El Sistema, the Venezuelan youth orchestra program spearheaded by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, was created in 1975. It was the orchestra’s Proms debut in 2007, however, that cemented El Sistema’s place on the global stage, with Simon Rattle claiming that it was “the most important thing happening in music anywhere in the world.” Since then, it has become something of a sacred cow in Europe and North America: with only a handful of exceptions, the press and the classical music sphere have not analyzed the program properly, often failing to ask even the most basic questions and preferring uncritical embrace. Public discussion has been dominated by advocates, employees of El Sistema-related programs, and enthusiasts and journalists with little first-hand knowledge of Venezuelan realities, meaning that genuine debate has been limited and obvious problems have gone unchallenged.

In her book Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, Tricia Tunstall describes a visit to a class in Venezuela: “We watch her [the teacher] lead the group in playing a D scale as she claps out a beat so strong it cannot be resisted. Over and over, they play that D scale… over, and over, and over.” Eventually the children are allowed to move on to some real music—a piece of Corelli; but “it is rehearsed in the same way the D scale was—phrase by phrase, over and over and over. The teacher is as ruthless as any symphony conductor about their entrances and cutoffs being exactly, precisely together.” This kind of authoritarian, mechanical learning, with its “ruthless” teacher who “cannot be resisted,” is strikingly backward looking. Why is Tunstall so excited by this antiquated pedagogy, which proceeds as though progressive movements in music education since the 1970s never took place? Does this class sound like a model for creative music education in the 21st century?

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“After all this time here, music is life. Nothing else.” (Link to the interview with former El Sistema violinist Luigi Mazzocchi.)

Advocates proclaim that orchestras promote positive values such as collaboration. Yet here is David Ascanio, a senior El Sistema figure, on his experiences of working under the program’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, in the early days of the National Youth Orchestra: “José Antonio was obsessed with working on the sheer beauty of the orchestra’s sound. In rehearsals, he would say, ‘I want this sound!’ And they would play the same passage over and over and over, trying to get at what he wanted, until he would finally say, ‘That’s it! That’s the sound!’ ” The idea that someone other than Abreu might have a say in the orchestra’s sound seems not to occur to anyone. In El Sistema, “collaboration” is a euphemism for submitting oneself to someone else’s authority and working to achieve his goal—hardly the most progressive of pedagogical approaches.

Discipline and obeying authority are fostered as social as well as musical principles. Here is Alejandro Carreño, concertmaster of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra: “Everybody who has been in the Sistema understands that the way you behave in an orchestra is the perfect way to behave in society.” Those who make these kinds of utopian pronouncements about El Sistema orchestras usually seem to be either conductors or principals, who are unsurprisingly enthusiastic about a social microcosm that invests them with great authority. But more objective, scholarly studies of orchestras present a very different picture. For example, sociologist Robert Faulkner portrayed a stratified, competitive world marred by frustration and entrapment, while Seymour and Robert Levine likened orchestral musicians to “rats in someone else’s maze.” Orchestras are also famously authoritarian environments. Gustavo Dudamel regards the orchestra as “a beautiful model for a society”—yet what would society actually look like if it were organized like an orchestra?

El Sistema is frequently characterized as a “revolutionary social project,” yet Abreu’s vision of music (and its effect on poorer citizens) is neither revolutionary nor new, since it is deeply grounded in European educational reform of the 19th century. 175 years earlier, the Scottish musicologist George Hogarth wrote in his Musical History (1835): “Wherever the working classes are taught to prefer the pleasures of the intellect, and even of taste, to the gratification of sense, a great and favorable change takes place in their character and manners.” Evoking Handel and Haydn, he went on: “Sentiments are awakened that make them love their families and their homes; their wages are not squandered in intemperance; and they become happier as well as better.” In Germany, Hans Georg Nägeli, in his 1812 elementary singing method, imagined an ideal future society as “the age of music,” which “begins only where higher art is practiced not just by representatives—where higher art has become the common possession of the people.”

“Music was seen as a way of keeping the workers out of taverns, increasing their productivity and decreasing their opportunities to discuss revolutionary ideas.”

Yet as historian David Gramit underlines, such educational reform did not challenge the social and economic order but rather reaffirmed it. He contrasts Nägeli’s utopian language with a pedagogy that he sums up as “coercion, manipulation, and breaking down.” Musicologist Howard Smither concurs, arguing that a key motivation behind the promotion of music education to the poor was the political protection of the upper and wealthy middle classes. Music was seen as a way of keeping the workers out of taverns, increasing their productivity and decreasing their opportunities to discuss revolutionary ideas. John Hulluh, perhaps the most celebrated music educator in mid-19th-century Britain, was a conservative and opponent of Radicalism who saw music education as important in averting a political revolution in the aftermath of the events of 1848 in France. Programs like El Sistema have historically been reactionary, aiming to support the social status quo, discipline the poor, and produce docile, productive subjects for capitalism.

Such a project is not a novelty in South America either: it carries distinct echoes of the Spanish (musical) conquest nearly five centuries ago, when missionaries and churchmen fanned out across the continent and founded schools that taught music as a core subject. Their aim was twofold: to stock the churches with local musicians, and to instill in the indigenous population what the Spaniards called policía – order, Christianity, and civilization. For nearly half a millennium, then, social elites in Latin America have been trying to “civilize” or “improve” poor and/or darker-skinned children through education in European(-style) music.

