In 2007 the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra from Venezuela wowed the Proms. "Was this the greatest Prom of all time?" asked The Telegraph. Their conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, rapidly became the new poster boy of classical music, and El Sistema, the music education system that had produced the SBYO and spawned a slew of youth orchestras and nucleos (teaching facilities) across the country became a prototype for projects across the world in which music (specifically orchestral music) is used to change lives and society. A number of El Sistema related programmes are already at work in the UK, see here for England, and here for Scotland.
Generally the response to El Sistema has been very positive. Audience members have been moved to tears by the high level musical performance of the youngsters, hardened professional musicians have been stunned by the ability and apparent musicality of the musicians and the idea that music can transform the lives of slum kids has of course been highly emotive. No wonder the world has felt that it should embrace the ethos of El Sistema. If music can transform society in Venezuela, why not here?
Geoffrey Baker's new book El Sistema : orchestrating Venezuela's youth paints a rather different picture. Here the children of The System are less happy fulfilled products of a miraculous transformation, but more the victims of a cult that cares little for their long term happiness or needs. A cult obsessed with perfection, but with a very narrow view of what contributes towards musical perfection, where discipline and orthodoxy undermine creativity and artistic expression and where bullying and abuse are routinely ignored. A multi-million dollar operation that fails to attain the goals of an inclusive society that it claims for itself, but embraces high finance, the commercial world of classical music, and worldwide fame for the few. An organization that creates musicians, only to throw them unwanted onto the dustheap of the unemployed with no education beyond what they have learned in El Sistema, and little in the way of social skills.
I wasn't altogether won over by Baker's book. Too many of the accusations that he threw against El Sistema are less a problem of The System but more issues of the classical music world in general, and certainly not just in Venezuela. He moans, for example, that there are few women in high level positions in El Sistema. Dreadful, sexist - I hear you say. But let's be honest, how many professional women conductors are there in the big wide musical world? How many women are directors of top level music organizations? Even, how many female composers are there? Not many.
He complains about the rigidity of the system, the discipline of practice, the "bullying" of conductors - I'm not saying that it's right, or desirable, but that, in my experience brought up in the UK, is how it is, or at least how it has been, not just within the goldfish bowl of El Sistema. To get something right you do have to practice....and practice.....and practice - whether you're a pianist or an orchestral musician it makes no difference. Some conductors, whether of orchestras or choirs, are bullies, perhaps the job itself will sometimes attract the kind of person that will have that character flaw. As an example, I can remember working with a choirmaster, when I was an organ scholar, who made a small boy choose between singing with the choir that he loved or seeing his mother for the first time in 6 months due to a family break-up. It was a dreadful thing to do, as was the weekly humiliation that also seemed to be a part of this particular choirmaster's training regime. It's very likely that El Sistema will have some similar bullies working for it, but does this make the whole System redundant?
There were also far too many contradictions. Baker, for example, might stress the rigidity of the System, the lack of democracy, the inability to complain; but would then give an example of a player standing up to the System. Jose Antonio Abreu, who created El Sistema, is portrayed as a political turncoat, but by the sound of it, to me, he was no different to a civil servant who has to adapt to whichever government is in power in order to continue his work. Similarly Baker lays emphasis on El Sistema as the main (only!) music education project in Venezuela, stressing that others fall by the wayside due to the machinations of Abreu, but then later mentions a range of other music education organizations in Venezuela that are successful, and don't necessarily feature classical music. And the final confusing note: many paragraphs emphasising that most of the kids come from middle-class homes and that the nucleos are all in safe middle-class areas, followed by a section on the problems of recruiting teachers, which included the fact that many teachers didn't want to work in some nucleos because they were dangerous. All of which left me feeling confused, and as though there was an anti-Sistema agenda at work here.
However.....I think he does have several very good points; certainly enough to question if El Sistema really is the organization that it purports to be. As a music education establishment El Sistema, according to Baker, seems to fail in several ways. Although openly accessible to all, the reality is somewhat different. Some nucleos have no instruments, or only broken instruments. Vast sums of money are paid into El Sistema, largely thanks to the popularity of the SBYO (now renamed Symphony orchestra - see next sentence for the probable reason behind the change); but this money rarely finds its way down to the grassroots. While a huge concert hall is built in Caracas, next to one that is only a few years old, and the "youth" orchestra (some of whose members are in their 30s) travels all round the world, small nuclea have toilets with no doors, and children without instruments or teachers.
The teachers that there are, are often only available if they don't have performance commitments elsewhere (ironically with another orchestra in the System), and a child's chance of joining and staying with El Sistema is often reliant on the support of their parents. The teachers are often ill educated, very young, and have little experience of teaching; and the instruments that the children can choose to play are closely prescribed by the System giving little real choice or reflection of a child's musical abilities. (You can be musical, but if you're playing the wrong instrument for you, you will never be able to show how good you can be, or enjoy music in the way that you could). The way the children rehearse means that they are often learning music by rote, so fail to appreciate the wider repertoire or the history and theory that lie behind the music. Essential if later you are going to become a fully rounded musician able to play whatever repertoire is thrown at you.
Many children are paid to stay in the System leading to confusion as to what exactly is making El Sistema work - is it the autocratic system, a genuine love for music, or financial imperatives? Perhaps even a combination of all three.
Accusations of Eurocentrism and cultural imperialism are also not out of place, while on a deeper level there are some worrying allegations of child abuse. Again this is not solely confined to El Sistema, the last few years have been particularly bad for British music schools with many historical allegations of child sex abuse surfacing. What is worrying here however is that El Sistema appears to be in denial of any negative aspects; and any criticism within Venezuela is quickly hushed.
Meanwhile, if you're of a cynical mind and enjoy a good laugh, the section on El Sistema's attempts to win Abreu the Nobel Peace Prize should have you chortling happily. Venezuelan young musicians flooding into Norway, a bevy of concerts, and some Mahler with the LA Philharmonic along with the slogan "With Dudamel for peace". Much as I love Mahler, I don't get the peace connection, surely it couldn't have any connection with the prize? References to "Social" in El Sistema's publicity disappear in the year of Abreu's nomination, while, unsurprisingly, "Peace" blossoms everywhere.
Although I disagreed with much of what Baker wrote, I was energized by his last chapter in which he looked at different models for music teaching. His personal preference throughout for improvisation over a more traditional music education didn't move me (I know that for me personally, a more traditional style of education worked better), but there was so much in what he wrote that excited me. I may have been educated more traditionally, but that's not the way in which I teach. I love being open to what pupils want to do, and the areas of music that they wish to explore. It's exciting for me, and inspiring for them. I hate rigid systems in which children learn by rote, and ultimately derive less and less pleasure from music, and it's sad to think that this appears to be the model that El Sistema is following.
I so want to believe in El Sistema, I do believe in the power of music having been touched by it myself, but I'm cynical enough to believe that sadly there is rather more going on in the world of El Sistema than just an attempt to save street children. Does rigorously teaching children orchestral music make their world a better place? I don't know, I'm not entirely convinced. Does music in children's lives enrich them? Undoubtedly. All I can hope is that Sistema offshoots world wide adapt to what suits them, keeping what is good in Sistema, and dropping what should be discarded. And perhaps, instead of saving up for that expensive Sistema ticket, you could give your local youth orchestra a chance, because they are certainly worth it, and need all the support you can give.