Sistema Global Research Managers chat with El Sistema practitioners around the world about the intersection between research and practice as well as thoughts stimulated by Geoffrey Baker’s 2014 book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth.

Introduction by Sistema Global Research Managers

Stephen Fairbanks discusses definitions of research as related to El Sistema and prefaces the significant role Baker’s 2014 book plays in our movement.

Hi, my name is Stephen Fairbanks, and I am one of the research managers for Sistema Global. Today, I am going to take on a very large and very pertinent question to those involved in Sistema Global Research, namely “What is Research?”

First, let’s take a moment to talk about what might be meant when people invoke the almighty word of “research.” Oftentimes, it seems to mean that this-thing-being-described-as-research should be received with greater reverence, greater authority, or greater validity than what-we-might-call-ordinary-information. Perhaps, we could make the generalization that research is often portrayed as being the “real” truth about something.

Although that working definition seems to suffice in regards to the physical sciences, such a definition becomes quite problematic when talking about the arts, education, and sociocultural impact. Because the El Sistema movement exists in the overlapping worlds of these fields, we need to have a clear understanding of what we mean by research, especially if we are going to engage in research related to El Sistema and Sistema inspired programs.

So, what is research? Or more precisely, what do researchers mean when they describe their contributions as research? Let’s find out by examining a research document published by Sistema Global. In 2013, Andrea Creech headed a team of researchers, and their task was to seek out everything that had been written about El Sistema and El Sistema inspired programs, review that literature, and produce a document reporting upon what they found. As you know, that document is known as El Sistema and Sistema-Inspired programmes: A Literature Review of research, evaluation, and critical debates. It is available for download from the Sistema Global website (see

The preface of that document states, “As is common practice, it’s the intent of this paper to report what’s been written about El Sistema and comment only to the extent of helping make that information accessible and useful.” In research traditions, the purpose of a literature review is to accumulate the existing literature on a given subject for the purpose of (1) developing a broader understanding of the subject matter, (2) discovering any contradictions within the existing literature, and (3) determining any underdeveloped areas that need further research. A literature review often serves as the catalyst for designing an empirical study.

Andrea’s team was thorough, desiring to be as comprehensive in their review as possible. Thus, they intentionally decided to include material that did not necessarily align with the views of Sistema Global. The preface to the literature review correspondingly observes, “This Review is an inclusive document and represents a wide range of perspectives; not necessarily the views of El Sistema leadership.” The literature review is ultimately strengthened by the way in which Andrea’s team incorporates counter-viewpoints. In fact, these critical debates become the basis for the team’s recommendations for further research.

Consistent with the example of Andrea’s research team, Sistema Global Research is committed to considering scholarship on El Sistema from a multiplicity of perspectives. Also consistent with the the example of Andrea’s team, Sistema Global Research has determined that it will take an inclusive approach to research, feeling that an important aspect of research is its ability to build on received wisdom, challenge prior knowledge, and develop new understandings.

As the Sistema Global Research Team, we look forward to the opportunity to assist Sistema Global in its stated goal of becoming “the most comprehensive online source of public El Sistema information.” We hope that these research efforts will influence, inform, and ultimately improve practice in the many El Sistema inspired programs throughout the world. By providing access to current research, it is hoped that Sistema Global will be able to assist and inspire leaders and teachers of El Sistema inspired programs to think deeply about what their work represents, allowing them to have an even greater impact upon the students they have dedicated their work to.

The most recent addition to scholarship on El Sistema has already been met with lively discussion. Geoffrey Baker’s book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, was released by Oxford University Press in early November, 2014. Baker’s research is based in critical ethnography, and not surprisingly his findings and discussion have invoked some controversy, having presented a narrative that counters much of what had previously been published regarding El Sistema.

The Sistema Global Research Team has identified Baker’s book as being an important addition to the growing body of research on El Sistema and El Sistema inspired programs, and that is why we have invited a number of practicing teaching-artists and Sistema leaders to discuss aspects of his book. We anticipate that these individuals will be able to discuss Baker’s ideas in a way that produces resonance and prompts discussion among Sistema practitioners throughout the world.

Before introducing these invited contributors, let us momentarily discuss what is meant by “research” and then discuss why it can be valuable to engage with Baker’s challenging ideas.

The definition of the word “research” is often confusing. In casual settings, it is sometimes used to mean the “real” truth about something. In more precise settings – namely, research journals and other settings in which researchers publish their work – the word research invokes a complex relationship of philosophical viewpoints and theoretical perspectives, suggesting why researchers are so intentional about describing the perspectives they are working under and how this shapes and potentially limits the way in which their research should be received.

For example, Geoff Baker describes himself as a critical ethnographer reporting on the Venezuelan music education system known as El Sistema. From this statement, we know that Baker’s fieldwork is located in Venezuela and the focus of his research is El Sistema. We can also infer that he adopts a critical theory perspective, one which intentionally challenges dominant narratives and favors marginalized voices in order to bring new and deeper understanding to the subject being studied. And finally, we can know that he is aligning his approach with ethnography, a research tradition which is premised upon the researcher becoming a participating member of the population being studied. In ethnography, long and sustained participation in the field purportedly allows the researcher to develop insights that might not otherwise be available to the casual observer.

As would be expected of a book that has undergone the peer-review process, Baker’s book is tightly constructed and conforms to the highest standards of rigor that are in place for evaluating research. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that one of the oft-made pronouncements about Baker’s book is that it does not constitute ‘real’ research. Such a pronouncement is clearly unfounded, but it potentially signifies a desire on the part of the accuser to avoid engaging with Baker’s challenging ideas.

Why might it be valuable to engage with this kind of research?

Richard Hallam (2012), one of the advisers to Sistema Global, provides insight into why it might be limiting not to do so, stating:
“If the purpose of [Sistema advocates’] research is to secure funding to continue their good work, then there is the potential danger that they will not be sufficiently challenging of what they are doing or only report the positive elements that support their case.”

Similarly, a team of researchers, reporting their experience studying a particular El Sistema inspired program, observed that the program’s teachers and leaders “prioritise[d] a need for unquestioning faith in the intrinsic value and efficacy of the programme” (Allan, et al., 2010, p.343). While the researchers noted that this perspective lent tremendous energy to the operation of the program, they also noted that it had the potential to preclude research which might question such deeply held beliefs.

The Sistema Global Research teams suggests that research – particularly research which challenges the dominant narrative – requires us to engage with ideas, ultimately allowing us to influence, inform, and improve practice, thus increasing our capacity to improve the lives of the children participating in El Sistema inspired programs.

In the accompanying presentations, we have invited several Sistema practitioners to discuss the ways in which they have engaged with the challenging ideas that Geoff Baker presents. As you view the presentations and read the written transcriptions, please contribute your thoughts to the Sistema Global Research Forum.

Podcast with Andrea Landin

Podcast between Andrea Landin and Sistema Global Research Managers
20 February 2015.

Elaine Sandoval (ECS): Hello Sistema Global! My name is Elaine, and I’m one of the Sistema Global Research Managers. Today here we have Andrea Landin, calling in from Ventura, California. And she’s going to be sharing with us a little bit about her program that she works at, some of her pedagogical ideas, and by way of that, commenting on the recently published book by Geoff Baker. Hi Andrea!

Andrea Landin (AL): Hello! Thank you for having me!

ECS: So to start out, could you tell us a little bit about your current position and the work that you’re doing?

AL: I am the program manager for New West Symphony Harmony Project in Ventura, California, about an hour and a half away from LA. New West Symphony is a professional symphony in Ventura County, and a couple years ago, we adopted Harmony Project. We’re affiliated with Harmony Project Los Angeles, but our own organization, and we have about 120 kids right now.

ECS: Nice. And could you share with us how you first heard about El Sistema?

