1. Prelude

In 2007, I was introduced to the Venezuelan youth orchestra training program El Sistema. I’m the founder of the Music-in-Education program and the Center for Music-in-Education at the New England Conservatory, and the program was presented to me as a radical shift in the scope and focus of international youth orchestra development. At first glance, it seemed extremely impressive. El Sistema has a reputation for quality youth orchestra performances, but more importantly, it claims to improve the lives of underprivileged children through its musical training. Increasingly, it is being promoted by classical musicians and orchestras worldwide as a model worth emulating in music education.

Despite my positive first impression, however, I soon became aware that evidence for the impact of El Sistema had not been systematically gathered and empirically verified. It struck me as unlikely that a large-scale national system of extremely intensive out-of-school youth orchestra training could simultaneously provide free or low-cost instruction, instruments, and community núcleos (music schools) open to all youth; elevate families from poverty and communities from drug addiction and gang warfare; and render exquisite and passionate performances of the most difficult pieces in the classical repertoire.

As an independent researcher, I was disappointed in the lack of evidence for El Sistema’s validity as a model for 21st-century music education in service of broader social goals. As a music educator, I had difficulty understanding how a nationalized orchestra training system based solely on classical music and serving only a self-selected 6-8 percent of Venezuela’s youth could possibly be considered comprehensive education in music for all. It just didn’t add up.

In 2014, the researcher and musicologist Geoff Baker published a book entitled El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. His account challenged idealized views of El Sistema as an engine of positive social action and focused on the testimony of practitioners who were not directly involved in promoting the program. His interview sources, who were only willing to speak anonymously, portrayed El Sistema as a secretive, autocratic organization that has not been held accountable for its management practices, its treatment of teachers and students, and for gathering objective evidence of its social impact beyond anecdotes and musical performances.

Luigi Mazzocchi · Photography Alexander Iziliaev
Luigi Mazzocchi · Photography Alexander Iziliaev

In order to verify the findings in Baker’s book, I reached out to the Venezuelan violinist Luigi Mazzocchi, concertmaster of the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra and associate concertmaster of the Delaware Symphony, who studied for 15 years in El Sistema starting at age nine, and rose to become a member of its top orchestras and a soloist in Venezuela. He left the system 20 years ago and moved to the United States, where he has had a successful career as a professional violinist and educator. As it turned out, Mazzocchi had just finished reading Baker’s book as well.

Mazzocchi agreed to a series of five interviews with me. It was clear that his memories and feelings about his childhood and youth in El Sistema came flooding back to him during our conversations. He was shocked by the realization that, however much he owed to El Sistema for his formative orchestral training, the program is deeply flawed. He hopes that these flaws will be worked out in Venezuela, and that other El Sistema-based programs will correct them as they pursue social change through the intensive study of music. To my knowledge, this resulting report (read the unabridged version here) is the first detailed, critical account of El Sistema by a named high-level participant of the program. It stands as an important corrective to public relations announcements emanating from El Sistema’s leadership and the rose-tinted accounts of journalists and advocates of the program abroad.

2. “9 a.m. to midnight”

In large part, El Sistema’s reputation rests on its claim to be a universal program of music education. But in fact, as Mazzocchi pointed out, it is almost exclusively an orchestral training program, and cannot be considered a comprehensive or progressive form of music education. Rather than providing supplementary education to students free of charge, El Sistema was intended to replace a normal education for its participants.

The curriculum was focused almost entirely on learning orchestral parts by rote, and there were many core musical skills that students did not learn, or learned only superficially. Students were sometimes actively discouraged from broadening their musical horizons.

Some El Sistema leaders or administrators told us not to go to another orchestra or conservatory or even attend school. [The children were nine to about 16 years old in this orchestra, the Orquesta Juvenil de Batquisimeto.] They said, “Why are you going, you are wasting your time.” But I did take solfège and history of music that were not provided by El Sistema, at least at the time.

