The rapid and far reaching changes to our physical planet and our global society in the past century have sparked an intense dialogue about sustainability. Discussions about sustainability tend to fall into physical/environmental contexts, however there is another element of sustainability which tends to fly under our radar: social sustainability. Social sustainability has to do with creating systems which make individuals feel whole within themselves beyond the basic human needs of food and shelter while allowing them to forge meaningful connections to those around them. It is social glue that holds healthy communities together in a state of peace. In my opinion, social sustainability it is an essential component of sustainability because people have to feel well in their inner world before they can think of reaching out to participate in physical/environmental sustainability efforts to care for the world around them.
My premise then begs the question: How do we achieve social sustainability? I propose that ensemble-based music education organizations, such as community orchestras, youth ensembles, and group music lessons, are an essential part of making a community sustainable. This is because of a unique set of paradoxes music learning communities encompass that can then be applied to communities at large. When we learn music we feel independent yet connected, confident yet humble, and hard at work while happy at play.
Engaging with music is individual yet binding. The connections made both internally and externally by listening to and making music are intensely personal. They trigger memories, they delve into our subconscious, and they help us to mitigate the stresses of complicated emotions. Listening to and making music are both acts of expression. The amazing thing about playing music in a group is that one the chance to express oneself by simultaneously listening and creating. As one plays in an orchestra, he/she is experiencing all of these individual responses internally, yet he/she must always be listening to those around them. Musicians tend to form deep bonds with other musicians because the act of striving for beauty and individual fulfillment through music making is incredibly unifying. The more musician citizens a community holds the more listeners and expressers that community will have. Said community will be more sustainable because more people will feel whole and connected.
In a sustainable society, the teachers are learning and the learners are teaching. This is also true in music programs. At any given point in musical training, one must take ownership of the skills he possesses by sharing them with fellow community members through teaching and performance. I observed this taking place during a small yet memorable moment while working with ROCmusic, Rochesters’ El Sistema program. A second year student helped a first year student make a bow hold before orchestra rehearsal. Though her skills on the instrument were still at an elementary level, she was able to help another student master basic skills before she went into her rehearsal, where her own skill set was expanded. Even the professional musician lives in tension between being confident and humble, as music is a subjective art form that tends to leave us always striving for refinement in our ability to perform, teach, and work with others. People who are exposed to this cycle of education through music programs will bring this experience to any work they do in the community at large. As a result, said community will have leaders who assume their responsibility to keep learning and learners who utilize their ability to be leaders.
A productive society is one in which individuals recognize the balance between their rights and their responsibilities. These values are taught inherently through music education. One of the first lessons students of music learn is the importance of daily practice. That is, putting in consistent and deliberate work in order to solve problems. Making music in a group helps stress the importance of this responsibility to practice. Each member realizes that the practice benefits not only them, but the group as a whole. Everyone has the right to a good experience making music, but everyone also has the responsibility of individual practice in order to make that good experience happen. As a musician myself, I can attest to the fact that once this discipline of practice is learned, it is applied to all areas of life. Community music programs create a unique way to teach this discipline because all members of community music programs learn the value of consistent work and how it can benefit themselves and those around them.
Through music education initiatives, a world with healthier communities has the potential to emerge, as these initiatives train citizens to work, connect, listen, and lead.