A review and a couple of omissions

[19/09/2015] I was very pleased to see another positive review of my book from an expert on music education, in this case the Canadian scholar Roberta Lamb, based at the School of Drama and Music, Queen’s University, writing in the prestigious journal Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education.

One minor, and justified, criticism was my accidental omission of Creech et al.’s literature review from the bibliography, though it was mentioned in the text. This kind of editing slip is annoying, though an error of this type is all but inevitable in a 360-page book. A more significant omission, though not pointed out as such by Lamb, was an article that she cited in her discussion of debates around El Sistema in Canada:

Lesniak, Melissa. 2012. “El Sistema and American music education.” Music Educators Journal, December: 62–6.

I tried to keep abreast of writing about El Sistema, of course, but I missed this article that came out while I was writing my book, and I only became aware of it through Lamb’s review.

The article is only short, and it gets off to an unpromising start, relying on Eric Booth’s unreliable work for its characterization of El Sistema in Venezuela. But then two things happen that are relatively unusual in writing about El Sistema: the author adopts a critical position, and she draws on seemingly candid conversations with Venezuelan musicians. So in place of the usual gushing, we read an analysis of features of El Sistema that are presented as reasons why North American music educators might think twice about jumping on the latest bandwagon. These include:

• the practice of paying young musicians

• the occupation of most if not all of their free time

• unevenness of provision and quality

• repetitive, note-by-note instruction

• narrowness of curriculum and repertoire

• a culture of control and fostering dependence

As some may be unable to access this article, it is worth quoting some of Lesniak’s statements. She notes: “While American society condones providing scholarships for deserving students in need, being ‘paid to play’ is not a widely accepted concept.” She goes on: “the sheer number of hours students spend in El Sistema probably cannot be replicated in the United States, and the structure of El Sistema is not something that would be accepted by most American parents and educators.” Indeed, “in a society that values developing many aspects of the whole child, most parents would not want their children enrolled in a program that absorbs almost all the child’s extracurricular time.”

Reading these words, a question came to my mind: how many of those who advocate for El Sistema in North America would put their own children, or those of their close family or friends, in the program in Venezuela? I remembered the Sistema graduates and teachers whom I met in Venezuela who quietly placed their own children in non-Sistema music schools in order to ensure they got a proper music education. There is undoubtedly something rather odd about the North American excitement around a project that, if it existed in North America in its Venezuelan form, would attract considerable criticism and might be widely shunned.

Where it becomes clearest that Lesniak has done her homework better than most writers on El Sistema is here:

“according to El Sistema alumni in the United States, education on specific technical skills, such as scales, sight-reading, shifting, vibrato, and so on, can be dependent on where a student lives and the resources and leadership available at his or her local nucleo. Note-by-note teaching is not something music educators in the United States would likely want to emulate. Developing a complete musician includes teaching the technical skills listed above, as well as providing music theory and history instruction. In addition, experiences in improvisation, composition, and other creative musical endeavors are equally valid. From speaking with El Sistema alumni in the United States as well as individuals who have observed the program, I have learned that students who lack basic financial resources often do not have the opportunities to fully develop these extended skills. Since these capacities are not addressed within El Sistema, the only option is prohibitively expensive supplementary instruction. These students, therefore, often lack the types of knowledge and skills that could assist them in becoming independent and self-sufficient musicians. My sources have indicated that such independence is not always valued in the program, as noted by some alumni who have been discouraged from leaving Venezuela for other musical pursuits.”

Lesniak’s observations and arguments here ring all sorts of bells with my book. I’m just annoyed that I missed the article and failed to draw out the connections in print. The close parallels are hardly surprising, of course, given that both the article and the book are based on conversations with Venezuelan musicians who, given the protection of anonymity, tell the kinds of truths that tend to be absent in the writing of Sistema boosters.

She hits the mark by identifying the program’s issues around independence. A number of my interviewees alleged that throughout the program’s existence, Abreu cajoled, bribed, threatened, and punished talented musicians who wanted to leave. Lesniak discovered this without even going to Venezuela, so it’s hardly a state secret. Indeed, an honest, in-depth conversation with an experienced Venezuelan classical musician would reveal it quite readily. However, one would look in vain in the Sistema literature for a proper discussion of how this intolerance of independence fits with the slogan of “social action through music” or with contemporary ideas about music education and social justice. Still, at least Lesniak opens the door to that debate, even if very few have walked through it.