remained for me to participate in the conversations of the virtual world.

In the midst of all this I was asked to contribute to the League of American Orchestra’s Orchestra R/Evolution discussion online. Now that its up and running I’m excited by what others are contributing. Having to let the opportunity slip past me is definitely prompting me to get back in the saddle here and participate from a little distance. (Being a theater kid and not a musician, I always feel at a little on the outside of the orchestra world even though I’m deeply in it.)

The question posed to me when I was invited to participate was “How MUST orchestras change to add greater value to American life?” The public question posed at the website seems so similar but is drastically different. What do orchestras need to do to survive and thrive? is a question focused on the institution of orchestras and their existence instead of the service to our communities that is incumbent in the question posed to me.

I want to take the inquiry one step further into an exploration of how people who love orchestras must change in order to ensure they bring greater value to our communities. After all, orchestras are communities of people that have agreed to adhere to a set of standards and practice they believe are most conducive to creating music. When we speak of orchestras in a depersonalized way, we’re actually talking about the standards and practices. The only way those will change is if the people agreeing to them are willing to change them.

For me and many people, the most amazing example of orchestras existing successfully with an entirely different set of standards and practices than those we’re familiar with is El Sistema. Mark Clague goes to the heart of the difference in his post on El Sistema at the Orchestra R/Evolution site. He personally observes:

What amazes me is that each El Sistema musician learns not only how to play, but gains experience teaching others, helps to run the ensemble, and learns to connect his or her efforts to the community.

Mark quotes the very articulate Abreu Fellow Christine Witkowski to further his point and illuminate to all of us that the El Sistema approach begins with a different intention from what we tend to bring to our U.S. musical and creative endeavors.

“[El Sistema] boils down to a very holistic approach to the child
and her community. The intention behind the music is to shape strong
citizens and healthy neighborhoods, and this intention informs
everything. The orchestra becomes an ideal community and the child is
both an individual asset and also a member of the collective orchestra.
Every instrument is needed to play the symphony, but no single
instrument can play it alone. This means that even the ‘competition’ is
healthy-and, in fact, it is quite different than competition in the US.”

There can be no doubt that this intention was present at the very beginning of El Sistema. This is an intention that has developed over 35 years into the internationally admired and emulated system so many of us are trying to figure out how to transplant across borders and cultures.

I suggest that the first and most important thing we need to learn from El Sistema is how essential it is to have clear and healthy intentions for the community in order to provide deep and sustained value through music. The intentions of people breathing life into American orchestras are not always clear to me – and I mean all people, from musicians to music directors to staff to trustees to donors to the more remote partners in schools and conservatories.

The good news is we have an example in El Sistema that it is possible to create new cultural and behavioral norms around music by starting with a small group, infusing them with these norms, and empowering them to share them with others. We have to be patient with the pace of change because it will grow person by person. We know that at 35 years, El Sistema’s work in Venezuela is far from complete. Ours is just starting.

an ArtsJournal blog