AL: I am originally from Los Angeles, so when Dudamel was hired, I heard a lot about all of that. It was a very interesting time for LA, and especially for me, it was something that I’d given quite a bit of thought to previously, in terms of connecting music and community. My background is in not only music performance, but also anthropology, so for me it was really a perfect fit of the two.

ECS: Nice. So to jump right into our conversation, one of the topics raised in Baker’s book is moving beyond classical music, and especially the social significance of including local music traditions. Could you share with us a little bit about your work in this area, and some of the successes and challenges that you’ve encountered?

AL: Last year, we started a son jarocho program with our kids, which was very exciting. We have a fantastic son jarocho musician who lives in Ventura. And the program started as an addition to our strings program, and so all of the kids who started learning violin and cello also started learning jarana, which is the traditional son jarocho instrument. We began on Saturdays. It took off, and just this year, we decided to start more of a focused son jarocho ensemble, so that instead of all of the kids getting just an hour of son jarocho music, we took about ten of the kids who were really into it, and they started having their son jarocho ensemble practice three hours a week in addition to their violin and cello experience.

We’ve also done a lot of the combination between the orchestral instruments with son jarocho music, and so last year we performed two son jarocho pieces, and arranged parts for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, saxophone, and percussion, which was a lot of fun, and a huge project. We also had an oboist in there, an oboist from New West Symphony. It was a huge project and it was challenging to get all the parts together, but I think that it was really worth it in terms of showing the kids how music is music, and a lot of genres. We create these ideas of this is one type of music that you play here, and this is other type of music that you play there. But bringing it all together. And another big benefit is that it’s brought in a lot more interest among families, especially among different generations of families, it’s something that I think the community can connect to. Most of our families are from Mexico, so it works out really well.

One of the challenges, definitely, has just been pedagogically speaking, learning the jarana and son jarocho music is different obviously than a violin or a cello. To give an example, the key that jaranas learn in when they’re beginning is the key of F. And for string players, it’s normally the key of D or maybe the key of G. But to put together this piece, someone had to adjust in some way. So within the first few months, our string players ended up learning the key of F in order to play this song “El Colás” with the jarana. This year, we did a piece where the whole orchestra played something in the key of G, and we wanted to add in jarana; that happens to be one of the hardest keys for jaranas, but they made adjustments, and they did it this year. So I think what one of the challenges, but also one of the advantages is that we are forced to make compromises and have these discussions, sometimes weighing the pedagogical benefits and the social benefits and talking about, well which one is more important? That they’re learning the keys in their natural progression, or that they’re playing together right from the beginning. So it’s something that the teachers have been talking about and that I have been thinking about a lot.

ECS: Nice, that’s such an exciting program that you have. I think it’s really one-of-a-kind right now in El Sistema in the US. So in general, could you speak a little bit about how you feel non-orchestral genres fit into the mission of an El Sistema-inspired program?

AL: So there is the son jarocho component. We also have an improvisation ensemble, and a couple chamber ensembles going, that I felt was very important to start from the beginning. Often, those kind of classes are added as a sort of elective or to supplement a traditional music education. But I think some of those – when we’re talking about teaching social skills and investing in a social mission – some of the skills that come out both improvisation and chamber music and son jarocho are unique and are very important, and maybe skills that you don’t learn in working in an orchestra setting. So for example, learning how to improvise and testing out notes and really listening and responding to one another. You maybe not get that in an orchestral setting, but when I’ve thought about what are the skills that we want our kids to have done the road, that’s something that’s really important, I think – creativity and agency and responding to other people, and knowing how to react. And so, kind of working backwards and saying, well that’s what we want, we have to think about what do we do now to encourage that, and how do we develop that possibility.

ECS: Thanks. So continuing on this idea of the orchestra specifically, the ensemble of the orchestra as a model of society. That’s something that Geoff talks about in the book, and Emily Kubitskey talked about a little bit in her recent podcast, and I know this is an area that you’ve also been experimenting with. Could you tell us a little bit about how you approach this question, and some of your experiences playing with the orchestral model.

AL: Well I think that the orchestra can be many things. And especially for kids, orchestra can be anything. And really, it’s sometimes the adults that have this idea of what orchestra is. And to give an example, a couple of years ago when I was in Boston working at Bridge Charter School, with another prior Sistema Fellow, Julie [Davis], I was talking about orchestra and how today we’re going to sit in orchestra formation for the first time, and it’s going to be so exciting. And this is a group of first-graders. So I arranged the chairs in a semi-circle thing and I put the first violin section and the second violin section, and kind of in rows, and as I was getting them up one at a time to go sit in their chair, I kind of got distracted and just let them set up. And when I turned around, they had rearranged the chairs so that it was in a circle, and we didn’t have these rows and all of that. And I started to correct them and say, no, no, no, actually that’s not how we sit in orchestra. But then I was like, well, maybe it is, maybe for these kids this is how we sit in orchestra. And it actually was a lot more inclusive, because everyone could see each other and everyone was looking at each other.

And so, just a few weeks ago here in Ventura, we have some older kids, a lot of them are in middle school. But we brought the winds and the strings together for the first time. And after the first couple rehearsals, a lot of the wind players were saying that they couldn’t really hear, or see, and they felt kind of disconnected, so we decided to do something similar, where we have about forty kids but we created this giant kind of almost circle, and had two rows and it was very strange, it was just super spread out. But it worked very well because all of the kids were equidistant from each other, from the conductor, and we found they could hear and see a little bit better. And we actually ended up performing in that formation, and the space allowed us to do that. So in terms of orchestra, I think to us, when we say of orchestra we think of the traditional Western orchestra and seating and repertoire. But to kids orchestra can mean anything and so I think we can use that to say, well, if orchestra can mean anything, what do we want it to be, what can it be, and how can we use and transform and mold and adjust this model to fit our mission and to fit the social skills that we want our kids to develop.

ECS: Definitely, thanks so much for sharing those anecdotes, they’re really priceless. So speaking about social skills and the programs that you’re cultivating. What are some of the other ways that you build your curriculum based on the social skills you want your students to build?

AL: As a teacher, I always start my lesson plan – and a lot of people do this – but think about, ok what’s our objective for the year, for the semester, for the week, for the day. When I think about a social program, it’s not only addressing those pedagogical objectives but the social objectives. If by the end of the year we want kids to be stronger in collaboration or in teamwork, then I think breaking that down and saying, what will that look like; well maybe that’ll mean they can work in a group of four by the end of the year, you know, whatever, depending on their age. And then, again, this idea of working backwards, so maybe today, by the end of the day, if we want these two kids to be able to make a decision together. And it can be very simple decision, like this rhythm, but on what string. So breaking them apart and having them work on things separately and kind of broken out. And so, I think that in terms of, again going back to the mission or depending on what your mission is, and if you’re going for these certain social skills. Using those as both objectives and as benchmarks, as well as the musical and technical side of things.

ECS: Definitely, that’s awesome. And could please share with us some of your general thoughts on how your think research relates to both your ongoing work as a program director and as a teacher?

AL: I think that we’re all researchers to some extent, especially teachers, because they’re always gathering data inside the classroom and outside the classroom. And the more closely that we as program directors, as teachers, can work with people in academia and people who are doing kind of more formal research, I think that the more that both of us will progress. Especially, I think it’s extremely important to make research and data collection very accessible to everyone, recognizing that teachers often aren’t able – just don’t have the time or the capacity to read tons of articles or things that are written in academia. So I think something that we can all work on is how we can work together and make things more accessible to each other.

ECS: Definitely. If I could add a question, actually, what are some of the areas of research that you would like to see happen in El Sistema.

AL: There’s been a lot – not a lot, there’s been some talk of assessment and evaluation, and I think that’s extremely important, and continuing down that road, I would love to see more. Again, more of the social stuff. What I’m really interested in as well is how can we assess a group or a community, because there is stuff on the individual, on surveys and what kind of social skills each kid is developing. But is there a way that we can assess a whole ensemble, or a whole orchestra, and is that ensemble progressing in being a stronger group of people, whether it’s a small one or a larger one, so I think that’s a strong point.

