The world is changing – so too must social action through music

As I was nearing the end of writing my book Rethinking Social Action Through Music, which focused on the Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín, I observed the 2020 edition of the program’s annual pedagogy seminar. I was so impressed that I put this event at the core of the book’s Afterword. I hailed the seminar for its “special energy of rethinking and renewal,” and concluded:

Despite all the challenges of 2020, then, I end the year with a greater sense of optimism and hope with regard to the Red.

Six months after the publication of my book, the 2021 edition of the seminar took place (27 September – 2 October), and it provided a welcome opportunity to check back in with the progress of the program and the processes that I had written about. What follows is not a summary of the whole event but rather a few key messages culled from panels that I was able to watch online.

The Red is a “school of thinking.” This is how a panel moderator, Eliécer Arenas, described the program, and the event bore out his words. A striking feature of the Red is that it has been guided by a number of different leaders and visions during its history, leading to juxtaposition of and friction between ideas, and to a degree of critique and self-critique that is unusual in the social action through music (SATM) field. Panellists acknowledged tensions and mistakes, which they regarded as positive – as productive and potential sources of learning.

Vania Abello, a former director of the program, spoke openly about her reservations, such as the potential downsides of constantly putting on concerts for the city. Prioritizing impressive musical results can have costs in terms of the educational process, which may be rushed or forced, leading to negative consequences for some participants. She was critical of the structuring of SATM around the needs of the tiny percentage of students that go on to become professional musicians, and its incapacity to deal properly with students who struggle technically and don’t have “the right level.”

A lot can get lost when the approach is intensive – such as the opportunity to get to know more about the children, their families, and their communities. The Red doesn’t fully understand what goes on around it, she said, but the same was true for some participants, whose knowledge of their own barrio was sometimes limited. The problem with treating music schools as “safe spaces” was keeping children and young people shut away inside and therefore disconnected from the outside. As a result, a lot of people in the community don’t know what the Red is or even that it’s there. She painted a picture of a program that still had much work to do to improve the exchange between inside and outside.

Abello welcomed the break that the pandemic provided, forcing the Red to suspend its performances and thereby allowing it to think. Aníbal Parra, the Red’s social coordinator, noted that the pandemic revealed a lot of problems and questions within the student body and their families. The implication was clear: intensive music instruction had kept these problems and questions out of sight, rather than addressing them.

Evidence of this “school of thinking” can be found in the Red’s current collaboration with impressive critical thinkers on music, education, and society such as Eliécer Arenas and Andrés Samper. The former critiqued the old saw of inclusion, questioning its equation with massification and with herding large numbers of young people into a single way of thinking. These collaborators emphasized the need for a more complex understanding of music, without losing from sight that the most important element of SATM should be enjoyment.

The world is changing – so too must SATM.

This issue was on the minds of the Red’s management during my fieldwork in 2017-18 and it played an important role in the seminar. Diego Zapata, the Red’s new director, is a specialist in new technologies, and he argued that the Red needs to rethink itself in the light of rapid technological change. Young people are moving fast, he said; the Red needed to try harder to keep up. The Dean of the local public university, which oversees the Red, imagined quite a different future: students have new tools at their disposal and will create quite new things. His implication was that the old model of music education based on learning orchestral instruments would decline. The Red has to shift as society shifts, argued another panellist; so it needs to be a cauldron of creativity and a laboratory of new ideas.

The Red’s most experienced teacher, Wilson Berrío, made the same point: times have changed, kids have changed, and education needs to change. When he started, the Red followed the El Sistema way: the teacher just turned up at the school with the music and said “this is what we’re going to play.” Now, students are more involved in the process, helping to make choices about repertoire, collaborations, and venues. Their research now forms part of the educational process.

A variety of locations of change were identified. The training of teachers needed to be transformed: most teachers were trained in culture of obedience, not critical questioning, noted one panellist. Ensemble practice ought to be liberated, stated another, with more chamber music and contemporary music.