This rote learning took place over a huge amount of rehearsal time spanning long hours. Therefore, as Mazzocchi bluntly describes, “It’s not really an educational system, because…if you do something 22 or more hours a week, at some point, you’ll start getting good at it, that’s all.”

, and, for Mazzocchi, the foundation of El Sistema’s musical achievements. He describes seminarios (intensive multi-day or even multi-week courses) in which students would rehearse from 9 a.m. to midnight. When preparing for tours, the Simón Bolívar Orchestra worked endlessly, sometimes to the point of injury.

They close themselves [in] all day to rehearse to the point that the young student[s] don’t go to school or have to miss lots of days of school, because they prepare all these big repertoires to travel all over Venezuela, all over, you know, America, Europe, whatever. So they do work very, very long hours. I understand today that the Simón Bolívar Orchestra B goes through even more hours of work.

Sometimes we [would] get injured, too, from too much playing, and we would have to take a break. A few times, El Sistema would have a doctor or a medical student there to take care of us. Or they would have somebody buy medicines, usually for some muscular ailment. I always thought it was what we had to do. It was a risk we had to take to overcome the next challenge.

It was a culture of excessive work, where children and young professionals were continually asked to break through the normal boundaries of work-life balance and health concerns. The work ethic also compromised the chances of a good education outside of music, with one El Sistema leader questioning the value of school.

He would say, “Why do you even go to school at all?  What you need is this [El Sistema]. Why would you go to fourth and fifth grade or try to go to high school and get a high school diploma? What are you going to do with that? You would just hang it on your wall and that’s it. So why do you need a diploma from elementary school or high school, when all we need is to play our instruments?”

From Mazzocchi’s viewpoint, El Sistema’s oppressive workload did have its benefits: he immensely enjoyed the social bonding and musical challenges that it entailed. The program and its culture of hard work allowed him to imagine exciting new levels of musical performance that were attainable after years of commitment. Summer seminarios provided glimpses of the older youth orchestras playing more complex and emotionally powerful symphonies, inspiring him to climb the ranks, but they also provided ample opportunity for play and socializing. The sheer amount of rehearsal and performance (by the time he was 25, he had performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 85 times) provided a solid foundation for his later career.

El Sistema’s organization, however, was characterized by Mazzocchi as “controlled chaos”—an extreme unpredictability of working and payment schedules, which obliged many musicians in the program to abandon commitments outside of the orchestra and, in doing so, give up a considerable degree of control over their lives. Chaos was compounded by a culture of secrecy: “Information was always a privilege of the few on top. So it was hard to prepare. It was hard to know what was going on.” This combination was experienced, according to Mazzocchi, as a feeling of harassment or manipulation.

It was not only decisions about repertoire, but who was playing and where the orchestra was going, or if somebody had been given a new position or whatever, it was always kind of secret. And many times, especially in and the interior, we were told we were traveling, we were touring, and we didn’t know the dates.  It was either this month or the next month. And until the last minute, we didn’t know usually; then things didn’t work out.

They would add rehearsals at any time. You had to be available. Usually we rehearsed at night and they would say, “Well, tomorrow, we have to be here at 2 p.m. and then do a double rehearsal.” So you had to cancel everything else that you were doing. When it was a youth orchestra, it was actually a lot more extensive, a lot worse than that. If you had to prepare for an important concert, not even a tour, but an important concert that would mean getting more funds from a company or from the government, then it could [be] all day, it could last for a weekend. Sometimes, we had to miss school without warning to prepare for a concert, because that was the ultimate goal. It was always more important than anything else, which is something that had parents very concerned most of the time.

El Sistema used the professionalization of youth orchestras to enforce loyalty to a system that demanded a pledge of silence. Paying the young performers substantial wages meant El Sistema became a job that lured young musicians and teachers into committing to their orchestras, often at the expense of exploring other musical and educational opportunities. Yet young participants were also reminded to keep silent about being paid at all, lest El Sistema’s character as a professional training system rather than an education program become apparent.

