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Geoffrey Baker’s ‘El Sistema – Orchestrating Venezuala’s Youth’

Gillian Howell
| June 10, 2015

For many people, Venezuela’s ‘El Sistema’ is the most exciting and intriguing development in classical music and music education in recent times. Simon Rattle has called it “the future of classical music”. Sistema-inspired programs have been initiated all over the world. This comprehensive program of instrumental learning, youth orchestras, and world-class performance standards is impressive enough, but the fact that it uses music education as a vehicle for social care and transformation, with the express intention of creating alternative life trajectories for Venezuela’s most disadvantaged youths, has made it a particularly compelling phenomenon.

Many researchers, educators, artists, arts advocates and policy makers have travelled to Venezuela in order to understand the secret to El Sistema’s success. However, UK scholar Geoffrey Baker’s research took a slightly different stance, asking, “Is El Sistema successful? At what? And what do Venezuelan musicians think about it?” The result of his lengthy ethnographic inquiry is a book that has strongly divided opinions and caused something of a storm among the global Sistema community.

Some in that community have questioned Baker’s motives, darkly suggesting vendettas and hidden agendas to explain why he found so much to criticise in such a lauded program. In this review, Gillian Howell attempts to steer a steady course through such turbulent waters, teasing out the book’s offerings and provocations for music educators, researchers, and anyone interested in the role that music learning may play in human transformation.

British academic and musicologist Geoffrey Baker’s examination of Venezuela’s much-lauded System (‘El Sistema’) of social action through instrumental learning and youth orchestras has attracted considerable attention since its publication in late 2014. Baker had primed his critics prior to publication, sharing and airing many of the early findings and observations from his research on his blog, and engaging directly with his adversaries on that forum. The book has therefore been eagerly anticipated both by those that would denounce it and those that would applaud it.

Having followed those early debates, I was eager to get my hands on a copy and learn more of what he had found during 12 months of fieldwork in Venezuela between 2010 and 2011. Like so many others, Baker’s interest in El Sistema began in 2007, when a youthful and charismatic Gustavo Dudamel and Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra gave a BBC Proms debut that whipped its audience into a frenzy of utter delight, and catapulted the performers and the Venezuelan Sistema into the international spotlight. However, in contrast to the initial assemblage of scholars and biographers that wanted to uncover the secret of El Sistema’s success, Baker has taken a more circumspect approach, asking, “Is El Sistema successful? At what? What are its strengths and weaknesses? What do Venezuelan musicians think about it?” (p. 4).

Such questions are important to ask of any program in receipt of substantial state and development bank funding (El Sistema is a social program of the Venezuelan

El Sistema. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

El Sistema. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

government, with additional financing from the Inter-American Development Bank [IDB] among others). El Sistema, or FESNOJIV, as its formal title abbreviates to, is a powerful player in Venezuela, as is its founding father, the conductor, public intellectual, and former politician José Antonio Abreu. It is also becoming a global phenomenon, with ‘Sistema-inspired’ programs in many parts of the developed and developing world. It is this rapid international expansion of El Sistema models that gives Baker’s book considerable international currency beyond academia, and his scrutiny is certainly timely.

A critical ethnography, Baker’s primary data source is interviews and conversations with a diverse sample of stakeholders. He includes perspectives from former and current employees, music students of all ages, and reaches well beyond a handful of exemplary achievers to include the perspectives of the drop-outs and rejected, rural music teachers employed by the hour, youth orchestra members, public servants, and many others. He was a fly-on-the-wall observer of the daily business in several different music centres (called núcleos). He also examined on-record statements and organisational rhetoric, media reports, and followed debates taking place in social media and other informal forums. His writing contextualises these sources with reference to an extensive array of scholarly literature, spanning music education research (and education research more generally), post-colonialism, economics, development studies, music sociology, and ethnomusicology, to name just a few. It is an extremely thorough scholarly inquiry.

Baker’s book opens with a vivid description of his first visit to Venezuela to see a núcleo in action, and outlines the context for his research and interest in El Sistema. He establishes the scholarly gap that his research addresses, noting the dearth of critical examinations and evaluations of the work of El Sistema, and the lack of rigorous testing of its claims by most other writers thus far. In particular, he wants to know whether and how it delivers on its promises of social change.