ECS: Great, thank you. So as you know, this podcast is going to be used as a foundation point jumping into a conversation amongst the Sistema Global community. So are there any questions that you’d like to pose to start off the discussion within Sistema Global?

AL: Actually, related to my previous answer with assessment and evaluation, I think, again, how are we assessing the group as we go forth, something to think about. And then also, how are we building curriculum, and how are we setting benchmarks and defining our objectives based on social skills and musical and how can the two work together. And I think just more of, again, let’s identify our end goal, and how can we work backwards.

ECS: Great, thank you. We’ll be sure to bring this into the discussion. And finally, is there a question that you’d like to pose to Geoff Baker, and these will be relayed to him later, and we’ll get his answers back as well.

AL: I’m very interested in… so a lot of the ideas that he brings up with pedagogy and with curriculum and music for social change – how to use those ideas and work with the school system within the US, because there is so much going on in public music education, and so how can we bring those into the discussion within the public schools, and how can we bring a lot of the great stuff that’s going on in the school system into that, and so I’d be curious about hearing his ideas on how to fit a lot of this into the school system and vice versa. As well as, again, this idea of assessing and evaluating. So you know, great thoughts about pedagogy and curriculum, but how do we assess, how to we know we’re doing what we really want to do.

One question that I have for Geoff would be whether he thinks that it’s possible to create a curriculum that is focused on social change through music, and a very specific curriculum with objectives, with benchmarks that by the end of completing this whole curriculum – maybe it’s over the course of the year – kids will have these skills, or a group or a community will have these skills. And if so, what would that process look like and how would we even begin to start.

ECS: Wonderful, thank you! Well thank you so much for joining us here today, Andrea!

AL: You’re welcome, thanks for having me!

ECS: Great, thanks!

Podcast with Paul Yang

Podcast between Paul Yang and Sistema Global Research Managers
4 February 2015.

Elaine Sandoval (ECS): Hello Sistema Global Community! My name is Elaine Sandoval and I’m one of the Sistema Global Research Managers. Today I’ll be interviewing Paul Yang. He is here live from Vietnam. He’ll be speaking a little bit about the program that he runs there and responding as well and making comments on the recently published book by Geoff Baker, called “El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth” which came out in November 2014 by Oxford University Press.

So without further introduction, let’s move over to Paul. So Paul, first of all, could you tell us about your current position and what El Sistema-inspired (ES-i) programs you’re involved with?

Paul Yang (PY): So, I’m in Hanoi, Vietnam right now, which is the seat of, the city that launched revolution after revolution. It’s this amazingly historic and beautiful city that’s going through this incredible growth at the moment. I actually came here on a lark, I was planning on traveling through Southeast Asia, but I ended up seeing an opportunity to do some good and also be a part of this massive wave of growth and development here in Vietnam. I won’t go too deep into that, but I’m really fascinated with Vietnam, where it is and where it’s going. So what I’m doing now is I’ve started up the Bamboo School, which you know, is still very early phase – I don’t want to overblow my own horn. It’s early phase – we run programs for underprivileged youth including Hmong children in the North of Vietnam, which is one of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities.

And I’ve also gotten involved with the Miracle Choir, which is another El Sistema-inspired program for… they work with orphans from orphanages inside Hanoi. It’s actually something in the future that I’d like to get a more comprehensive program going with that. It’s run by two really wonderful people – Trang Trinh, who is a really wonderful piano player and her husband Sung Ming, who is a Korean tenor. And they’re really notable musicians in their own right – actually by any rights, really. And so there’s a decent amount… we’re not alone here at any rate, where I am now is that we’re exploring ways to grow and develop and actually build much more robust and thorough programming. And in the future, too, to build it into a platform that we can leverage to do even more good. But that’s far off, that’s a ways off.

As far as activism through the arts – this is something that I’ve been passionate about for a long time. Back in 2011, I spent three months in Venezuela and I went in with the deliberate intention to go and have a more boots-on-the-ground kind of experience. And so I got there by bicycle, it took some time – maybe almost a year of solo bicycle tour from Utah, from Moab – and by the time I had gotten there I was fairly well steeped in the culture, history of Latin America, even visited Simon Bolivar’s tomb. For those that don’t know – Simon Bolivar is like the kind of Latin American George Washington, maybe Che Guevara before Che was Che. The Venezuelan currency is still named after him and Hugo Chavez basically deified the man and such. And I was able to, you know, really get to know people. And I actually ended up in Caracas and sitting in on the Simon Bolivar B’s private closed-door rehearsal and sitting next to Maestro Abreu himself during about two weeks of rehearsal, daily I would spend 4-5 hours watching their rehearsal technique and just like this magnificent stringency and this magnificent quality of what they were doing and also the grueling nature of what they were doing.

And so I spent a month in Caracas and a month in Barquisimeto and a month in Maracaibo. Maracaibo is on the Northwestern tip of Venezuela, kind of almost in Colombia. And that’s significant for being Venezuela’s main oil-producing region. It’s like the bread basket of Venezuela. Something like 97% of their exports come through Maracaibo. It’s hot, it’s sweaty, nobody does anything during the afternoon and there’s always tankers off in the bay. It’s a port city as well. And in Barquisimeto, I performed in concert in the Teatro Juarez, which is the municipal grand theatre of the city of Barquisimeto, with the regional orchestra of the state of Lara. And that was tremendously interesting. There was this great experimentalism. Well, not experimentalism – let’s not attach any titles to it. Anyway, they did a orchestra and heavy metal concert. A percussionist from Simon Bolivar B actually came out, and they performed this concerto for guitar by Yngwie Malmsteen This is orchestra! In Barquisimeto’s biggest theatre! And it was so killer, you know. And the singer from the metal band, he used straight… he would make these strange, inhuman sounds on the stage like [imitates sound]. He was actually from Petare, in Caracas. We would hang out in Caracas – we recorded actually an Ozzy Osbourne cover with his other band while he was in Caracas. But Petare is like a slum, is like a favela, you know, really… But that doesn’t really stop people. Most of Caracas, most of the musicians I met, even some in the Caracas Juvenil, which is the tier right below the Simon Bolivar B. Some of them, I actually saw their homes in the favela and such, around Maternidad, which is where I was staying. I actually couch surfed, instead of staying in all the hotels. So I actually lived in one of these favelas and slept on the ground in the slum apartment for a month. And had to like meet a shady man in the back alley for internet, because only so many people have wireless routers and they sell off access and whatnot. And so, you know, I came back and it was – I started to get like heartsick for it too, because I really do have this – it is something that I miss quite a lot, and it inspired me quite a bit.

The degree of passion that is there is something that really is really awe-inspiring. When I first heard about El Sistema, and I thought – wow, if this is true, this must be amongst the greatest artistic societies that has ever existed on the face of the planet. And it turns out that I wasn’t really let down in that regard. But, I think that there’s more to the story than that. That we have to open up the scope and so to bring it to now, Geoff’s book, “El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth”.

