Competition, the Sistema Way

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Competition, the Sistema Way

Eric Booth, Co-Founder of The World Ensemble


The English travel writer Pico Iyer moved to Japan 27 years ago, and his passionate hobby became playing ping-pong at a nearby club. His pleasure in the game comes from the way competition works there, which is so different from the win-or-lose, zero-sum experience of competition in his native England. He says, “When I leave the ping-pong club after an hour and a half of furious exertion, if you asked me, did I win or lose, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve probably played seven games, but nobody keeps track of who’s winning the games. That stands for what the whole ping-pong club is about, which is the sense that everybody should leave in an equal state of delight. This is because in Japan, at least in the context of a club or a community, the most important thing is for everybody to be working together and feeling and thinking together and linked.” (You can hear an interview with Pico Iyer about his ping-pong experiences here.)

Iyer plays his hardest, but the Japanese approach creates an entirely different experience of competition than the one he got from sports and games in his childhood. This alternative experience is closer to the etymological sense of the word competition, which means “to strive with,” not “to strive against,” as we usually understand it. This was the original idea of competition in the ancient Greek Olympics, when races were held because everyone ran faster in that “competitive” context. Yes, someone would always win, but the point was to elevate and celebrate all.

Most youth orchestras deriving from the European tradition live in the win-lose, zero-sum definition of competition. You “win” a chair; you lose an audition; you are relegated to the back of a section; you “are worse” than other players. The students I taught at Juilliard were so marinated in this mindset that it was bone-deep in them, and it went on to control much of their experience in life. Its brutal demands never went away, even after they won auditions or contests; the comparative, competitive mindset, heart-set, squeezed much of the joy out of their lives.

El Sistema is the alternative to this punishing reality. We who guide Sistema-spirited programs must make sure we fully embrace the Japanese ping-pong club reality of competition. Yes, there will always be competition to play one’s best. But, to use Iyer’s words, “the most important thing is for everybody to be working together, and feeling and thinking together, and linked.”

There was a story I heard in Venezuela several times: people would tell me about having groups of friends in a núcleo who played the same instrument, and all tried out for a chair in their regional orchestra. The ones who didn’t make it would say they were sad not to have made it, but glad for their friend who did. The one who did make it would make a point of coming back to the núcleo to work with her friends and help them get better, so they’d make it too, next time around.

I also observed plenty of friendly competition in action, in Venezuela—in sectional rehearsals, for example, in which the 2nd violins would say, “Let’s blow those 1st violins out of the room with how well we play this part.” Or in orchestra rehearsals, when a conductor would ask the bass section to “show us how it’s done.” Everyone enjoyed the fierceness of the competitive effort, just as Iyer enjoys his exhausting ping-pong. And the quality of the music-making, as a whole, went up.

“Everyone should leave in an equal state of delight.” That is the true goal of every Sistema-inspired rehearsal. That is the spirit that creates the Sistema-hearted ensemble capable of changing lives. We need to build a culture like a Japanese ping-pong club in which we play our hardest—we strive with our friends, not to win or lose, but to accomplish difficult, beautiful things together.


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