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FROM THE EDITOR, April 2019
Here’s a challenge for you: define “excellence.”
How did that go? Did the perfectly satisfying definition pop right up? Or are you doing some backing and filling?
If you are, I think you’re in good company. This is a time when longstanding assumptions about excellence in music, and in all the arts, are being unsettled. Last week, at a meeting of the El
Sistema New Jersey Alliance, leaders of the state’s Sistema-inspired programs were discussing how to articulate the fundamental values our programs share. We were pretty much in sync until we began to talk about excellence as a primary goal. Some members were not entirely comfort- able with the word, saying that when used in a music education context, it can represent a kind of coded language that evokes a traditionally elitist ideal of refined technique in classical music.
No one at our conference table suggested that this tradition should simply be jettisoned. But everyone felt that other crucial priorities also guide our programs. Creativity, cooperation, peer learning, community, student voice – all these goals inform the work of shaping our music learning environments. Does the word “excellence,” we wondered, have too much connotative baggage to serve as the right term for these goals?
We experimented with other words we might substitute. Rigor? Intensity? We’re still at it, and would love to hear what language works for you.
But perhaps we can keep using the term to mean intensive effort toward bold aspiration – an aspect of Sistema learning we all value deeply – if we agree that there are many kinds of excellence, not just the conservatory-honed one. Howard Gardner posited that there are multiple kinds of intelligence; let’s conjecture that there are multiple kinds of excellence. In specific learning situations, we need to be clear about whether we’re prioritizing excellence in social communication, in creative energy, or in technical finesse.
Our students, I think, are abundantly capable of multiple excellences. It’s a mistake to assume that we have to teach one kind, to the exclusion of others. Can our students achieve excellence of musical technique AND excellence of collaborative creativity? I believe the answer is yes. I also believe that for the global Sistema-inspired movement, there’s no more important question.