At some point while the salaries of the kids playing in my orchestra were higher than the ones of professional teachers and engineers in Venezuela, we had to keep it sort of quiet. I think at some point they told us, “Don’t talk too much about your payments, how much you’re getting paid. Don’t mention it outside of our doors, how much you’re getting paid.”  

Despite this professionalized environment, Mazzocchi presents El Sistema as riven by arbitrary decisions and favoritism. Fear and anxiety constantly permeated orchestral practices.

When the passage wasn’t working, then the conductor would say, OK, that’s it. This is not working, let’s listen to you uno por uno. And he would ask anybody to play in front of the whole ensemble. And everybody trembled when he asked them to play. We always had fear. That was the main reason why we kept practicing, because we didn’t want to be put on that spot.

When the one-by-one “auditions” resulted in changes in the seating of the orchestra, it exhilarated the winner as much as it degraded the loser. Despite the appearance of meritocracy, however, advancement had much to do with having an influential teacher or patron, or “sucking up” (jalar bolas) to those who had reached positions of authority.

3. “It is not true that the system’s purpose is to create better citizens”

El Sistema claims to emphasize social inclusion and social action, yet Mazzocchi disputes these claims, which he regards as “disingenuous.” “All that matters is how good it sounds,” he said; “everything else is secondary.” Of course, bonding and socialization naturally result from children in virtually any youth program spending long hours together, but this is not sufficient for a genuine commitment to social justice. For Mazzocchi, El Sistema does not focus intentionally on social values, and lacks the sincerity and integrity necessary to support claims of its positive impact on youth.

Mazzocchi testifies that there was a disproportionately small representation of lower-class children, and virtually no female students, teachers, or administrators throughout his early El Sistema years.

My personal experience in my orchestra [was that] it wasn’t primarily lower-class. I saw that the core of the orchestra, the principals who sit in the first chairs [of the orchestra], they were all from middle- to upper-class families.

Over time, a few more girls and minorities appeared in the orchestra, but usually the girls sat at the back, the women had lower management desk jobs, and El Sistema remained largely devoid of female teachers. (Even today, as Baker has noted, the Simón Bolívar Orchestra is 80 percent male, with hardly any women reaching the status of principal and none at all among the elite group of conductors.) Thus, according to Mazzocchi, two standard measures of social idealism—egalitarianism of class and gender—were not consistently present during his El Sistema years.

The mission of social action itself was not emphasized at all in the early years, but was later elevated in importance. Due to the sudden concentration on social outcomes in Abreu’s speeches and other publicity materials, members of the orchestras realized that their program had been reframed as a form of social action designed to benefit the poor. For Mazzocchi, however, the reality of his experience did not match the new rhetoric.

I don’t remember so much emphasis on the social aspect of it. It just wasn’t that strongly pushed when I was there; it was just a way of making the kids better musically and to teach them music, but not really to help the society, to help the poor, [or] to rescue the lowest levels of society.  

I know there have been some cases of kids that were pulled out of gangs and things like that, but there were really very few cases in my experience.  They have been, of course, talked about to death.

Orchestra members were explicitly asked not to contradict, or even discuss, these issues with others outside of El Sistema.

The person presenting the Simón Bolívar Orchestra concert said, “This is unbelievable! This orchestra is made up of all poor kids from the poorest neighborhoods of Venezuela. And now they’re here on our stage performing great music. What a great achievement.” But I knew for sure—because I knew some of those kids—that they were not from poor neighborhoods. And as Baker mentions in the book, and from what I have learned about the economic status of most of the orchestra members now, I am convinced that many of them actually hated being presented like that or being told by people, “Whoa, you were from a poor neighborhood and now you’re here and you’re a great musician!” And…we hated it too, because the government and the audience did not have an accurate perception of who we were and what we were doing, but we were told not to say anything: “Just smile, don’t respond.” Because it was the same when I was a kid. We were told, “Don’t say anything. Don’t talk about your money, your hours, anything.”