From here, Baker divides his inquiry into four parts, examining in turn ‘The Institution and its Leaders’, ‘Music Education’, ‘Social Education’, and ‘Impact’, with 2-4 chapters in each part. Each chapter probes an aspect of the program deeply, getting things off to a blistering start in Chapter 1 with a highly critical portrayal of Abreu that probes his political past and influences. This is followed by examinations of the Simón BolívarYouth Orchestra (today known as the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra), Gustavo Dudamel, the prestigious and carefully-managed international recording and artist management partnerships that maintain Sistema’s global profile, the participants themselves, and which strata of Venezuelan society they represent; and the institutional practices of authority, decision-making and consensus.

Part Two places the Venezuelan Sistema within the global music education context. Chapter 5 asks how appropriate an orchestra is as a vehicle for positive social change. Is it a “beautiful model for a society”, as Dudamel is quoted as saying (p. 112) or an entity that displays tyrannical and disempowering practices in delivering its version of social harmony? Furthermore, how compatible is the goal of musical excellence, as defined within Western classical music, with goals of social care?

Chapter 6 turns the focus to pedagogy. There is no doubt El Sistema is very successful in turning out highly skilled orchestral performers but Baker wants to know how this is achieved. Again, his research paints a less than rosy picture, with many informants and his own observations suggesting pedagogical practices that emphasise rote learning and repetition, and that pay scant attention to developing young people’s capacities for critical thinking and reflection. Baker draws a distinction between education and training, suggesting that El Sistema is in fact a highly effective orchestral training program but one that leaves its alumni with concerning gaps in their overall education, musical and general.

Such a finding seems at odds with the program’s overall objective of social care and transformation of young lives. In Part Three of the book, Baker unpacks the complex demands of social education, holding El Sistema’s claims of social care up to a critical light. The four chapters examine at length ‘Social action through music’, ‘Social inclusion and democracy’, ‘Democracy, teamwork, competition, and meritocracy’, and ‘Realities, dreams, and revolutions’. Issues discussed earlier in the book – such as authoritarian and patriarchal leadership values, and the focus on discipline that links progress and success in the System in part to acquiescence and obedience – are here examined in relation to their impact on young people’s well-being.

Some of the issues discussed are quite specific to El Sistema: for example, the linking of financial support with positions in the more prestigious ensembles creates high and unhealthy levels of competition among players, compounded by opaque and unaccountable selection processes. That the scholarships on offer easily rival professional musicians’ salaries further complicates efforts to evaluate the social impacts of El Sistema, for “how does one separate out the effects of music from the effects of money?” Moreover, “could almost any activity become a successful social project under such [financial] conditions?” (p. 177).

Baker also questions how ‘inclusive’ a program can be that places a lesser value on the musical roots that many of the young participants come from. Indigenous Venezuelan music traditions are included in El Sistema programs, but Baker observed various ways in which a lower status for these and other popular musical styles was often communicated or implied, supporting his contention with ample quotes from Sistema spokespeople over the years as well as assessing the comparative status of different musics through organisational expenditure. While acknowledging that this situation has improved considerably in recent years, his concern is with how this privileging aligns with claims of inclusion.

Meanwhile, other issues raised in this chapter are important considerations for all music educators, such as the tensions between nurturing individual aspiration and creativity, while simultaneously cultivating the traditional orchestral archetype of being an ‘efficient cog in the machine’. Furthermore, the very confronting allegations of abuse within the núcleos, and the apparent absence of child protection policies in El Sistema give chilling reminder of the ease with which abuse can thrive in any environment with highly asymmetric power structures, few avenues for dissent, and where particular individuals are seemingly beyond rebuke.

Part Four is concerned with local and global impact, with chapters 11-13 titled ‘The politics and economics of impact’, ‘Impact on Venezuelan cultural life’ and ‘Advances, alternatives, and the future’. Baker examines the ways that El Sistema manages and promotes its impact to Venezuela’s power-brokers, to its major funders, and to the world, with central narratives of salvation and transformation. He then turns his attention to El Sistema’s global impact, looking at the work of the many ‘Sistema-inspired’ projects around the world. Baker finds that many have improved upon the Venezuelan model, in particular with more progressive and informed approaches to pedagogy and social inclusion.