An external invitee, León David Cobo, threw a dizzying range of elements into the mix: indigenous music on digital platforms, experimental music, new technologies, multi-disciplinary work, new forms of notation. This diversity of ideas expanded the horizons far beyond SATM’s traditional focus of orchestras and symphonic bands. (I recalled a point that the Colombian anthropologist Carlos Miñana had made in a recent keynote on music and social transformation: that SATM has tended to limit itself to a tiny corner of the musical and pedagogical world.) Cobo also argued that SATM staff and students shouldn’t reject but rather research: don’t avoid what the world is throwing at us (new musics, new technologies), he said, but rather embrace them and the crisis that they may provoke in us. He gave the example of reggaetón, which – as I mention in my book – is often the brunt of scorn from SATM musicians, showing up the limits of their discourse of inclusion. What would it mean to grapple with such musics and face their destabilizing influence rather than retreat sniffily into a bastion of supposed cultural superiority?

Beware of grand narratives.

Panellists expressed unease with a messianic or salvationist approach to SATM, which is so common in the field. The language of “saving” people was too reminiscent of the colonization of the Americas, said one, and of the forced evangelization of the indigenous population. SATM was about providing experiences, provoking questions, and opening possibilities, said another, not saving anyone. Sweeping narratives and grand plans can lead to neglecting the pedagogical detail, which is where the real work happens.

The musical vs. the social is a tension to be managed not resolved.

That the musical and social sides of SATM are in tension is a reality that has long been obvious and acknowledged in the Red, if less so elsewhere in the field. What was interesting about Arenas’s position was that he did not imagine a future in which this tension was resolved, where either the musicians or the social team prevailed, but rather one in which the program was constantly adjusting and rebalancing itself. Tension is productive.

From the collective to the community.

Samper placed this notion at the centre of his contribution: going beyond a focus on the collective to one on the community. It is a thought-provoking idea in the context of SATM, which has historically emphasized the collective but left its relationship to the community rather vaguer. The ensemble is often considered as a microcosm or symbol of an imagined future society, rather existing in a dynamic relationship to a real, present one. Indeed, programs like El Sistema and the Red were originally conceived of as refuges from a community considered to be dangerous, rather than partners in a dialogue. Berrío took up Samper’s idea and argued that the Red was starting to take this step, though it still needed to do more: “we need to interact more with the community.”

Final thoughts

In my book, I held up the Red as an example

not of “best practice” but of striving towards it; not of inspirational rhetoric but of an openness to critical reflection and dialogue; not of a model program, but of one that shows that change is possible in the SATM field.

In other words, I saw the Red as an example because of the centrality of thinking and rethinking in its history: its willingness to continually put hard questions on the table and reinvent itself. For me, the Red’s story was one of self-critique and change, starting in 2005.

Change is more common in the SATM field these days. El Sistema and its closest allies may continue down a conservative path, but other El Sistema-inspired programs have shifted away from the dominant model to greater or lesser degrees. There is even a SATM symposium in the US this week centred on the theme of change.* Self-critique, however, is another matter. As I wrote in my book:

the explicit alignment of so many programs with El Sistema has limited the space for full, open, critical discussion of the fault lines in the Venezuelan model that necessitate change. Many have been willing to discuss how El Sistema might be adapted to other national contexts; but few have dared to suggest publicly that El Sistema needs to be transformed because it is flawed and out of alignment with current ideas about music education and social change. Institutional alliances and political sensitivities mean that public discussion of change, when it occurs, generally takes the form of offering a solution without naming the problem.

Or as I put it more simply later on:

There is much talk of great new work, much less of what was wrong with the old work.

The Red, though, has consistently named the problem since 2005. This is why I think it should be of interest to reflective members of the field.

Six months after the publication of my book, I continue to see the Red’s seminar as an unusual space for critical thinking within SATM. This event marked the 25th anniversary of the Red, yet the tone was less triumphant than might have been expected. Such symposia tend to have more than a whiff of self-congratulation and self-publicity about them, but the Red’s was once again more nuanced and thought-provoking. Alongside the recognition of the program’s achievements, plenty of interesting questions were raised and challenging ideas presented. There were numerous invitees from outside, but the main focus of the event was critical conversations about what the Red was, is, and could be, recognizing that the program had not always got it right, and that there wasn’t even consensus about what “right” is.

A central theme of my book is that regular changes of director have kept the Red in constant motion since 2005. Once again, a new director is in charge – the fourth one since I went to Medellín for a reconnaissance mission for my fieldwork in 2016. However, the most recent seminar suggests that self-critique and change continue to be on the menu.

* It will be interesting to see whether embracing change extends to the historical refusal to talk seriously about El Sistema and all the ways that the Venezuelan program contradicts the SATM sector’s stated commitment to social justice and social change.

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