Financial and professional benefits were therefore more often bestowed on middle- and upper-class students than on the poor, and on boys rather than girls. Mazzocchi, therefore, views El Sistema’s claims of social impact on disadvantaged students as insincere propaganda resulting from the quest for more funding.

While El Sistema’s charter describes it as a social program devoted to the “ethical salvation of children and young people” through music, Mazzocchi argues that El Sistema failed in many ways to achieve this ideal. Musical excellence, for example, was valued more than exemplary character or behavior.

From the beginning, we knew that the most important thing [in El Sistema] was music, playing music, sounding good no matter what, and everything else was always secondary. It wasn’t uncommon to see somebody who didn’t exhibit a lot of morals or high ethical standards.  If you were a great musician, you could be late for rehearsals.  People could know that you were having affairs with students or any kind of things like that, but then you were forgiven, because you were succeeding in the most important part of El Sistema.

Thus, Mazzocchi became disillusioned about El Sistema’s organizational practices, feeling that the system violated its stated social mission by restricting the students’ decision-making powers within the orchestras and their opportunities outside of the system.

It is not true that the system’s purpose is to create better citizens. They want to create good orchestra musicians regardless of what the students want. If you are a good musician you have to keep going and can’t think of anything else. And vice versa, if you are not [regarded] as a good musician or you strongly feel that you want to also pursue a different career, you are pushed out or your chances of participation are considerably limited.

Although El Sistema claims to promote social equality, Mazzocchi argues that its participants were treated better or worse depending on the prestige of their ensemble. 

There’s always a hierarchy. If you are from the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, then you are at the top, and people should treat you with a lot more respect in the poorer interior areas of Venezuela when you go play or teach there.

4. “I was told for whom I should vote”

Although comprehensive music education is a praiseworthy, politically neutral goal, El Sistema was not a politically neutral program. Mazzocchi recalls directives from its leadership as to how orchestra members should vote in elections.

When I turned 18, I remember the first presidential election that I was going to participate in; I was told for whom I should vote. I thought at the time that it was expected, because that would assure me that my program, and perhaps myself, would have more funds. Years later I was told to vote for the guy [Hugo R. Chávez] who had led a coup that almost killed Carlos Andrés Pérez, went to jail [for it], and then came back to successfully run for president. For that election I was already studying in the U.S. but I went back to Venezuela to visit and vote. I visited the orchestra and I could not believe I was being told there that we should all vote for Chávez for the future of El Sistema. It was shocking to me especially because we were told to vote for Pérez in the previous election—Pérez had named [José Antonio] Abreu as the minister of culture, and he was the one who funded the creation of El Sistema—and Chávez was against Pérez and everything he stood for! That told me that the principles of El Sistema are very fragile, very malleable, depending on where the resources are coming from. That’s probably why there isn’t a defined doctrine [of] what El Sistema means. It’s just that we go with whoever is going to give us money.  

Today, though, he feels matters have only gotten worse.

Back when I was in El Sistema, I felt like it was my duty to vote, perhaps, for the person they’re telling me that I should vote [for]. But, now that Venezuela is becoming a totalitarian government, kids in the orchestras are prohibited from going to any demonstrations. If they go, they could be kicked out of the orchestra.  Now that all this is becoming so volatile, that human lives are being lost just for disagreeing, I realize that, I mean, there is a line drawn between democratic values and a non-democratic government, but El Sistema leadership doesn’t see it that way. At least, Dudamel doesn’t see it that way. People justify his silence because he’s protecting the kids. But he’s not protecting the kids who can get killed at any time, even by just walking by a demonstration, not being part of it; perhaps he’s just protecting the funds that are paying the cost of the system.  