I found it, unlike a lot of people – I found it a really commendable sort of work because it was really… And I’ve actually talked with Geoff about his work. And it doesn’t – you know – from talking to him, he’s not coming from a place of vitriol, or from a place of wanting to take something down just for the story, you know, he’s not a journalist. He’s an academic. A really, like, he doesn’t benefit from having that angle as a… And he, he went into it honestly and earnestly and some – I think he should be commended because he’s taken a lot of flak for it and yet there’s something that… there’s quite a lot of value in this book. And so, one thing I’d like to say is that, you know, El Sistema, we have to remember, is a state-run institution, falling under the Ministry of Culture in one of the world’s most poorly-run countries, you know, it’s baffling the degree of just terribleness that is happening in Venezuela.
Foreign investment isn’t just about money, it’s the ability of a developing country to bring in ideas, to bring in infrastructure, to bring in technological growth and advancement to its people, right? And Venezuela even recently, you know, even the official rate – companies are starting to have to downgrade. GM isn’t producing any more, because the stated values of their assets is 10-15% of what it actually could be, assuming that they could get their investment back from Venezuela. The issue of expropriation of private property and investment in Venezuela is a huge issue as well, which doesn’t really get mentioned in accounts of Venezuela [El Sistema], which is odd, because everywhere you see these things, invasiones, which is squatter camps – basically just impromptu slums, right, which is a big part of Venezuelan society that no one ever seems to bring up. Possibly because it’s hard to fit into the conventional discussion of El Sistema until one looks at it in the light of El Sistema as one of Venezuela’s main portals to the outside world. It’s one of the only things that’s actually bringing in investment and interest, and creating connection between Venezuela and the outside world, all right? And we’ll get into pedagogy in a second, you know, that’s a bit part of the meat of this discussion. But I think it’s important to view El Sistema or FundaMusical, Simon Bolivar, as in terms of its, you know, socioeconomic impact, its role as part of Venezuela’s society and as part of Venezuela’s essential makeup, because it is. It’s a huge – it’s one of Venezuela’s best running institutions. But it is an institution. It is one of Venezuela’s biggest, best-running, most visible institutions, and it should be looked at in that light as well.

And you know this is not something that – it’s not a critique of the book, Geoff is an ethnomusicologist or an ethnographer, rather, my bad there. And so his task was to go in and investigate the culture of El Sistema, and you know, what he found there it wasn’t all pretty, sure. And certainly it’s not going to be, because people live in extraordinarily difficult, people work really hard in these orchestras in the Caracas Juvenil, in the Simon Bolivar B, they would go 12-hour,14-hour day in rehearsal, and then to get home would be 2 hours of a commute. And you know, to go home and sleep and then go back. This was a common complaint that I heard when I was there, that their homes become more like hotel rooms. Which is, you know, more prominent in the West, but you know, that’s a significant departure from the way that families run in Latin America, and it demands a lot, it’s an extremely demanding program. And it is one that results in surprisingly optimistic and very energetic people, considering, you know that cases of burn outs in conservatory that you hear reports of, and such like that. There’s an emotional toll to really pursuing art in really any place in the world, right?

Main critique of the book – it’s a great portrait of El Sistema, it’s a very – Geoff speaks fluent Spanish, he really took the care to get to know people and you know, really build connections there, and try to see something less savory, which, a lot coverage of Venezuela is. And he’s correct in – it’s a very well-manicured story that FundaMusical tells of itself, and it’s a very manicured experience that it gives to foreign visitors as well. They really do roll out a red carpet, and they want to – you know – I don’t know whether or not it’s a crime that they don’t want to ask for pity, or if it’s for, you know, a political or diplomatic reasons. But either way. You meet people and the organization as a whole and people inside of it. They don’t ask for any pity, they don’t ask for handouts in any way. They’ve gotten to where they are – they’ve built one of the world’s premiere musical institutions from such a… with such a handicap. And that’s incredible. And yet because of the circumstances that they’re in, there are places where it doesn’t work well. There are place where there are shortcomings, but to look at that in view of where Venezuela is, as a whole, I think it’s – that deserves a lot of sympathy, even the Sistema that Geoff writes about inside his book, deserves a lot of sympathy for that aspect. Not that I’m saying he’s being callous, by writing this. He wrote an honest account, an earnest account. And yet I think this is just the beginning of what has to happen, rather than a discussion that has to be staunched. It’s the beginning of a discussion that needs to happen, of a larger discussion that needs to happen, because if we are to say that we’ve been inspired by Venezuela, then we should seek to understand it more deeply. Right? We should seek to have more compassion for those people who have lit such a fire inside of us, who have through example, set this example of you know, nobility, of striving, of hope – to me, when I think of Venezuela, I think of, well, yeah, I think of Maduro and Chavez and Capriles and the riots in the street, but I also think of this irrepressible hope, and we should look at it in that – we should really be looking at it in that light, through this compassion for these people who are there struggling with Venezuela every day. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live that life – I haven’t. Even when I was there – I say I slept in the slum, yeah, hooray! But ultimately, I had a position of privilege there, didn’t I? I was able to leave. I had a document that allowed me to leave and choose not to be there.

ECS – So you said briefly, something about, in working in ES-i programs – kind of the purview of Sistema and what you’re doing now in Vietnam – that it’s important that we continue doing this sort of research. So I wanted to ask you to clarify a little more, what you see this connection as being between research and running an ES program in your personal experience, and also some of the future directions of research that you’d like to see happen.

PY: The direction, I think that Geoff starts, of looking at El Sistema within itself as a deeper, incisive account that’s not afraid to shy away from the uncomfortable truths of, again, a political institution in one of the world’s worst-run countries. Right? That’s an honest account that it’s disingenuous to deny. I think that’s – I would really want that to go further. Because for me, reading about El Sistema’s culture. Being outside of Venezuela, what can I really do with that? What is the actual information out of that? For me, I’ve often found myself wondering what it’s place within – what it’s potential role within Venezuela’s development, within Venezuela’s political sphere, could be. What the opportunities are for El Sistema to affect some kind of – to be some kind of vehicle for Venezuela, which – even Venezuelans now – you know, Gabriela Montero, with her open letter which has received so much notoriety; there’s a significant rift there, isn’t there. No one’s really sure how to answer this question. But also, you know, for me, I ‘d really love for like an economist to look at it in terms of El Sistema as a source of foreign investment, as a source of in terms of El Sistema as a link, an economic and institutional link to the rest of the world, you know. That’s something that would be really enlightening for me to read.

And as far as research in forming programs. That’s a massive topic, right. And I’ve been reading a book, a couple of books on methodology. There’s “Building a Better Teacher” and “Disrupting Class”, from Clayton Christensen Institute, and Salman Khan’s book was interesting too, although he’s not writing so much about classroom learning.

And with, pedagogy, you still have these discussions that hark back to age-old, age-old questions – in much of Green’s, Elizabeth Green’s book, which is based in research from teaching labs of Michigan State University and Cal State Berkeley [sic] and such, is, you know, a lot of great research has happened, even in the early – decades ago. It’s just not being implemented. Even now it’s striking to me that a couple months ago I re-read some John Dewey. And it seems so pressing, it seems like he’s speaking to the present day, this is what we need, this is what could be done better. You know? And, the problem isn’t so much how – what research can be done, as opposed to taking this research and applying it. You know, executing it in a systemic way. And a lot – especially Green’s book, a lot of it is concentrated around math, literature, there’s not really a specific music education content in there. But a big focus of that is facilitating discovery, you know, facilitating discovery because that’s the only form of true learning that happens. Otherwise it’s simply regurgitating information that you know, ultimately can’t affect, can’t change the way someone lives their life. And education should change the actions – the way that someone behaves and acts and interprets the world – right, how one is a person in and of the world. This is not an entirely new idea, I believe.

And Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau in “Emile,” wrote about this. His ideal of the perfect education for this child, Emile. Being the perfect teacher he would create artificial scenarios for Emile to learn morality, honesty, why not to steal as natural laws, as … you can experience with inequity before in his life. And so, in music it’s about … so earlier today I was working with a group and there was this song that they had asked me to – that they had wanted to learn, which I’m always really, really in to. And they asked me last week, so I learned it, and I then showed it to them. And so I taught them the fingerings and the rhythms, and such. According to their abilities. And then showed them … and I was honest with them about my account too, I want to be really open about my process of discovery. I didn’t cast myself as like, oh yeah, this is how it’s done. You know, t’s a process of discovery for me, too. I told them straight up – to be honest, I didn’t really like the song that much, and then I looked at some other artists’ interpretations of it, and then you know actually I really liked some of those. It was a Thai song. I suppose I mentioned that I’m using ukuleles and guitars because those are a robust, cheap, and one can really begin to achieve pleasing music in a very self-gratifying and empowering way very quickly with those, while there’s a great amount of head room – so low barrier to entry and a great deal of headroom. Also, ukulele is really easy to get here. And so, I showed them – so I saw these other covers and from this lady, who has a YouTube channel called the Apple Show and this guy Poy Takoon. So let’s take some of that – so here’s my take on it. So I explained to them how I kind of pieced that together, and then we took a video of it, and we all laughed at a silly goof up I made at the end. But for them – I wanted to show them. One is to teach them how to attain something there but also to – what a process of discovery is.