At the core of El Sistema lie ideas from the European past: music of the middle and upper classes as improving the working class; poor people as potential delinquents who must be kept occupied; music as a defense against the temptations of alcohol (now drugs). These ideas have now returned to Europe, where they are being embraced as a radical new idea from Venezuela.

A feature of El Sistema that is very familiar from European music education of the past is a hierarchization of musical genres that places European classical music at the top. El Sistema advocates claim that the program is catholic in its approach, yet in many of its schools Venezuelan folk music plays a minimal role. The cuatro (a small Venezuelan guitar), when present, is usually treated in the same way as the recorder in UK and U.S. schools: a starter instrument soon to be given up in favor of a “real” (i.e. orchestral) instrument. When scholarships were introduced, they were only available for players of orchestral instruments. The hierarchy of cultural value is abundantly clear—as it is in Abreu’s words about Mozart and Haydn, with not a mention of Venezuelan musical figures.

“I’ve sought to take music, which is usually a luxury item, and turn it into cultural patrimony accessible to all.”

At many times throughout El Sistema’s history, Abreu has seemed to forget that anything other than European classical music exists, claiming, for example, that “for me, the most important priority was to give access to music to poor people”—as if poor people did not have music until El Sistema arrived. “I’ve sought to take music, which is usually a luxury item, and turn it into cultural patrimony accessible to all,” says Abreu, overlooking his country’s huge quantity and diversity of traditional and popular music. Eurocentrism has been a notable feature of Latin American elites ever since independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, and Abreu adheres to this venerable tradition.

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What would society actually look like if it were organized like an orchestra? Gustavo Dudamel leads the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra.

To fail to see El Sistema’s deep-seated belief in the superiority of European classical music takes considerable effort. El Sistema was founded and continued for decades as an orchestral training program. In 2008, it created a handful of traditional and popular ensembles—alongside hundreds of classical orchestras. In 2011, it announced a new traditional music initiative called Alma Llanera—after 37 years of focusing almost exclusively on classical music. Today, El Sistema shows more signs of traditional music activity than in the past, but its founder has always regarded European classical music as the best tool for moral and spiritual improvement. The widespread failure to identify El Sistema’s Eurocentrism and hierarchy of values is illustrative of the way that advocacy has dominated critical inquiry.

El Sistema is also attributed with an ability to alleviate poverty among its participants. But its approach is not revolutionary in this sense either, focusing as it does on social mobility rather than structural problems and solutions. Abreu claimed in a television interview: “El Sistema breaks the vicious circle [of poverty] because a child with a violin starts to become spiritually rich: the CD he listens to, the book he reads, he sees words in German, the music opens doors to intellectual knowledge and then everything begins.” He went on, “When he has three years of musical education behind him, he is playing Mozart, Haydn, he watches an opera: this child no longer accepts his poverty, he aspires to leave it behind and ends up defeating it.”

“The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself…ends up overcoming material poverty. From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he is no longer poor.”

One of Abreu’s famous aphorisms is that “The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself…ends up overcoming material poverty. From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he is no longer poor.” Such claims are fundamental to El Sistema’s lavish funding by the Venezuelan state and international development banks, yet they do not stand up to much scrutiny. History is littered with impoverished musicians. To suggest that learning to play the violin instantly banishes poverty is to deny that deprivation has any material reality or structural causes. Abreu’s esoteric formulation begs numerous questions that surprisingly few have been willing to ask.

In fact, there is no robust evidence that El Sistema reduces poverty; even its major funder, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), now admits this, having disowned the report that it originally used to justify a $150-million loan (which included the fanciful but much quoted cost/benefit ratio of $1:1.68). The IDB subsequently launched a $1 million evaluation that will supposedly provide “the first rigorous evidence of the results of the program,” but two years after it was due, and 17 years after IDB funding began, this report still has not appeared. This does not mean, of course, that El Sistema doesn’t work, but rather that claims of its success are founded on other grounds—primarily, on centuries-old beliefs about the uplifting power of high art and the rather more modern merits of a sustained PR campaign. Given the lack of reliable evidence, El Sistema effectively operates as a belief system; indeed, a cult-like aspect has struck some observers, as has the missionary tone and fervor of its advocates. Internationally, most El Sistema promotion has been based on the idea that the program’s benefits are “obvious,” yet the history of international development shows that such assumptions can turn out to be quite wrong.

For all the claims that El Sistema constitutes a revolution in music education, it is actually more of a counter-reformation, turning back the clock to the thinking and practices of earlier periods in Western music history. After four decades, its outcomes are still uncertain. The need for more research and critical public debate is clear. At present, almost all writing about El Sistema internationally simply rehashes or embellishes the institution’s own self-justifying narrative. Such writing is often eloquent, sometimes even moving and inspirational, but with alternative perspectives absent, it does little to deepen understanding. The institution’s own narrative may turn out to be accurate, but that remains to be proven. Until then, it is just a story, and as Robert K. Merton put it succinctly, researchers should be asking “is it really so?” ¶