According to a report in El Nacional, a Venezuelan daily, El Sistema’s leaders allegedly pressured directors of music schools to mobilize their employees to vote for the ruling socialist party in Venezuela’s election on December 6, 2015. Such an approach, which is consistent with what Mazzocchi experienced more than two decades earlier, could hardly be further away from the ideal of music education as a basis for citizenship formation.

5. “There’s a conductor that got…a couple of kids pregnant and he’s still there”

Although El Sistema describes its dedication to the protection of the “most vulnerable groups in the country,” Mazzocchi also spoke about the contentious issue of inappropriate sexual relationships between teachers and students, in a context where older men hold positions of power over younger women. He feels that El Sistema has not been entirely forthright about this serious issue, thereby compromising its claims for positive social impact on youth. It is essential to an ethical society that such acts are not covered up and that the perpetrators face consequences. Mazzocchi asserts, however, that in El Sistema instances of sexual misconduct have been hushed up by a code of silence.

I never saw that [consequences for sexual abuse] happening in El Sistema. People knew that stuff was happening—like Geoff [Baker] said in his book—everybody talked about it, but nobody reported it.

Mazzocchi’s words recall the epigraph of Baker’s book, a line from Héctor Lavoe’s “Juanito Alimaña”: “Todos lo comentan, nadie lo delata” (Everyone talks, no one tells).

Mazzocchi has since discovered that sexual transgressions are sometimes so widely known that they appear to be tolerated, pointing to a culture of accepted sexual permissiveness or abuse that continues to exist today. Mazzocchi’s personal experience and conversations with friends have indicated a high degree of complicity with the “normalcy” of male teachers having sexual relationships with female students.

It was the norm.  … Some of the guys, some of the teachers, would actually say it out loud: “I do this [have sexual relationships] with my students because I think we’re actually helping them become better musicians, better violinists.” So, there was a culture of that… I had a girlfriend for many years in the orchestra, but the fact that I wouldn’t take advantage of younger girl students under my supervision suggested to my friends that it showed some kind of, I don’t know, unmanliness, [or] something like that.  

Furthermore, Mazzocchi has come to realize that since he left Venezuela stories about predatory behavior still abound.

In fact, I heard even crazier things nowadays from my friends in Venezuela that there’s a conductor that got not one, but a couple of kids, pregnant in the orchestra and he’s still there. According to my friends, he had to leave for some time and the kids had to be taken somewhere else and somebody sort of comes and cleans everything out. But then he’s still teaching, he’s still conducting, he’s still there.   

There may be some embarrassment and occasional reassignment of employees by El Sistema leaders, but known predators may still be a part of a system where young orchestra members are vulnerable to those older and more powerful than themselves, and are therefore at risk of sexual abuse. For Mazzocchi, that instances of sexual harassment and abuse occur without consequences invalidates El Sistema’s promotion as a model for social parity, inclusiveness, and justice, regardless of the level of musical excellence or the resources afforded to the poor.

6. “El Führer”

Mazzocchi’s peers often joking called the El Sistema leadership “the mafia,” and Abreu, the program’s founder and director, “the Führer.” But despite this kidding, a genuine element of fear permeated his youth orchestra experience, since he dealt regularly with authoritarian leaders who could appear at any moment to contradict or reprimand anyone: “When Abreu walked in the room, everybody trembled and they said, yeah, ‘El Führer viene mañana [the Führer is coming tomorrow], so get ready.’ ”

There was always this sense of terror with the impending presence of Abreu. They would say, Abreu is visiting our city and he’s coming to rehearsal, and then every time while we were rehearsing and the door opened, everybody stopped to look at the door to see if it was Abreu. It was like complete fear.  

He now realizes that unreasonable demands and threats of retribution were a part of the flawed fabric of the organization as a whole. Those who fell afoul of the leadership were blacklisted. Their crimes often consisted of no more than wanting to study abroad, or making criticisms of the program.

