“It’s all true.” So what now?

[31/08/2016]“It’s all true,” said the famous Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero.

“For years I’ve been hearing the same things as Baker puts in the book,” she continued, in her high-profile pre-Proms interview by Richard Morrison in The Times. “El Sistema is a well-groomed and well-paid propaganda machine. It’s also a pyramid. Those at the top are doing very well. All the others — the teachers, the students — are suffocating.”

Such information has indeed been circulating for years. Those present at the ISME conference in Glasgow last month will have heard similar stories from reports written nearly 20 years ago. “Dead on,” said former El Sistema star Luigi Mazzocchi about my book, which matched his own experiences in the 1980s and 90s. My findings may have been jarring to many readers in the global North, but they were old news in Venezuela.

One of my first responses to Montero’s interview was to ask myself: how many more times do people – and in particular the Sistema-inspired movement – need to hear this? How many more confirmations, how many more people saying “it’s all true” or it’s “dead on,” before the message sinks in?

Jonathan Govias’s recent post suggests, however, that I’m asking the wrong question, since “the general reaction to the Mazzocchi interview was largely one of indifference (or willful evasion), perhaps because the content was by then so unsurprising.”

This poses more of a problem. As a researcher and writer, I’m fairly well placed to inform people, but I’m less well equipped to deal with indifference. If people just aren’t that interested in “allegations of corruption, nepotism, bullying, mismanagement and sexual abuse” (to borrow Morrison’s summary), even within a field that has claimed special status within music education because of its supposed attention to questions of social justice, it’s harder to know what to do. What is clearer is that it makes little sense to talk about social action through music or any other such slogan if people are indifferent to social injustices faced by musicians in Venezuela.

Indifference in the global North; dismissal by the organization itself in Venezuela. It’s not hard to see why Jonathan might conclude that research on El Sistema is “not particularly productive.” There may be other ways to see the issue – to consider how such research has affected the conversation in other parts of the world, or how it has provided a cathartic outlet for Venezuelan musicians – but there is little denying that “the research has had no influence on how it [El Sistema] operates.”

How might one respond to this problem? Do more research? Do less? Stop talking about Venezuela and focus entirely on the Sistema-inspired field? In short, what now?

Perhaps the answer is nothing – or to be more precise, patience. It might be argued that all that’s needed is time. After all, the critical research field is less than 2 years old. It took El Sistema 36 years of private and then more public criticisms before it provided traditional Venezuelan music with a vaguely meaningful place at the table, in the form of the Alma Llanera program. This is an organization that is notably inflexible and resistant to change, so expecting quick results is unrealistic. But if Abreu can embrace Venezuelan traditional music then miracles can happen, if one waits long enough.

The problem with this approach, like that of focusing solely on the Sistema-inspired field, is that it doesn’t do anything for the foreseeable future for the majority of Sistema students, particularly those who are struggling in the program’s lower reaches. So perhaps we need to focus on why the research has had no influence on how El Sistema operates and how change might happen.

The El Sistema boom in the global North around a decade ago could not have taken place without prominent intermediaries: the journalists, famous musicians, and arts managers who started advocating for the program. They were particularly enamoured by those at the top of the pyramid – the ones who were already doing very well (Abreu, Dudamel, the SBYO, etc), and who knew how to sell themselves. If anything is to change in the near future, more influential figures need to follow the lead of Gabriela Montero and Richard Morrison, and raise awareness of all the others – the ordinary teachers and students who are, as the former says, “suffocating.”

Can we imagine this different kind of activism – on behalf of those at the bottom rather than the top of El Sistema’s pyramid – actually happening? It’s hard, I’ll admit. Yet this kind of thought experiment is quite valuable, in that the harder it is to imagine, the more clearly the limitations of social action through music appear.

So far, the international Sistema sphere and the wider classical music industry and media have largely abdicated responsibility for listening to the research and acting on it. It’s much easier to get opinion-formers on board with a good-news, “future of classical music” story than with pushing for action to address serious underlying problems. It doesn’t help that many of the problems that El Sistema displays are exaggerated versions of ones endemic to the classical music profession/industry more widely, and therefore hardly the kind of thing that many representatives of said profession/industry are likely to be keen to draw attention to.

Nevertheless, this kind of activism is the only way things will change. Dudamel has been pushing the idea of music as a human right. What is needed is for prominent voices in the music industry and media to grasp that people don’t just have the right to receive a music education, but also to receive it free from physical, psychological, and sexual oppression, and – if they go on to work in this area themselves – to receive a living wage and basic benefits as they pass on their skills to the next generation. These are human rights too, and they need to be struggled for just as hard.

A Sistema teacher recently posted on social media about the paltry salary that the program paid and the lack of medical benefits. He worried out loud about what would happen if a teacher or a family member fell ill. Then he asked rhetorically: “who will listen to the problems that we teachers are going through? What about the human rights of the teachers?”

Good questions both. Who indeed is going to listen to them, step forward, and defend the rights of El Sistema’s majority?