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Not getting any younger

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Anthony Sayer Anthony Sayer | 09:14 UK time, Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Simon Bolivar band has outgrown its moniker, 'youth'. There's rumours about cutting apron strings and setting out as a regular orchestra. Well, true or not, this throws up some interesting questions. What if they advertise a vacancy and some old codger like me applies......? Imagine the job description: "The applicant will be young, incredibly enthusiastic, uninhibited, and boundlessly energetic. The successful applicant will play as if their life depends on it, while radiating sheer joy in performing." Given that ageism is a no-no hereabouts, how would this stuff balance against basic accuracy with the notes? Actually, and very seriously, what is going to be most important in the final assessment?

There's a tradition, particularly in some German orchestras, that auditions are competitions in which mistakes are meticulously counted - note perfection being the over-riding criterion - to be settled by a final round 'play off'. Another tradition, particularly in America, is that the candidates play behind a screen, so that the panel can't be biased by colour, age or sex. Both approaches leave us with the question: How would we go about judging those additional subjective ingredients? Should music be subjective, or objective and measureable? What's better: a player who inspires you to get up and dance, who moves you in bits that you didn't know moved, but who plays the occasional bum note, or a player who reliably nails every note? What's music for? Is music a performance, a community event, or is it notes on a page? Who matters most: the producer with the engineer who edits the tape, or the live audience? I know these aren't 'either-or' questions - but there's fun to be had exploring ideas. By now, you'll have heard the clip clop of my hobby horse. And, as always, I'm also looking for ways to detract attention from my own mistakes. Well......don't be hard on me......self criticism, navel contemplation, rampant paranoia - an artist without these is probably not an artist at all.

Anyway, I'm not going to be applying for any jobs. It's vanishingly rare to see someone over forty land a full-time orchestral contract, even with strong and fair employment laws - the exceptions tend to be well accredited principal players. The standard of young players seems to improve in a similar way that policemen appear to get younger. Older players can't compete in straight competition. I might be able to lay claim to a little experience and wisdom, but could these be weighed in the balance at an audition?

The Teresa Careño youth orchestra of Caracas, also a Sistema orchestra (see them in London on 12th October), seems to be taking over the Bolivar's mantle. They're of a genuine 'high school' age. I was watching them on YouTube, and suddenly found myself choking and tearful. Why? I think my tears were something to do with, "Heavens, if only I'd been taught to play like that." Quality of teaching. In their hands the power of music is unleashed, flowing out through their bodies and torrents. The Sistema kids start young - four and younger - and, most important of all, they learn in the group as a group, not alone in a room with a teacher. However much I loved my teachers - both of them gentle and reserved individuals - I'm wondering what it was that they couldn't do for me, bearing in mind that I didn't start till aged eleven? There is nothing magic about the skills needed to play a musical instrument - all children have access to amazing skills, unless hampered by specific disabilities - and those skills really clock in when needed to compensate for specific disabilities, with miraculous effect. None of us in the SSO was a prodigy. Think what skills are implicit in things that we take for granted: running over rocks, throwing and catching with precision, playing football, speaking several incredibly complex languages, climbing and swinging in trees, chopping and cutting. Kids don't even need teachers to do that stuff. By contrast, the most hi-tech robot needs twenty minutes to fold a towel! The point being that robots aren't able to choose what to do and then evaluate their achievements. You might have seen the robot that plays Land of Hope and Glory on the violin - incredible. There's a robot that does drawings of faces - by reproducing the light and shade. But robots can't assess their own efforts and make aesthetic judgements. They can't respond to the myriad of messages reflecting back from the world around them. In a word, they're not paranoid - they haven't even got a navel to contemplate!

This Sistema teaching thing - it's so natural and obvious. It's mixed into how our species evolved its huge advantages. The infant begins with a period of complete dependency, and then is up and running by the age of four - running out with the older kids, imitating, joining in, competing, being challenged.......being seriously and scarily challenged. Then there's a long period of learning during which children soak up skills and crafts. (Feed them junk philosophy and irrelevant skills and they'll soak those up equally well - until they see through it, rebel, and are left with nothing.) Mind and body, the whole person, whole people, are needed for teamwork. Older folk (old codgers of waning agility) remain around the home to teach. This long adolescent apprenticeship period is unique to our species, and is a key to our advantages. The Sistema kids look wonderful as they play - together creating an overwhelming sort of tribal unanimity. This shows in our own Sistema children, even within the first year. Over the years, I've sat on countless audition panels. What looks right invariably is right. There is rarely any discussion or disagreement about what looks right. Kids taught in this Sistema way will have a massive evolutionary advantage. There's an interesting parallel here: those kids from our distant past that I just mentioned were learning skills as a matter of life or death, actually and for real. Sistema teachers don't do 'gentle and reserved'. Sistema teachers from Venezuela visiting Big Noise talk in terms of 'playing as if life depended on it' - for many of them this had been their experience 'actually and for real'. My putative job description was perfectly appropriate.

I started with a thought experiment - the idea of me playing with the Bolivars. What would I look like if I was dropped down in the middle of them? How about running that experiment in reverse? How would Sistema kids fit in with our orchestras? There's going to be hundreds of them 'graduating' every year. How will Big Noise kids from Raploch feel doing our job, alongside us? From Stirling, Caracas, or anywhere else in the world, will they feel that the typical European orchestra is the culmination and fulfilment of what they have been doing since the age of four?

So, after the Bolivars and the Teresa Careño, who next? By definition, the flagship 'youth' orchestra will have to be replaced every few years. In Venezuela 350,000 children are currently playing in Sistema orchestras, with 15,000 associated teachers. Sistema follows a 'social' vision, not a cultural one. The vision is to nurture self esteem, strengthen education, and free children from restrictive and damaging communities - freedom from dead-end life styles and dead-end philosophies. It was never meant that the kids should go on to be professional musicians - though currently about 10% are doing so. So, consider: the UK has twice the population of Venezuela - in UK equivalent that would give us 70,000 very well qualified young orchestral players, and 30,000 instrumental teachers. Draw your own conclusions. And Sistema projects are taking root worldwide - there are already four projects in the UK. I've been wondering.....the big question: In the sixties and seventies, the folk music revolution spread like wild fire, almost eclipsing the formal and prescriptive 'folk' culture typified by the Mod and the Eisteddfod. Hoards of musicians in jeans, informal and liberated, created a massive world market for themselves. The history of Blues and Jazz is similar. Whole new genres evolved, filling deep needs that were not being met by existing music. These musicians don't only try to recreate historic formats - they embody a plethora of creative styles, voraciously searching out novelty, cross fertilising with everything they meet. This is win-win for everyone - culture, community, identity and ethnicity - creativity thrives on it, and dies if starved of it. To conclude: Could there be a tidal wave bearing down on us - a massive new, informal and liberated version of classical music? Classics in jeans?

Here's a couple of links: one to a blog by Lorrie Heagy, an American Abreu Fellow from Juneau in Alaska, who has just spent several weeks in Venezuela, and is coming to spend time with Big Noise. The other is similar, including fascinating discussions of Sistema ideas and lots of astounding information, particularly about the auditioning process. They contain an overview of Sistema at work, illustrated by many short videos from all over Venezuela.


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