Last week the other Abreu Fellows and I attended a panel discussion at Harvard University entitled Discerning New Visions For Music Conservatories: Lessons From El Sistema. Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard, gave some opening remarks. One thing he mentioned was the "ethical dilemma" that conservatories face in training "too many musicians." There are so many of us, and so few jobs. A handful will win orchestra jobs, many will start private teaching studios, some will get a DMA with the hope of joining the faculty of a university, a few will form successful chamber music groups or tour as a soloist. What is out there for us as conservatory-trained musicians? Will we get our dream job, something that is musically fulfilling after the thousands of hours we have all spent in the practice room? How many more hours will it take? How many more years?
The title of the panel discussion is pertinent, because it acknowledges that there are lessons conservatories can learn from El Sistema. What does it mean to be a musician in the 21st century, and how can conservatories prepare their students to become those musicians? We need to look to the El Sistema model for the answer.
One program based on the El Sistema model is Community Music Works in Providence, Rhode Island. A professional string quartet has woven its way into an urban community through frequent performing and teaching. Students receive free or low-cost music instruction while at the same time being exposed to live, high-quality classical music. This quartet is creating beautiful music and providing a public service. Does that mean that creating beautiful music is no longer enough? Are we sacrificing our ideals? No. We are elevating them. Classical music should be for everyone. On top of that, professional musicians are benefitting in two ways. First, using the El Sistema model, a quartet (following the Community Music Works model) can create a niche for themselves, rather than wait for a position to open up. There are many quartets out there trying to get noticed. Every group must ask, "why us?" when there are many groups playing at a very high level. El Sistema offers a way for every group to be relevant. The second benefit is that by reaching out to more communities in a deep and meaningful way, we are making an investment in creating a bigger, younger audience who will love and appreciate classical music.
With that in mind, back to the original question: What does it mean to be a 21st century musician, and how can conservatories prepare their students to become those musicians? The 21st century musician should take into account both artistic and social considerations. They should be ambitious in believing that art can transform them, their communities and even society as a whole. They should strive toward the ideal that art is for everyone. They should aim towards the highest level of human and musical excellence, and expect it in others.
How can conservatories train musicians who, in the words of Jose Antonio Abreu, "are passionate about their art and social justice?" The first step is to break down the wall that has been built between music educators and music performers. 21st century musicians should see themselves as CATS (a term coined by El Sistema USA): Citizens, Artists, Teachers, and Scholars. We can no longer afford not to fill all four of those roles. So together, tocamos y luchamos to keep our art alive and relevant in our quickly changing world.