So I showed them, there was one part where I just let a chord ring, and then brought it back in with a crescendo… four sixteenth notes on the 4th beat crescendo-ing into the tonic again. And for that musical gesture, it was something I could show them – what does this make you feel. Because ultimately that’s the end that we’re trying to achieve with music right? That’s the final end of music – the feeling, being able to conjure emotion in someone else. So what does that make you feel? Ok. Here’s how you achieve that, here’s how you break that down. And here’s how you kind of pull away that curtain of obscurity there. So that’s one of the things I did… I was able to show them – be honest with them about my own journey with that song and that particular piece, give them their own process of discovery, and then guide them through my own process of discovery to show them where one can go with this music.

So there’s that aspect of engaging that process of self-discovery in the beginning and then showing them where it could go. And then, readily admitting that I’m not the definitive answer on this, we’re in this together. We’re discovering this together. Just like Green’s archetype of the math teacher. She has this math teacher hero in her book, who’s just utterly inspiring to hear about, whose name escapes me at this moment. But the best teachers that she writes about are those that are able to essentially manufacture this shared discovery – the teacher’s discovering this proof with the students, alongside them, hand-in-hand, you know side-by-side, not face-to-face. And that’s something at least that I find extremely rewarding as a mode of teaching. I would like to think that it results in more confidence and more understanding in my students. And over time, though, this may change. I will admit that, my position may change on this. Perhaps it’s conceivable that showing them my own process is not necessarily as valuable to them as it seems, because while I’m trying to be emotionally vulnerable in the way that I approach music and the way I approach phrasing and melody and all of that. That’s something that can’t be made, perhaps is not understandable without more backing and more grounding. I can’t know exactly what they feel when I play this gesture, until – ok I play it, and then ok, do you feel what I’m trying to get at here? Of course, they’ll say yes and nod. I would too! I wouldn’t want to look dumb in front of the class or in front of the teacher. I wouldn’t want to admit that I didn’t really get it. Especially when it’s something so vague and subjective as that. It obviously takes a fair amount of bravery for a student to say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” And there have definitely been times where I’ve been in the music class and the professor’s like, …and I clearly didn’t feel the same thing because I didn’t have the same – I didn’t bring in the same set of experiences to that, I didn’t have the same musical vocabulary that’s tied so much to, like a secondary dominant; the way that I feel a secondary dominant now is markedly different from the way that I felt secondary dominance when I was first learning about how to do – how they work. At that point, it’s just – ok I guess, I didn’t, you know, I didn’t have this whole breadth of emotional attachment and neural connections around secondary dominance. Now when I encounter them it’s great, but you know… So there’s two questions, one is how do I explain a secondary dominant, how do I bring my students to understanding the full breadth of the meaning of this in a way that’s more than simply just rote. Like ok, a major chord, then another major chord, and then you resolve. Ooh, tricky, right?

And the other question of how to explain that in a way that creates a moment of discovery for the student. For me I had really striking moment of discovery when I do improvisation at a music festival, once, where I discovered that I had this music inside of myself, where I was able to share with the world. Where it was not following others’ directions. And it was as much self-discovery – it was this life changing moment of self-discovery that I think everyone is trying to achieve in these El Sistema programs. I think every human being should – has that right, to know that they have something beautiful inside of them to give to the world. That their value is more than as a productive worker or as an obedient son, which is something that carries a lot of weight here in Vietnam in particular, but every human being deserves to know that there is some true and essential and inalienable beauty inside of them. And that’s done through discovery.

ECS: Actually can I ask you to expand a little bit – I heard you say two big things just now, about kind of the goals that you see in your music education program, first of all, bringing students into this sense of discovery about music, and then helping them to understand their own potential as musicians and in terms of musicianship and that sort of thing. Could you talk a little bit more about some of the other ideals or goals that you see as defining an ES-i program, or in your program in particular?

PY: There’s a significant rhetoric about empowerment, right? And Geoff calls it salvation, a rhetoric of salvation, which is – it can come across a little bit patronizing right? But it’s not a completely in-apt way to describe it. Especially because he frames the discussion in terms of neocolonialism. Which, you know, how relevant that is to pedagogy is debatable – it’s a valid sociological point I feel, and it’s one that deserves to be discussed respectfully. But in terms of pedagogy, I’m not really sure if plays in… But nonetheless, the essential value of empowerment is I think one that I really want to – that I really try to focus on. And so that’s done you know, not only in terms of – even in terms of choosing the instruments. I’m not a ukulele player, really, I’ve gotten quite good at it, because it’s a really fun instrument that has a really low barrier to entry and significant room for – even I’ve been playing with like sharp 9 chords and such, they sound awesome on the ukulele and whatnot. But the critical thing is that a child can start with that instrument – to play songs in either the key of C or F that require very little manual dexterity or finger strength to be built up. There’s still a fair degree of – there’s still a hurdle, and it’s one that I continually try to remind myself of. Every few days I’ll turn the ukulele around and play with the wrong hand just to remember what it was like, to humble myself a little bit there. And so there’s still a hurdle there. That’s actually – will work less well. Maybe one day I’ll just be really good at playing ambidextrously, you know.

But also in selecting the literature. Like here in Vietnam, there’s been that discussion in Venezuela – the degree to which they practice Venezuelan music or music from Venezuelan composers, although classical music by Venezuelan composers is still open to the same colonialist critiques, isn’t it. But insofar as programs for cuatro and music from the Guajire and from Amazonia and such, those do exist. Those do exist. But we have to remember that El Sistema’s, that FundaMusical’s funding comes from their ability – their funding comes from their recognizability in the international sphere. And their recognizability in the international sphere comes from their ability to do Western classical music well, isn’t it? And so, as a program, I wonder – even for the external observers that say oh Venezuelans should concentrate more on Venezuelan music. Well if FundaMuscial did concentrate on Venezuelan music, would the rest of the world pay attention to them as much? It’s not just an issue of FundaMusical, it’s an issue of the international, well the world music industry, and the international classical music world. Which is also an industry, isn’t it? And that’s a reflection on those things, isn’t it? And that directly concerns us. You know, the ethnography of FundaMusical may or may not concern us directly, but this does concern us. This is a causal link, this is at least one direct causal chain of links that connects the world that we’re in to the world that the Venezuelans are in, right?

I try to be honest with myself and be hard on myself about am I being truly compassionate and sensitive to the culture and the place that I’m working in. Because one of the most exciting things about working in Vietnam is – is that if this takes off, and does well, then I’m playing a part in the formation of a country. A country of people who are some of the most – who are some of the greatest fighters, freedom fighters that have ever walked this earth. Man, Vietnam has fought off four of the world’s great world powers in one century alone, the French, the US, the Chinese, and the Japanese. What other country can say that? This is an amazing country with amazing people, and it’s not my place to come in and say… I can, yeah, I’m going to come and drag you out of the muck. I’m going to give you human dignity. That’s not what I’m here to do – I’m here to try to create some beauty, and together we can discover our shared human dignity.

ECS – Well, on that note, I know it’s getting really late over there – so are there any other further reflections or anything else you’d like to share?

PY: You said that you wanted to pose a question to Geoff, right, at the end, for all of these podcasts?

