How big is El Sistema?

Researching El Sistema often feels like chasing shadows, because of the lack of detailed, reliable data about the program. One of the many struggles I’ve had over the last few years is trying to work out how large El Sistema is. When I first looked into this, there were variations of 100,000 children and 50 núcleos between official figures available in the same year (2011), which gave me a marked sense that no one really knew the answer to this question.

I recalled this a few weeks ago, and had a quick look at the Fundamusical website. On that date (24 September 2014), the núcleos page reported that there were 371 núcleos. On the home page, however, the number was listed as 404. A difference of 33 music schools – that seemed quite a lot. But then I did what I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to do, and I counted all the núcleos listed on the núcleo page, one by one. There were 238.

That’s a discrepancy of 166 music schools on El Sistema’s own website. The headline figure is 70% higher than the number of schools actually listed. That’s some variation for a long-established state foundation with bucketloads of international funding. No wonder answers to more complex questions – what the program is, what it does, and what its effects may be – are so elusive.

I also did some rough calculations around the number of students per núcleo back in 2011, and ended up rather perplexed, as I couldn’t see how 350-400,000 students could fit in the 200-odd music schools listed at the time, which were generally rather small. Now I see that the figure quoted is 500,000. (The program doesn’t really deal in multiples of less than 50,000 when estimating its own size.) Given the shortages of space, teachers and instruments I had encountered in 2011, this figure made me even more curious – until I saw the article about the “Nuevos Integrantes” program, which is baptising newborn babies in the Sistema religion.

“Using classical music, El Sistema starts to catch children before they are born in order to distance them from violence,” says the headline. “When Adán Bello was born, he hardly cried. Seconds afterwards, and with his eyes fully open, he began to follow the melody of a harp duo playing ‘Lullaby’ by Brahms in a public hospital in Venezuela. Just minutes after being born, Bello, the first child of a young woman of limited means, received a diploma that confirms him as a member of El Sistema.” This is the newest of El Sistema’s projects, “which aims to catch babies, even in the womb, in order to immerse them in classical music and drag them out of poverty and crime.”

This is one way of increasing numbers without further burden on overstretched facilities and resources… sign up new participants who are too young to attend, or who haven’t even been born…

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