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!