ECS: Yes, is there a question that you’d like to pose to him now – that will be relayed to him in the future?
PY: I’d like to ask Geoff where the further research might go to help us understand Sistema in terms of it’s place in the international cultural sphere. What role it can play in effecting change in… not only just in Venezuela, but also in terms of this larger world that, that this as – it’s role as a conduit between Venezuela and in the international classical music world in particular. In what ways its role as a conduit could be used to create, could be leveraged to create more good. And what kind of knowledge we would need to – what kind of gaps he sees to be able to get there, to be able to find a new way forward for the movement as a whole, and that is to say – these programs around the world that have been inspired by El Sistema, that are sponsored and funded by the classical music industry, the classical music industry itself, and then, El Sistema fitting into that. I wonder what his thoughts are on that.

ECS: Well, great, thank you so much Paul, this has been really wonderful to hear about your experiences and your reflections in terms of the book and in terms of El Sistema in general. So thank you so much for joining us today.

PY: It was really great to connect with you and have this conversation.

ECS: Thank you!

Podcast with Emily Kubitskey

Podcast between Emily Kubitskey and Sistema Global Research Managers
9 February 2015.

Elaine Sandoval (ECS): Hello again, Sistema Global community! My name is Elaine and I’m one of the Sistema Global Research Managers. Today with us I have Emily Kubitskey, calling from Los Angeles, and she’s going to be talking with us a little bit about her experience working for YOLA, and also her responses to some of Geoff Baker’s book, which came out in 2014. Hi Emily!

Emily Kubitskey (EK): Good morning!

ECS: So first of all, could you share with us a little bit about your current position, and what you’re doing there at YOLA?

EK: Yes! I have a position right now at YOLA, which for some of you who don’t know is Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. And it is a youth orchestra program we have here in Los Angeles underneath the umbrella of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And we have several different sites and my specific site is HOLA – Heart of Los Angeles – so when you hear me speaking about that I will be speaking in terms of YOLA at HOLA. And I am one of the wind ensemble directors at YOLA at HOLA, and it is my position to help the young wind ensembles move from basically inception and the beginning of their programming at HOLA all the way up to right now we have our top wind ensemble which has been around for about five years.

ECS: That’s awesome. And can you share with us a little bit about how you first heard about ES and how you came to be involved in this sort of work?

EK: Yes. Actually I studied to receive my Master’s in Secondary Education at Vanderbilt in Nashville, and moved out to Los Angeles to pursue music, to pursue nonprofit work in music education. And I actually came across the job description on the LA Phil’s website, and it sounded perfect – wind ensemble director, nonprofit, work with underserved youth – and when I started looking into it, I saw the big push was in El Sistema (ES). And I realized – I didn’t know what that was! So I started really, really digging into it and when I went through the whole interview process, everything went very well, but I realized that my teaching philosophy actually ended up going hand in hand with what ES was asking, and what YOLA was asking. So that was pretty exciting to see those two things come together, philosophically. And then I kind of from there brought my own educational practices in to what I was doing and learning from ES. So it was a pretty exciting shift.

ECS: That’s so exciting! You’ve been there for a few years then?

EK: Yes, this is the end of my 5th year there. Myself and several other colleagues have been fortunate enough – we’ve been there since day 1. It’s fun to see the trajectory and the growth of the students, especially when some of us come from music education backgrounds, some of us come from performance backgrounds. It’s kind of the fully well-rounded teaching artist model that a lot of people talk about. So it’s nice that almost going into our sixth year, we’re still bringing in those perspectives together.

ECS: Over your past 5 years of experience at YOLA and working within ES, could you tell me about some of the things you’ve seen about the differences between rhetoric and practices within El Sistema-inspired (ES-i) programs?

EK: Yes, absolutely, and we kind of get down to that rhetoric versus practices of the tagline of what is an ES-i program. And I have seen that a lot, and I’m very fortunate to have lived through the beginning part of my career in an ES-i program. But one of the things that Geoff did very well which made me reflect on my last 5 years at YOLA and also my last 5 years as a music educator – I’m a band director as well and an AP music theory teacher at a high school – so I try to mesh all of those together whenever possible. But something that Geoff did very well in his book is he made me think about, how do we truly define what an ES-i program is. What does that tagline mean? When people say, “Oh, we’re a Sistema program”, when people say “we’re an El Sistema program,” or “we’re El Sistema-inspired” – where is that actually coming from? And I started doing some soul-searching on what that meant instead of just adopting the idea that we are a program – what that actually means. And I kind of created 3 bullet points of a way to categorize – so when people ask, are you an el Sistema-inspired program, we can really look at what we’re talking about.

And the first bullet is really saying: El Sistema-inspired is taking exactly what they’re doing in Venezuela and doing it in our program.
And by “our” I mean somewhere in the US or perhaps somewhere else in the world, among the many programs that are in existence. And I don’t think that many people fall into that category, but I do think it is a concern, because it’s a lot of what I believe Geoff Baker was talking about in his book. If we were to take the exact practices from Venezuela and apply them directly to our programs in these different parts of the world.

The second one, and I would say this is the one that a lot of people fall under. I personally fall under it, I believe that YOLA at HOLA falls under this, although again that’s my personal opinion. Is taking what they’re doing in Venezuela. Becoming motivated by the music and the communities as a whole and the idea of social change, and creating our own iteration. And still calling it El Sistema. So really meeting our communities where they are but taking the inspiration from Venezuela. That doesn’t mean we take all the great things and all the bad things, we just take the idea of what they’re doing with youth and with orchestral programs and bringing it to our communities.

And the third, the third category I’ve kind of come up with, which I’ve seen happen, is the overall desire for social change, but maybe people aren’t necessarily doing it in an orchestral model, or maybe some people aren’t even doing it in music – perhaps some people are seeing this Venezuelan push and this ES idea, but perhaps putting it in with more community service oriented, or maybe they’re creating a dance program. So that would be taking what’s happening in Venezuela as a motivator, but regardless of the actual structure still calling it ES.

And I love that Geoff really pushed on making the exact distinction between what is happening in Venezuela and some of the things that are happening in the US but also all around the world. Because it helped me take a look at – where did that inspiration actually come from? And I think before saying we are an ES program, or we’re an ES-i program, being able to say why are we an ES-i program. What motivating factors are we taking from Venezuela? What praxis from our own country are we incorporating to meet the needs of our community? So overall, I would say that YOLA falls in that second category extremely well. It’s a wonderfully thought-through program. And I would say actually that a lot of people fall into that second category of taking that motivation but applying it to their direct communities, wherever they’re starting.

ECS: That’s great! Could you tell me a little bit more, like specifics, some of the things about YOLA, that you really think define it as an ES program?

EK: Yes, absolutely. Part of what made us such a strong program to begin with is we had two incredibly fearless and strong leaders [Dan Berkowitz and Christine Witkowski], who both came from the first class of the Abreu Fellowship, and they were able to go to Venezuela and see firsthand what was happening and what they wanted to bring back to the United States. Which I think is one of the most important things. They were able to see the ideas that were in place, and then bring them back before the inception of the program, versus starting a program and then saying, “Oh I think we might be in line with this, we might be in line with this, and then let’s go see what’s happening and bring it all back together.” So we started with such a solid foundation because they were well aware of what the needs were in our community in Los Angeles. And by our community, I don’t mean the general community of Los Angeles, I mean the very small 3 square miles that we serve in LA. And they were able to bring their inspiration and their motivation from Venezuela back to Los Angeles.

And I also like that they had a strong pull to the ideas of social change already. We were all musicians, but the ideas that were brought into us as teaching artists in the first year and in the inception of the program, was that we all wanted to support social change, and we all wanted to help support the students. And what we could bring in as teaching artists was that musical excellence. And that idea of historical music education, and what our directors were able to bring in, was that experience and the motivating factors from Venezuela. And one thing additionally that they did very well, was they brought the ideas into the community. But as a transplant, not as something that was top-down, oppressive, this is what we’re going to do. But we went into this community center in this area of Los Angeles that was already in existence. And now this community center is over 20 years old so we partnered with a program and a center that was already helping the youth in that area. And the community trusted this community center. So we went in and we just brought music to the table. We didn’t change the mission statement, we didn’t change the philosophies, we just said, “here’s another outlet.” And we wanted to bring that support at a bigger level.

