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Editorial: July 2019
I went last week to Side By Side By El Sistema Swe- den, an intensive international music camp spon- sored by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in partnership with the city and El Sistema Sweden. Let’s start with the statistics.
The five-day camp was attended by 2,500 (not a typo) students aged 7-17. They comprised no fewer than 13 ensembles – six orchestras, four choirs, early music and folk groups, and a special needs ensemble. Add to all that the members of the professional orchestra. Over 100 volunteers assisted the paid staff. Over 10,000 bananas were consumed at snack time The full-camp concert took place in a municipal hockey arena.
All quite wonderful, you may be thinking, but not relevant to those of us who can’t serve 2,500 children or commandeer hockey arenas. For me, some of the most impressive aspects of the camp had nothing to do with big numbers; they were the kind of small but potent leaps of imagination that revitalize El Sistema principles in practice.
Consider, for example, the many meanings given to the phrase “Side By Side.” Yes, it often meant professional players alongside students. But it also meant experienced student groups alongside beginner student groups. It meant mixing up conventional programming: Berlioz and Billy Joel and folk tunes. It meant that volunteer teachers, experienced T.A.s, and renowned conductors worked together in rehearsal and performance. Kids from Sistema programs and kids from non- Sistema programs couldn’t tell who was which.
In general, there was a consistent and resolute equal valuing of experienced and novice, skilled and unskilled players. In the big concert, all the ensembles were literally arrayed side by side across the arena floor. As they played and sang Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” the area microphone nearest the special needs choir picked up some voices singing discordant but emotionally charged notes. No one turned off the micro- phone, resulting in the most moving rendition of “There’s a place for us” I have ever heard.
Side by Side was huge. But it was also inventive, playful, and virtuosically inclusive. These are takeaways to inspire all of us, large or small.