“Playing for their Lives”: Sins of mission and omission

In an article in Symphony magazine after the publication of my book, Eric Booth suggested that I might have deliberately distorted my data. In my published response, I challenged him to back up his accusation with evidence or withdraw it. He did neither, changing the subject instead. It was at this point that I grasped that Booth was not a well-meaning but misguided idealist, but rather someone who was not entirely straightforward. This trait has left its mark on his book Playing for their Lives, co-authored with Tricia Tunstall, which – ironically – is guilty of precisely the kind of distortion that he alleged without foundation.

The title alone is hardly a promising start: the recycling of a misleading old Sistema cliché suggests that there will be little new or illuminating here, and indeed, the authors have missed the opportunity to dig themselves out of their hole by shading their earlier evangelical advocacy, choosing instead to dig deeper. Their book looks less like a search for truth than an attempt to protect their territory and their reputations, and in reviews published so far, music critics aren’t buying it.

The book’s central flaw is nicely summed up by Anne Midgette:

you won’t read this book for its logical rigor. “Playing for Their Lives” is so besotted with El Sistema that it verges on cult literature. This is not to deny the achievements of the many people devoting time and energy to helping kids in programs around the world. But the authors, though they traveled to many of these programs, barely even try to give their efforts an objective framework. The outside sourcing is slender and seems not to have extended to corroborative interviews to back up what the subjects say. Over and over again, the book reports on people’s aspirations and the programs’ potential to do good, as if these results had already been realized. “El Sistema is a significant and genuine worldwide movement,” they write. “By the time you read that sentence, it will be true.” And their adulation of El Sistema founder Abreu approaches hagiography. “Like Mahatma Gandhi, like Martin Luther King, Jr.,” they write, “he has shown the world new ways to think about social transformation.”

In their earlier publications, the gaps and unconvincing arguments could be put down to ignorance, naivety, and a lack of relevant skills. At the time, they simply didn’t know that they didn’t know very much about El Sistema. But this isn’t 2008 or 2012, when they published their first accounts. There is a lot more information circulating now, including a whole raft of academic research, and a lot of it points to a much more complex picture, to say the least. The distortion of their book lies in their attempt to deny this reality rather than confront or engage with it. In 2016, the gaps and inconsistencies look like deliberate omissions, and therefore deliberately misleading.

Tunstall and Booth are stuck in the past, in their first starry-eyed encounters with El Sistema in Venezuela. They cannot accept that the centre of gravity has shifted, and that critical reflection is now mainstream at the thinking end of the Sistema field. Even Sistema Global’s updated literature review, sponsored by an advocacy organization for advocacy ends, includes discussion of critical scholarship. Tunstall and Booth are extremists, even within their own field and their own organization.

The resulting book is the logical conclusion of their recent strategy, which has been simply to pretend that academic criticism of El Sistema and its offshoots does not exist. And not just academic criticism: Jonathan Govias’s blog is listed on p.381, but not one of his ideas makes it into the book. This approach does not in any way diminish the problems surrounding El Sistema, but rather lessens the chances of the Sistema field noticing them and coming up with constructive solutions.

For example, it was evident at the Reframing El Sistema conference in Baltimore in April 2016 that even the progressive end of the Sistema sphere was only just starting to get its head around complex issues of race and charity. So it is perhaps unsurprising that six months later, a teacher at the Sistema-inspired OrchKids program not only alleged persistent racism on the part of one of their bosses but also, and more damagingly for the wider Sistema movement, continued:

There is a bigger issue than just what I have shared with you today. Often times, non profits are created and predominately funded by white people and they come into our communities and do not want to get to know who we are. Instead, they come into their jobs with pre-conceived notions and want to “save” us when really they are killing us.

A second teacher confirmed this account, and added her own perspective:

These problems aren’t new and they run deep. A friend at another Orchkids site told me they were teaching “passion over precision.” Why and how is that a slogan in ANY setting, but especially an educational one? Why can’t they be passionate AND precise? That lines up with the account of another person who says she was asked why she was teaching the kids scales during the interview process and told that they didn’t need to learn music fundamentals, they just needed to play. Would these things happen in a setting geared towards white or wealthy students? NEVER. And everything that is being revealed confirms the negative feelings and intuition of a number of teaching artists who attended Orchkids workshops, worked for or researched the program. People are speaking up – and what they’re confirming is that this isn’t isolated and this isn’t new.

There are wolves in sheep’s clothing in our communities. Everybody saying they’re helping isn’t doing so. Some just want the photo ops for social media. They see these kids and their entire families, even entire communities, as beneath them. They think they’re there to “fix” people. They don’t see the value in these human lives or the lessons THEY can learn.