ECS: That’s so wonderful. I know you mentioned already that you’re involved as a schoolteacher in the public school system, and I know that you are also a card-carrying credentialed music teacher. Could you speak a little bit about some of the similarities and differences that you see kind of between general music education in the United States and your experiences with ES?

EK: Yes absolutely. And that’s been kind of a fun dichotomy, to say the least. And when I approach ES, I realized that a lot of the reasons that I loved music education growing up – the choir programs, the marching band programs, the wind ensembles – was because I grew up in band programs that provided social change. Granted, it was a byproduct, as I think most people who went through similar programs realize. But it was wonderful because my teaching philosophy personally reflects some of those similarities. Even in my ES classrooms. But to kind of categorize, which I think is important here, so that we can compartmentalize what we are talking about – I think that there are two major similarities between music education programs in the school and ES programs which primarily are after-school. And that is the push for musical excellence, the idea of artistic achievement, and the push for music to be community learning. Aside from conservatory prep schools, or if we talk later about university level, conservatory level – everything for the most part is done as a collective community. Classes in high schools and in ES programs are taught as a collective community. There’s the option of puling students out if they need the additional attention but overall the idea is that collective identity helps us move forward. And that happens in the orchestral model, it happens in schools when we have our band programs. I was telling my students that often when I hear them play in the large ensemble setting, they sound better! Strength in numbers. And of course all of you guys know this, because it’s something that you see on a daily basis. But it’s wonderful to see that in the high school music education system as well.

But I think one of the more important things to talk about are the differences, because then we can talk about how in the future, we can align some of those, or if it’s something we want to see aligned. And I know that’s been kind of a hot topic, and you know, a little bit of a buzzword recently, but I think it’s very important because we have the resources in the US that some other countries and some other communities in the world don’t have, and I think we should take advantage of them. So I think some of the differences that happen in schools is that in school we don’t have the push for social success. That it is, like I said earlier, it is a byproduct, but it is not something that… we don’t have the goal to create a social program. And again, I’m kind of looking at this from a larger umbrella. These are not completely my personal philosophies. I actually run my program [in school] as a social program with social outcomes. But from a historical music education perspective, it’s not something that’s looked at as innately as music excellence. And I think that also filters into the lack of wanting to genuinely create a community. Again, the fact that we’ve created a community in schools is byproduct, but it is not something that we go in from day 1, focusing on the community as equally as the musical excellence.

And on the flip side, I think one of the things that is missing in ES programs – so this would be the differences – is the lack of curriculum in ES music programs. And that’s, I know, a very, very hot topic. And I know that there is a lot of debate there. But one of the things that I think would be very, very beneficial is creating a curriculum that works for an individual program, and is not something that necessarily needs to be an umbrella over the entire US. But having that structure, I think a lot of programs lack that infrastructure. I usually say it in terms of a bookshelf. We have to have our bookshelf built, and then we can put things in there, we can put in the music, we can put in the repertoire. But seeing that structure in school systems, I think is going to be key in transforming some of that over into ES-i or after-school programs. And then the chaos that we all know and love can happen within there. You know, say you have a bookshelf and your books are everywhere. Great, at least you still have the structure. So I think that’s something that is lacking in the general community of ES-i programs, that would – we would be able to learn a lot from taking from the… not from the in-school model, but some of the more successful in-school models.

And then the last thing I will go back over to the in-school programs, that I think we can learn from ES programs, is the idea of mentorship. And whether that is mentorship among individuals, mentorship among teachers, mentorship among partner organizations, a lot of those things don’t exist as successfully in in-school models as the do in ES-i programs. And saying all of those things out loud, it’s really easy to critique and really easy to categorize and put everything into a box. But I think the important thing is to realize that as ES-i educators and researchers, etc., that we don’t reinvent the wheel. And one of the beautiful things about this conversation is speaking to people who are music educators who have a lot of answers that we don’t in ES, and reaching out to ES leaders, or perhaps people who have been involved in ES whether it’s in Venezuela or across the globe, who have answers that we don’t have because we’ve only been around for 5 years. So I think the important part is starting the conversations so we’re not reinventing the wheel and saying we need an answer without actually looking to the people who would have those answers.

ECS: On that note, could you share a little bit about you personally, you specifically, what are some of the practices and philosophies that you’ve taken into your own classroom and teaching practice that you feel are El Sistema-inspired?

EK: Yes, absolutely. And again, these are going to be philosophies that are absolutely rooted through what I’ve learned in ES and because of that I’ve been able to take them to my music education classrooms and my bands, which is pretty exciting. These are my priorities. They’re all kind of morphing on a daily basis, of course. But the first is musical excellence. And I wouldn’t say that these are a hierarchy, but simply just priorities. Another one is intensity and high expectations. Intensity is a huge part of ES across the board, regardless of the medium in which you’re conducting your program. And also the idea of high expectations. Meaning that we have to push the students to the next level. And if we don’t continue to do that, we’re never going to know where that level hits. I have many times given students a piece of music, we’ve tried playing it, we’ve literally laughed, and they’ve turned the music back in. But the nice part is we know we’ve gotten to that point and we’ll try it again in another 6 months. And also in terms of the high expectations, leaving the emotion out of those expectations. But really helping students understand that they are part of a larger community that has set expectations, and it’s not because I said so, he said so, she said so, but they are unemotional expectations that they are expected to live up to. And I see a lot of students carry that over into other aspects of their lives, which is really nice.

Another one is social actions and characteristics. And I spoke a lot about this with a colleague of mine in Scotland [referring to the October 2014 International Sistema Teachers’ Conference held by Sistema Scotland] and she mentioned really bringing in the idea of discussing social characteristics on a daily basis. And I know for example Martin Seligman and the KIPP characteristics – those have kind of been floating around over the last year or two. And taking those as a model, I went into my classroom and I asked the students what was important to them to see in their peers. And we built a very thoughtful list of social actions and characteristic traits that they could live up to, or talk about on a daily basis. Which I then realized – I should probably live up to these on a daily basis. But it’s wonderful to sit down and talk about what communication is and what having integrity and perseverance is. And so we talk about those frequently.

And last but not least, I would say the idea of peer mentoring among teachers and students. Our students after 5 years, most of them are finally working very well together. And I believe that it is not because we stood in front of them and said please do this, this, this. But we modeled the idea of successful co-teaching and co-learning over the years. So they see the way that we communicate positively. They see the way that we communicate when we have different opinions. They see the way that we communicate when things are going extremely well or maybe not so well. And so that idea that they can learn together, they can teach each other, by way of the teachers modeling that same behavior for them.

ECS: That’s so wonderful to hear, thank you for sharing all of that. And then, also on this topic of your role as a teaching artist – could you tell me a little bit about how you see research, especially a book such as Geoff Baker’s – what do you see as being the relationship between research and your practice as a teaching artist?

EK: I think that research is extremely important. And this comes from a background through music education when a lot of the philosophies and ideas that I learned and I kind of tweaked and made my own in implementing them. They all came from sound research practice. And it’s really wonderful actually to see some of the correlations. There were some great studies that were put out I believe in the early 90’s that talked about the effectiveness of co-teaching, especially for second language learners and underserved youth. And it’s incredible to see some of that educational research go hand in hand with what we are saying are our priorities in ES. And again I think that this kind of fits into two categories, but that a lot of people are looking for brand new research, and then some people are only relying on old research. But if we can bridge the two categories and say, here’s what’s already been introduced as historical music education practice, but here’s the new research that needs to happen because we are taking some of these ideas and putting them into new programs. And I think it’s incredibly, incredibly important.

