Rhinegold

Geoffrey Baker

Is El Sistema a busted flush?

4:11, 4th February 2016

It has not been the best couple of months for El Sistema. December began with a long report by Lawrence Scripp, a director at New England Conservatory, and Luigi Mazzocchi, formerly of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and now concertmaster of the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra. Mazzocchi provided detailed testimony of his 15 years in the Venezuelan programme, voicing allegations of a culture of autocracy, secrecy, inequity, and fear; extreme working practices, sometimes to the point of injury; low representation of disadvantaged and female students; and the normalcy of sexual relationships between teachers and pupils. Such allegations have been made before, but not without the protection of anonymity.

Questioning Sistema: Geoff Baker
Questioning Sistema: Geoff Baker

Then came a Venezuelan newspaper report that music school directors were ordered by top figures in El Sistema to take their employees to vote for the government in the national elections. Mazzocchi, too, recalled that El Sistema’s leadership had issued directives as to how orchestra members should vote. Alongside the use of young musicians in political campaigns, these reports cast further doubt on claims that El Sistema serves as a citizenship education programme.

Finally, January saw the publication of a special issue of the academic journal Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education (ACT), with a series of highly critical articles on the Venezuelan system and its offshoots in other countries. These essays highlight the growing academic scepticism towards the programme.

So is El Sistema a “busted flush,” as Richard Morrison of the Times called the Simón Bolívar orchestra last year? Not yet. It has a huge budget, a formidable publicity machine, and staunch government backing. In fact, it is still treated like a sacred cow: the international media and music industry, having bought into and built up the Sistema myth for nearly a decade, show few signs of engaging with the issues that are now emerging, though Morrison and Tom Service are among a small handful of exceptions. El Sistema also has a large international advocacy network, which has generally denied or ignored the problems. With so much investment in the Sistema brand, it appears to be business as usual in the classical music sphere. Given the limited appetite or space for critical debate, the realities behind the marketing remain little known and the program retains a high and positive profile.

However, the tightening of El Sistema’s embrace with Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution has coincided with the sinking of the government’s stock in the international arena. The programme’s global reputation is thus fragile, particularly in light of the recent allegation that it sought to subvert Venezuela’s democratic process. Furthermore, increasing criticism by scholars is likely to make an impact, at least in the music education sphere. If the media decided to pay closer attention, El Sistema could lose its shine rather quickly.

So where does the global Sistema movement go from here? Leaving aside denial, which is both unethical and unsustainable, there are two broad approaches. One, exemplified by Scripp’s report, sees Sistema-inspired programmes as having the opportunity to recognise and eliminate the flaws of the original model. As leading Sistema commentator Jonathan Govias puts it, ‘the future of Sistema lies outside of Venezuela.’ The other views the idea of El Sistema as problematic at its very root. Scholars in the ACT special issue highlight the programme’s reactionary philosophy and practices, its ‘sleight-of-hand’ arguments, and its dubious social, political, and economic effects behind an attractive ‘veil of culture.’

81tW6bPdQyLWhere does this leave the UK? There are a number of Sistema-inspired programmes here, and they could take the first route. A further positive step would be to stop using the Sistema brand, since it has been revealed as tainted. If such programmes are genuinely interested in social justice, they would do well to distance themselves from systemic injustices. Audiences and concert venues, meanwhile, might think twice about supporting orchestras that rest, according to allegations from their own members, on authoritarianism, exploitation, and fear.

Policy makers, though, ought to consider the inherent issues of class and inequality that El Sistema, far from solving, actually brings in its wake. It is a traditionalist programme, with clear 19th-century antecedents, and rather than wielding a new broom, it reproduces some old and familiar problems of institutionalised music education. Some would argue that what is required is less a reform of a flawed idea than a fresh start, based on recent research on music education and social justice. Either way, it is time for a major rethink.

There is also an argument for paying more attention to home-grown projects that receive less funding and fanfare than Sistema ones, but may provide a more progressive model for ensemble music education. Two London examples are Animate Orchestra and Future Band, but there are undoubtedly many more. Musical Futures and Youth Music provide research-backed models for a larger-scale programme. A more honest assessment of El Sistema’s failings could lead to greater appreciation and development of what we already have in our own back yard.

Further reading

Lawrence Scripp, The Need to Testify: A Venezuelan Musician’s Critique of El Sistema and his Call for Reform.

Denuncian hostigamiento político en Sistema Nacional de Orquestas. El Nacional, 5 December 2015.

Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education.

Geoff Baker is director of the Institute of Musical Research and a Reader in the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. He specialises in music in Latin America and has published four books, most recently El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (Oxford University Press, 2014). For further critical analysis of El Sistema, see http://tocarypensar.com/blog.

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