Elsewhere, she continued:

I watched my black kids be put out of the program, be punished more frequently and severely for the same behavior as other kids, be talked down to, talked about, and underestimated by teachers and administrators who took to social media every chance they got to post pictures of themselves in the “hood” helping the little black and brown kids. And yes – we advocated for them, but not always successfully. Those kids were treated poorly because so many people at Orchkids don’t have the heart or knowledge to do the job they were hired for. They were treated poorly for being themselves – and we were in THEIR neighborhood. But I say all the time that liberal/progressive spaces can be just as toxic as conservative ones.

Adding a further layer to the picture, Anne Midgette remarked on a conversation with OrchKids’ director:

“It’s not that what we’re doing is so revolutionary or so great,” Dan Trahey, the inspiring leader of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program, once said to me. “We’re putting kids in musical situations for 30 hours a week. They’re going to be able to do something.”

This is clearly a complex scenario, then, and it would be hard to draw firm conclusions about the issues without in-depth research. But two things are clear: Tunstall and Booth have not done such research; and they have no insight into, or interest in, complexity. What their book provides is a one-dimensional take on a three-dimensional reality, and the OrchKids example illustrates precisely how much they miss. Academic research over the last couple of years has broached these questions, so scholars are unlikely to be surprised by recent developments, but Tunstall and Booth and other Sistema leaders have discouraged engagement with this research. Their Panglossian vision of Sistema makes getting to the bottom of such issues and tackling the problems less likely, and that is a much more toxic legacy than a bad book.

If they simply ignored research, this would be a substantial, probably fatal, weakness in their book. But it’s worse than that. They include information that they know to be unreliable, and they make frequent appeals to research while omitting many of the most pertinent sources. The end product is a simulacrum of a serious study. The word “research” appears 63 times in their book, but the most basic research processes (in terms of the gathering and evaluation of both primary and secondary material) are missing.

Only studies that support their view are permitted. That means that we find an undergraduate thesis included, but peer-reviewed, professional research on El Sistema is virtually absent. The book thus fails to take a basic but essential first step that would be expected even of an undergraduate dissertation: to review the existing literature on this topic and discuss its strengths and weaknesses. But this is no student dissertation, and the omission of this first step is no accident or sign of inexperience. The authors are savvy operators, and their decision is a calculated one. They know the academic research; they know the challenge that it poses to their views; so they pretend it doesn’t exist.

One inevitable result of their head-in-the-sand approach is that they still fail to understand how the original Venezuelan model works. On p.81, for example, we read a touching account of how El Sistema embraces “radical inclusion” by eliminating auditions. Whether deliberately or accidentally, this passage is deeply confused and confusing, since it fails to distinguish between entry into the program (the base of the pyramid), entry into the state or regional youth orchestras (the middle of the pyramid), and entry into the national orchestras (the top of the pyramid). Even at the base, there may sometimes be auditions, if demand outstrips supply in a given núcleo. Further up the pyramid, though, auditions become a central feature of young musicians’ existence. Tunstall and Booth have been in consistent denial over the fundamental nature of El Sistema as a pre-professional training program, in which for any young musician with talent and ambition, auditions become part and parcel of their life. How could Tunstall and Booth have failed to grasp such an obvious and indeed characteristic feature of the program – especially when it is discussed in my own book, which they both “reviewed”?

The answer probably lies in the authors’ failure to understand the meaning and methodologies of research. They use this word to describe their own practice, yet this is laughable, and not just because they overlook most of the relevant scholarship: visiting 100 sites in 25 countries is tourism, not research. It would be impossible even for the best researcher in the world – which these authors are most emphatically not – to gain any meaningful and original insight through this “round the world in 80 days” approach. Their book cheapens words like “research” and “expert.”

The result is obfuscation rather than enlightenment. Take their hagiographical depiction of Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu. They reverently regurgitate his aphorisms, like “the huge spiritual world that music produces in itself ends up overcoming material poverty” (p.81), ignoring the published academic scepticism over such magical thinking. A few years ago, when they had only El Sistema’s PR people to draw on, a comparison between Abreu and Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi might have been vaguely defensible. But today there is much more information in the public realm, such as the three newspaper articles, two by investigative journalists and one by a close associate of Abreu, that formed the core of my first chapter. These sources reveal that Abreu in his heyday was perceived as a complicated, controversial, and divisive figure, nicknamed The Philanthropic Ogre by Rafael Rivero. Independent verification came from Luigi Mazzocchi, who confirmed that the kids called Abreu The Führer. Further confirmation is easily obtainable by a halfway competent researcher. How do Tunstall and Booth get out of this corner? You guessed it – by pretending it doesn’t exist. Once again, three-dimensional complexity is reduced to one-dimensional marketing copy. They doubtless assumed that the readership for their book would not overlap with mine, and therefore no one would be any the wiser.