And maybe if I… some ideas for the future maybe of ES research, things like that… I think one of them would be a documentation of a curriculum-based model, and not in the big scary way, but something that can be provided as a framework for people who need it. And part of the beauty of ES programs is that we don’t have a set model and we don’t have a set structure, but I think the idea of trying to figure out where we want to grow socially, and where we want to grow musically, and I think both of those really come down to where you are and the communities that you’re in and the exponential growth from where you started. But the idea that we have a structure that we can turn to, if that makes sense, when we need help with some of those areas of growth. And I think that that is something that the US can do extremely well because we have those resources. And I think will be very helpful in those blossoming ES programs who kind of hit their 3rd year and are faltering a little, because they don’t know where to go for structure. It doesn’t have to be an implementation, but maybe an additional thought. Because it’s something that has really helped the music education succeed overall, which is nice.

And the other idea which again is a big bad scary word, is that of assessment. And something that I feel very strong about is the idea of having assessment in place before your program starts, versus creating the program and then creating assessment around the program. The idea of having a structure of assessment ahead of time, so that we kind of know where we want those areas of growth to exist. And that way as we move forward the assessment can happen more naturally, because we already have, again, that compartmentalized, that bookshelf ready to go. And then of course every 3 months, every 6 months, every 9 months, those things are tweaked and those thing are adapted for the students in the program, for the teachers in the program. But I think it would really help create some benchmarks. Because as we know anything we want to grow, and we want to blossom, has to have its root ideally in research and in assessment. And I think that’s important ideally for these programs that focus mostly on social change.

ECS: That’s great, thank you for sharing! And so Emily, how do you think we create a future for social justice music educators?

EK: That is a very good question, and a very important one, because I feel like a lot of us who are educators right now in this ES movement, and in different programs, we either come from a music education background, or we come from a performance background. And then also some people come from a background of social working, and some people come from a background of program directing, but maybe not in music. So how do we bring these all together? And I think the idea is that we have to create a person – we have to create a well-rounded person so that we can show the students that same model. Because ultimately we want the students to not only grow up to become incredible musicians, but also incredible leaders in their community, also incredible educators. And most importantly, also to know how to teach. And really to move that forward as we talk about mentorship and what are the important things in ES.

And one thing that Geoff said, mentioned in his book, as well as quoting others. He said “social justice music educators are made, not born. Critical self-reflection takes time and emotional investment.” And I could not agree more. One, I think that this is one of the things that is glossed over when most people begin an ES program. Which totally makes sense, we have to start thinking about the needs of the kids and the instruments or maybe their voices right away. And its difficult to think long term. How do we make sure that we are creating another generation of social justice music educators? And I think that the idea is we need to create positive models for them. We need to show them from day 1 that we are not just a teacher, that we are not just a performer, but we are also an active part of our society, and of our community. And I think one of the things that we have that is very special – and we being a new level of this ES-i movement, especially in the US, is that we are still young, and we can create a model that is relevant to the needs that we have in the US. So we can start integrating a model of social justice music educators, not only as good musicians or good teachers, but teachers who are really aware of what is happening in the community around them. That way, we can be the foundation for maybe this new wave that is also going to help support ES, just like we learned from Venezuela, others can learn from us, in perhaps this new idea of creating a future for social justice music educators.

ECS: Thank you, that’s wonderful. Anything else you wanted to add?

EK: One another idea that Geoff mentioned in his book was the idea of music and empathy and how those tie hand in hand. And I also think that that ties back in great with social justice music educators. It’s very easy to look at it from a black and white standpoint and say, this is the orchestra, this is the conductor, these are the musicians, done deal. But I think our job as educators and as musicians in 2015 in countries all around the world, not just in Venezuela… but our job is to make sure that we can use a model that is successful while still helping the students. For example, it is my job as a conductor, as an educator, as a modeler for what I want the students to be in society, to make sure I don’t take advantage of that power. And as we move forward in this moment, to avoid some of that – the clash and tension among “Is an orchestral model going to work because it’s pretty severe in Venezuela?” etc. But then it is our idea, it is our job to make sure that when we start our programs and work with our students, we’re doing it in a way where we don’t take advantage of any power, and instead help model what we want the students to become. Therefore, we can still use… you can still use any model, you can use jazz, you can use improvisation, you can use dance, or you can use the whole orchestral mode. And just making sure you’re giving those students the sense of ownership and genuinely folding them in to how the program is going to succeed.

ECS: If I could add one more quick question, I was wondering if there were any other specific topics or issues that were brought up in Geoff’s book that are changing the way that you think about your own practice moving forward.

EK: One of the overall things that Geoff’s book really made me think about was the idea of the orchestral model. And as an educator, I really think on that ground level, very specifically. And it really got me thinking, “Why do we use an orchestral model? Is this the best way to educate our students, is this the best way to prepare them for society?” And I’m not sure I have a yes or no answer. From what we have done at YOLA, it has been incredible. I would never change it, I love the idea of the orchestral model, partially because we have a very, very large and densely populated community. It is a wonderful way to bring in as many students as we can possibly hold, to help give them a fighting chance for their future, whether that’s next week, or for example 5 years later with some of these students. And again, if we were a smaller community or a different type of community, maybe this wouldn’t work as well. But one of the things that our program director has done extremely well is she has branched, she has bridged the community center with the ES program. And for example we already had jazz at the community center. We already had private lessons that were existing at the community center with community teachers, with community students, and we were able to fold those also into the orchestra model, and so now all of those students overlap, most of those teachers overlap. And it becomes a model that we took from elsewhere and we brought in, of course, the orchestral model. But we fused it with what was already happening in the community. And I think that will only continue to grow, with the types of music that the students and the families enjoy, types of community events that were already in existence. So I think when we really look – and I’ll keep tackling this question – at the orchestral model – which is one of the biggest things I took away from Geoff’s book – is focusing less on the structural rigor of the model, and thinking more – how can we take this model and adapt it to our community? And for us, like I said it works because we have so many students and it is a perfect model for us. And again it’s my job, and my colleagues’ job to make sure that the model stays successful, that we aren’t taking advantage of power, but that instead the students are the drive, the motivation of the program. So I would challenge you to think about, if that’s the best model, why is it the best model, and how can you keep it in your community in a way that is true to the needs of the community.

EC: Wonderful, thank you! So towards concluding, as you know we’re going to be starting a Sistema Global discussion forum, and the first topic will be looking at Geoff’s book and different reactions to the possible impact of this book on the field. So toward starting that discussion are there any questions that you’d like to pose to Sistema Global to bring up?

EK: Yes, absolutely. The biggest one for me, that we can take from Geoff Baker’s book, is how can we actually take the momentum of this ES movement, and really apply it to our specific communities? How can we take the idea of an ES-i program, an ES-i movement, and genuinely make it for what the community needs? And worry less about the large Venezuelan model or the large business model, and really take the ideas and our resources and the people surrounding us, and make it an infrastructure of that community, as opposed to something that is brought in. So my question for you is how can we actually do that – how can we take all of these ideas and all of this research, and genuinely bring it in to meet the needs of our specific community?

ECS: Thank you! And then finally, do you have a question that you’d like to pose to Geoff? And this will be relayed to him later.

EK: That’s great! A lot of the ideas in the book, Geoff, were kind of what we are doing and what we aren’t doing, and some very, very sound research that was done and interviews that were had. But my question is, what type of teaching philosophies really exist in Venezuela? How can we go in and how can we talk to the teachers and really get an idea, regardless of structure, what they have going on there, and how we can take some of their good ideas that are in the núcleos, from the teachers, and make them into teaching practices that we can learn from in the rest of the world?

ECS: Wonderful, I’ll make sure that that gets relayed to him, and then we’ll have his answer back as well. Thank you so much Emily, this has been really wonderful hearing all of your thoughts and having you share with us. Thank you so much!

EK: Thank you!