Larry Scripp on “El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth”

[08/04/2015] Larry Scripp is the head of the New England Conservatory’s Music-in-Education program and Research Center for Learning Through Music. He recently posted the following thoughts on Sistema Global:

From my viewpoint it has turned out that, despite early disparaging assertions by Eric Booth and others who claimed in El Sistema Global that Geoff Baker’s work is based on unsubstantiated “shoddy journalism” and unworthy of publication, Baker’s book El Sistema; Orchestrating Venezuelan Youth turns out to be a highly scholarly publication that features much detail, first rate historical research and ethnographic research methods, and contains valuable critical insight into the highly publicized claims about El Sistema practices in Venezuela that, up to this point, have been accepted without vigorous investigation. It appears now that earlier critics of the book were either completely unable to accept any critical discussion of El Sistema practices in Venezuela, or they simply did not read the book.

One value of Baker’s work, as he makes clear in his interview as well, is that it serves as a counterbalance to the highly idealized, and often romanticized, accounts of this youth orchestra movement as described by leaders of El Sistema and used by other authors and spokespersons to argue for the value of “El Sistema inspired programs” internationally. While the high levels of musical performance ensembles of the leading El Sistema orchestras are not disputed, Baker’s message is that the principles, beliefs and practices of El Sistema, despite its long history in Venezuela, have not been thoroughly examined for its claims for high impact in the areas of social action, inclusiveness, or quality of pedagogy.

Surprising to many who have only listened to the Dr. Abreu or his acolytes, Baker reports that the claims for El Sistema’s success are highly contested by many of those who have administered or participated in the program – persons who had to be interviewed by Baker under conditions of anonymity in Venezuela. The results of his Baker’s analyses suggest that the reality of the program may be at great odds with the messages of Dr. Abreu and his circle and at philosophical odds with progressive music educators who do not agree with view that a music education that is principally focused on western classical orchestral performance, with its highly conformist, hierarchical structures, narrow pedagogy and autocratic leadership, is a good model for an ideal democratic society.

The final point of Baker’s work essentially is to extol the efforts of those El Sistema adapters (rather than adopters) who have taken to heart the goals of social action and impact in ways that differ greatly in emphasis from the practices in Venezuela. Thus, while this book may be an uncomfortable for those already committed whole-heartedly to Abreu’s version of El Sistema practices in Venezuela, it is an essential read for anybody interested in the refocusing of music education toward areas of social impact.