Thursday, November 13, 2014

El Sistema Critiqued

I've been curious about El Sistema, the music education system developed in Venezuela that has seen such spectacular success (one of its alumni, Gustavo Dudamel, is conductor of the Los Angeles Philhamonic). El Sistema provides "free classical music education that promotes human opportunity and development for impoverished children." I think that something like this would be of enormous benefit to Mexico, faced with similar problems.

For an overview of the project read the Wikipedia article. Here is a quote from the founder, José Abreu:
Abreu said, :"Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values - solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings"[5]
 It is certainly my experience over twenty-five years of teaching music at all levels from beginners to university, that music can have nearly magical effects in people's lives. It teaches discipline, focus, gumption, sensitivity and how to work and relate to others. But now an English academic has leveled some serious criticisms at El Sistema. As reported in the Guardian:
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”.
Based on research he conducted in Venezuela, Baker criticised the organisation for the “opacity of its financial affairs” and its lack of rigorous evaluation to quantify its claims of “miraculous social transformation”.
This is the core of the critique as reported in the Guardian. But you should read the whole article as it gives a balanced account of both the critique and defences of El Sistema. One defender remarked that:
“I think that El Sistema in Venezuela has provided a route to social development for huge numbers of Venezuelan children and young people. I have personally seen this development in certain Venezuelans over a period of years with my own eyes.”
My own personal experience, though having nothing whatsoever to do with El Sistema, is that music can indeed provide a path out of poverty and ignorance. I struck out on my own, but it was pursuing the study of music that changed my life and it can do the same for many others. If there is a system that maximizes the possibility of this happening, I am all for it. El Sistema certainly seems to have achieved a great deal.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the political context of Venezuela which has been impoverishing the country for decades, despite Venezuela's oil wealth. On the other hand, perhaps the existence of El Sistema demonstrates how music can flourish no matter what the political environment. Perhaps it is poverty itself that drives people to music where all you really need is a bit of devotion.


Rickard Dahl said...

There's actually a sort of El Sistema-like project here in Gothenburg. Basically, a group of kids in one of the poorer suburbs get "free" music education for a particular instruments and then they play together and even play at some concerts, sometimes together with professional musicians. I don't know exactly how it is funded but parts of it comes from donations and I bet part of it comes from tax money. Yep, looks like a part of the money comes from the municipalities/communes.

Anyways, the project got started in 2009 by Gustav Dudamel when he was the chief conductor for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. It has since then spread to other Swedish cities, including Umeå and Stockholm.

There's a website: but it's in Swedish. You can click on English but it only goes to a general description of the El Sistema idea, the rest is still in Swedish. Here's an interview with Gustav Dudamel with regards to this project in Gothenburg, maybe it will be interesting.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's great to hear about! We have a similar program here that works with a couple of hundred kids in poor rural areas.