Last week’s post was about Mark O’Connor’s attack on the Suzuki method, which I (and many others) found quite harsh, mean-spirited and a huge waste of energy. This week’s example of unnecessary squabbling in the string world is a similarly strident (and questionable) attack on El Sistema, the Venezuelan method of community building through youth music education, which has received tremendous attention in recent years and has inspired many new programs in countries around the world.

The father of El Sistema is Jose Antonio Abreu, who began working with 11 children in a Caracas garage in 1975. Since then, upwards of two million children have gone through the program, including Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the LA Philharmonic. The program is praised for paying both musical and social dividends, and is the hot trend in both education and community engagement efforts across the music world these days.

With such popularity, I suppose a backlash was inevitable, and it comes from a British academic. In an article in the Guardian newspaper, Geoffrey Baker, a music lecturer at Royal Holloway University who has just written a book on El Sistema, to be published by Oxford University Press, claimed that far from being the “beacon of social justice” as it is portrayed all over the world, in Venezuela it is viewed as “a cult, a mafia and a corporation.”

Full disclosure, round two: I am not trained in the ways of El Sistema, but I have done a lot of teaching at Cincinnati’s incarnation, MYCincinnati, a wonderful program run by the amazing Laura Jekel. Here’s a video about the collaboration between the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and MYCincinnati, which is my favorite part about being a member of that ensemble:




In the Guardian article, Baker complains about El Sistema’s “lack of rigorous evaluation to quantify its claims of ‘miraculous social transformation.’ ”

“I found many Sistema musicians unconvinced by claims that the project was aimed at Venezuela’s most vulnerable children,” he writes. “Pointing to a lack of mechanisms for consistently targeting this demographic, they suggested most musicians come from the middle levels of society.”

The article also offers a countering point of view: “Reynaldo Trombetta, a Venezuelan musician and writer who has worked with El Sistema, in his home country and then assisting (cellist Julian) Lloyd-Webber, set up the programme in the UK, rejected Baker’s allegations.

“He said: ‘I’m not really sure who Mr Baker spoke to and I have my doubts about the reach of his research. I have to wonder if he spoke to any of the parents of the kids from the barrios, the slums, who are desperate to get their kids into El Sistema because for them the alternative is these kids getting involved in drugs or crime. You would have to ask them if they think El Sistema is a mafia or a tyranny. More than two million kids have been involved and we still see huge queues, all the time, of parents desperate to get their children into one of the 300 nucleos [community music schools]. Most of the people involved are not aspiring to be musicians, they are just in a country where you don’t learn much about excellence, you don’t learn much about teamwork, you don’t really learn what you can achieve when you work hard and El Sistema is absolutely still a beacon of light benefitting a lot of people, even in things like educational literacy and maths skills.’ ”

Baker’s main complaint seems to be that there is a lack of data to support El Sistema’s claims of community building and personal enrichment for the kids who pass through it. Anyone who’s paid attention to education knows how hard it is to show that sort of thing in numbers, but let’s allow him that one, and say that there could be some better number crunching done. In fact, Trombetta agrees, suggesting that it would be very helpful.

The Guardian also points out that Baker doesn’t offer numbers to back up his claims either:

“Marshall Marcus, former head of music at the Southbank centre and now the chair of Sistema Europe, also cast doubt on Baker’s allegations.

‘My experience over many years is that El Sistema certainly is mainly involved with children and young people from economically challenged circumstances,’ he said. ‘If it is thought by someone that El Sistema has become more skewed towards middle class students rather than helping those living in poverty then I would be interested to see any figures that show that. I have not seen any to date.’ ”

The article also adds: “Argentinian pianist Alberto Portugheis, who was responsible for bringing El Sistema over to play in Britain for the first time almost a decade ago added: ‘El Sistema has had a fantastic effect on education in general in Venezuela. But you cannot expect a musical education to make all the problems of poverty in the country disappear.’ ”

This is a crucial point, I think – learning to play the violin may give someone a great deal to help them deal with the difficulties in their life, but it does not make those difficulties disappear!

So, why am I writing about this? Like O’Connor, Baker seems intent on tearing down something that is very popular and does a great deal of good. Is El Sistema perfect? Of course not – no system is. And as someone who spent eight years working for the Pentagon, I can tell you that anything operating on a large scale has all sorts of problems! Most importantly, like the Suzuki method, for El Sistema to be successful, IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE TEACHER!

In any case, both O’Connor and Baker are doing more harm than good. As I said last week, music education is viewed by many as a luxury, and both the Suzuki method and El Sistema have convinced millions otherwise. We don’t have time for circular firing squads in our business – let’s leave that to others with less important work to do!

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