A key feature of their book, then, is a slipperiness about facts and arguments that don’t work in their favour. On p.228, they cite the 1:1.68 cost-benefit ratio that was a favoured argument of Sistema advocates until I revealed that its source, the Inter-American Development Bank, no longer trusted the figure. Examination by other academics confirmed its weakness. In a public presentation at SEM in 2015, a senior US scholar reduced the audience to laughter simply by explaining how the figure had been calculated. It is a discredited argument, then, and the authors know it: I made this point in my first ever blog post, to which Booth responded, and in my book, which both authors “reviewed.” They used it anyway, presumably (and probably correctly) assuming that 99% of readers, unaware of the details of the debate, would miss the sleight of hand.


Given its obvious flaws, how did the book get so much backing? The list of endorsements is revealing. There are top-notch musicians, experts on the brain, and a leading orchestral advocate – a highly impressive roster, until you realize that there are no experts on institutional music education, social development, or El Sistema endorsing this book about institutional music education, social development, and El Sistema. This is no coincidence.

Quincy Jones’s endorsement is perhaps the most revealing: “Playing for Their Lives brings us the news that not only is it possible to change the lives of children through music―it’s already happening on a worldwide scale.” They could hardly have found a more distinguished backer, but “brings us the news”? Jones appears to be a Sistema neophyte, and like others before him, he simply swallows the story that Tunstall and Booth tell him. Did they tell him that there were other sides to the story? I somehow doubt it.

The customer reviews on Amazon.com are equally revealing. What they have in common, besides loving the book, is not having much prior knowledge about its topic. The authors’ target audience mirrors their endorsers – people who know little or nothing about El Sistema. This isn’t problematic per se; indeed, reaching a new readership is a great aim for a book. But if it means purveying dubious ideas that have diminishing currency among informed readers, then there definitely is a problem here, because it makes the project appear more like the exploitation of readers’ ignorance than their enlightenment.


How can advocacy for music education ever be a bad thing? Some answers may be found, obliquely, in Laura Saetveit Miles’s review of Stephen Greenblatt’s 2011 book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. If we leave aside the detail that Greenblatt is a bona fide intellectual heavyweight, there are clear parallels between his book about the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance (as seen through Miles’s eyes) and the El-Sistema-as-inspirational-fable genre that Tunstall and Booth epitomize.

Miles’s argument is essentially that Greenblatt draws less on current research than on popular myths and stereotypes. As Miles sums it up, “smooth prose and a punchy story trump the truth.” This explains the book’s great success. Yet, claims Miles, the result is the opposite of advocacy for his subject:

The Swerve doesn’t promote the humanities to a broader public so much as it deviously precipitates the decline of the humanities, by dumbing down the complexities of history and religion in a way that sets a deeply unfortunate precedent. If Greenblatt’s story resonates with its many readers, it is surely because it echoes stubborn, made-for-TV representations of medieval “barbarity” that have no business in a nonfiction book.

Scholars have spent the past several decades upending the old myths that the Middle Ages were intellectual stagnant, emotionally repressed, and merely masochistic. Unfortunately, The Swerve heartily embraces those myths. In its insistent representation of what Greenblatt wanted the past to be like, instead of what the evidence suggests, it exemplifies that dire trend of “truthy” nonfiction books that present One Theory to Explain Everything. It represents the importation of Malcolm Gladwell–esque yarn-spinning into the academy.

I can’t help but recall Tunstall telling the Los Angeles Times that she wanted not just “to tell a compelling tale” of El Sistema but also “to proselytize on behalf of its mission.” Yarn-spinning indeed…

As a result, Miles is unimpressed by the number of readers or their enthusiastic responses: “it’s definitely more minds unprepared to challenge his authority on the past and willing to swallow his truthiness. In that way, the book represents an abuse of power. It is an injustice to the past, and the mythical invention of modernity is an ethical issue because it sets a precedent for history that ignores complexity in favor of oversimplification.”

Such “truthy” writing is not simply harmless fun: “at the end of the book readers know less than before because their heads have been filled with errors. This is a damaging net loss nearly impossible to rectify, as the more complex and interesting truth rarely tastes as good as the oversugared fable that comes before.”

This is a crucial point. After all, agnostic readers might think, “OK, so popular writing about El Sistema isn’t accurate, but it’s still a good news story that advocates for music education – what harm could that possibly do?” As Miles argues, the harm it does is potentially to leave readers less informed than they were to start with, instilling myths that may then be hard to shake.