El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth has a wealth of information, historical context, and provocations for music educators, researchers, activists, and advocates. Baker is an indefatigable scrutineer and critical voice. He makes no claims about looking for balance, proposing that in fact, his book brings balance by providing a counterweight to earlier works produced in close collaboration with FESNOJIV that by their own admission are more works of advocacy than critical inquiry. Indeed, he acknowledges that he “met many people who enjoyed being part of El Sistema; but [he] also witnessed enough disappointment and disillusionment for the criticisms to ring true” (p. 16). His robust approach makes for energetic and compelling reading.

The vast majority of Baker’s informants speak under conditions of anonymity of name and often location. The anonymity serves a dual purpose – to protect those informants that felt they were speaking within an oppressive environment of retribution and control, and in order to emphasise the fact that many of the issues Baker identifies throughout the book are systemic, rather than specific to a single location. Some readers might consider this to be a weakness of the book, but undoubtedly, the promise of anonymity gives the book one of its great strengths – its extensive reach. He also draws upon a great range of sources including publications in Spanish and German as well as English, and familiarity with the ‘word on the street’ and on the social media platforms used by everyday Venezuelans, perspectives that are less often represented in English-language accounts of El Sistema.

Interestingly, José Antonio Abreu was not included among the interviewees, and some readers may take issue with this, given his controversial portrayal as a “tyrannical” and “Machiavellian” leader. Baker defends the decision on methodological and ethical grounds – his intention was to understand El Sistema’s work from the viewpoint of a broad cross-section of Venezuelans, seeking out divergent views. Abreu’s views are extensively documented and usually afforded the greatest weight; analysis of these alongside first-hand reports of working and playing under him is a legitimate strategy, although admittedly one that has generated a less-than-flattering portrayal.

Despite its length (362 pages), there are things that the book doesn’t do. It does not present the stories of El Sistema’s successes – the children and adults whose lives have been transformed through music education – that are at the core of the accepted narrative. It does not read as a joyful confirmation of youth orchestra experiences. It does not portray shining eyes, the creation of new life pathways and aspirations, the lifelong friendships, the thrill of mastery, or the intensity of a love of orchestral music. For some participants, these experiences may indeed be central to their El Sistema experience. For some readers, they may be central to their interest in El Sistema.

For El Sistema’s advocates, these omissions, alongside Baker’s many criticisms, are a grave injustice and misrepresentation. Some have gone so far as to accuse Baker of having a vendetta against El Sistema[i], or a hidden malevolent agenda. Apparently, for some, to even read the book is to endorse it and its findings[ii]. But this desire to discredit the book is puzzling, given that critics and supporters of El Sistema and Baker’s book alike seem to agree that the young learners should be the central concern. These are programs for children – and not just any children, but those who are among the most disadvantaged of our societies. If the children’s best interests are not at the centre of every decision, what is, and what does that suggest about the other interests that have a stake in influencing decisions? These are important questions for all of us.

Far more important than debates about balance or competing truths therefore, is what happens next. In his closing pages, Baker suggests that the global interest in El Sistema has allowed an “extraordinary space” to open up, a space in which the critical contributions that music and other arts experiences can make in enriching people’s lives can be discussed, appraised and explored. But for that space to remain credible, its projects must be open to critical evaluation, deliberation and reflection by those within it as well as external observers.

As such, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth is an important contribution to music education literature. Baker’s findings may provoke, but they also illuminate in dazzling complexity the disconnects and conflicts that can evolve between power, discipline, and education, opportunity and aspiration, claims and experience, advocacy and evidence, politics and culture, social benefit and musical excellence. These are essential considerations for any organisation wanting to ensure both the best interests of the young participants and the sustained longevity of the program. Critical scrutiny can be uncomfortable, but if it provokes greater reflection and internal rigour, then this is a good and welcome outcome for all – leaders, organisers, teachers, musicians, and most of all, the young participants and their right to reach their full potential.

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