Mazzocchi himself was intensely dedicated to El Sistema. He rose to the top level of the program, playing in the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, and he feels indebted to it for his life in music. As he rose through the ranks, he became acquainted with the most important figures in El Sistema—such as Abreu, Igor Lanz, Pedro Álvarez, Carlos Méndez, and many others—as he developed a growing sense of pride and empowerment through his hard work.

But after winning the violin competition that led to his admission into the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, Mazzocchi requested time off from the ensemble to play more solo performances and prepare for other competitions. His request was turned down. He was told instead that he should fit solo appearances around playing in the orchestra, because El Sistema “always had to come first in his life.” At that time Mazzocchi began to realize that “It was not possible to pursue my personal musical goals in El Sistema.” Indeed, he grasped that “I wasn’t as important to El Sistema as El Sistema was important to me.”

As he became aware of the limitations of the education that it provided, he began to entertain ambitions to study overseas, though he planned to return to Venezuela and El Sistema afterwards. However, when he approached Abreu, he tried hard to dissuade Mazzocchi, and finally said, “If you leave now, it will be as if you never existed.” Abreu abruptly turned away, never to speak to him again. In Mazzocchi’s words, he was “excommunicated” from the program.

When Mazzocchi agreed to these interviews, other Venezuelan musicians urged him to do so anonymously: “They all tell me, ‘If you had any hopes of doing any musical work in Venezuela in the future, forget about it if you give him [the interviewer] your name.’

7. “I believed the El Sistema propaganda”

After moving to the U.S., Mazzocchi largely repressed his own experiences until he encountered Baker’s book, which dredged up unsettling memories.

I was in shock by reading this book because it points out many problems or many things that most don’t know about El Sistema that happened behind the scenes.  Because all these things that this book talks about, I had seen in El Sistema in Venezuela 20 years ago and because El Sistema has such a huge propaganda machine behind it, I believed that all those things maybe were somehow soft [not concrete], because when I was a kid, I saw these things and I was always told that it was normal, that those things happened everywhere. I thought those things were normal [because] I believed the El Sistema propaganda.

Mazzocchi’s recollections are profoundly ambivalent. He describes his time in El Sistema as a marvelous experience, yet it was tainted by a culture of autocratic leadership, inequity, and fear. As a child, he was too naïve to think that anything was abnormal about El Sistema, but as he grew older, he began to notice the strictures and arbitrary policies emanating from an authoritarian leadership, the unscrupulous behavior of some teachers and conductors, and the code of silence permeating the whole enterprise. He now believes that various aspects of El Sistema’s organizational culture can be tied to its successes, such as the way the imposition of virtually unlimited hours of rehearsal creates excellence, or tightly controlled messaging creates a positive impression of the program. He is adamant, however, that without reform, the negative sides of these traits threaten to destroy the goodwill of participants and justify considerable skepticism on the part of outside observers—something he argues should not happen in more transparent and accountable El Sistema-inspired programs outside of Venezuela.

8. Reform

Mazzocchi made it clear that he does not consider his testimony or Baker’s work an attack on El Sistema. Rather, it is a call for the program to evolve beyond narrowly focused orchestral training and didactic, authoritarian pedagogical methods in the direction of a more comprehensive and progressive music education system focused strongly on social action.

Though El Sistema’s methods did eventually result in musical excellence for those children who could manage its demands, Mazzocchi envisions a future in which El Sistema would adhere to its stated social goal of promoting equity, equal opportunity, and freedom. A reformed program would likely be very different, consisting of smaller-scale, comprehensive, egalitarian, empowering music programs, and be guided by highly-trained teachers who both exemplify and transmit the highest standards of music making and ethical behavior.

Realizing this dream, Mazzocchi feels, will provide a kind of reconciliation of his “profound ambivalence” towards El Sistema and a greater hope for the programs it inspired outside of Venezuela. By returning to his troubled memories, he hopes to inspire reform and develop a learning organization truly consistent with democratic principles and values and worthy of dissemination worldwide. ¶