This is a problem that researchers in the field of Sistema/social action through music face. The general public, and even many musicians and academics, have been fed an “oversugared fable” about El Sistema and the power of orchestral music for the last decade. Trying to move away from this towards “the more complex and interesting truth” is indeed a hard and often fruitless slog, because it’s a truth that is less appealing than the fantasy. Popular writing and “documentaries” about El Sistema have the doubly harmful effect of propagating doubtful or regressive ideas about music education, poverty, and social development, and making life harder for those engaged in genuine research and practical efforts to transform music education.


Playing for their Lives is, in the final analysis, a book by and for people with limited knowledge of El Sistema. It hasn’t impressed reviewers so far, and it’s not going to be taken seriously in specialist circles, in academic conferences, or in scholarly journals. The Sistema fantasy genre has now been relegated to the margins of events such as Reframing El Sistema or the El Sistema SIG at ISME. So why devote so much space to discussing this book in a specialist forum?

Because it is symptomatic of some key problems with the wider Sistema sphere. Much has been made of the idea that Sistema-inspired programs have adapted rather than adopted El Sistema. Yet I’m increasingly aware of how Tunstall and Booth, and some other prominent leaders of the field, have adopted a key credo of the Venezuelan program pretty much wholesale: a zero-tolerance approach to critical questioning. It’s striking that Midgette should identify this book as cult-like – precisely the same word that arose repeatedly when I was researching El Sistema. As I explored in my book, it’s a commonplace of organizational studies that minimizing critical reflection and feedback is a sure route to institutional weakness. In Venezuela, this attitude damaged the program, making it less socially effective than it could have been, although it strengthened its public image (fooling observers like these authors). So it’s striking to see the US Sistema leadership adopting the same practice.

Where are the spaces within the Sistema field where divergent opinions can really be examined and explored? Where, for that matter, will the weaknesses of this book and the strategy that it encapsulates be debated by Sistema practitioners themselves? My private conversations with members of this field, and individuals who have tried to dialogue with it, suggest that such spaces are few and far between, and that critical questioning is not well received. I have had comments removed from Sistema Global’s website and Facebook page – comments that were neither derogatory nor personal, but simply expressed a divergent viewpoint. When two forward-thinking members of Sistema Global managed to open a space on their website, including an interview with me, to try to provoke a discussion of my book, the response was… silence. You could hear the metaphorical tumbleweed blowing through. Tunstall and Booth’s book is written in the same spirit, and these silences and silencings say an awful lot about Sistema and its failure to foster open and democratic debate.


Despite everything I have written, I expect the book will do well. I recently watched a documentary, Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds, which focuses on the magician and investigator James Randi. It became clear that Randi’s debunking of spoon-bender Uri Geller and tent-show evangelist Peter Popoff had had little effect on their careers. In fact, “it’s much bigger than ever,” says Geller proudly. “Our ratings are up,” states Popoff.

“People think they believe what they choose to believe. We don’t. We mostly believe what we need to believe,” points out one of the commentators.

“The public really doesn’t listen when they’re being told straightforward facts,” says Randi. “They would rather accept what some charismatic character tells them than really think about what the truth might be. They’d rather have the romance and the lies.”

Still, the job of a non-fiction writer is not to provide readers with the romance and lies that they so desire. It is to be as accurate and honest as possible. Tunstall and Booth fail both tests. Manuel Martínez hit the nail on the head in a comment beneath a recent Tunstall blog post, not only revealing that the latter does not understand how the Simón Bolívar orchestra works, but also imploring her to open her eyes and be more truthful:

When will you open your eyes and understand that even though El Sistema does some great things it also has, like you Americans say, many opportunities for improvement? The difference between what a OSSBV player makes each month and the salary of a teacher in a nucleo is a disgrace. The embarrassing amount of money that the OSSBV spends in their tours (including the dinners in the most expensive restaurants around the world for Eduardo Méndez and his friends) are also a disgrace. Especially when you think about nucleos outside Caracas that don’t have computers, printers or decent instruments. I know you make a living out of saying how marvelous El Sistema is, but a little honesty would not hurt.

A lack of honesty, however, will hurt. The Sistema field already faces two big problems: the scepticism of music education scholars, and the crumbling of the Venezuelan mother-program. (It is hard to square the authors’ optimistic vision of the future in Chapter 1 with the draining away of economic and human resources on the ground in Venezuela, and the increasingly embattled position of the government to which El Sistema is now so closely tied.) The last thing it needed was to have its reputation damaged in the national media, as happened with the first two reviews of Tunstall and Booth’s book to appear. The harm that unrealistic and over-zealous advocacy can do is now plain for all to see, and labels like “the cult of El Sistema” and “the Starbucks of music education” will stick. With friends like these, who needs critics?