Reflections on ISME 2014

I’ve just come back from five days of intensive Sistema-related activity at the International Society for Music Education (ISME) conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil. It provided a platform for the most interesting Sistema discussions that I’ve heard outside Venezuela, so I’m very pleased I went. The last night, in particular, got pretty intense as people stayed up late into the night talking about topics that really mattered to them, but there were great conversations over lunch or dinner dotted throughout the week.

The Sistema Special Interest Group (SIG) showed many positive signs. The need for serious research on El Sistema is now widely recognized. The sessions were admirably democratic, with a range of views expressed, everyone’s opinions listened to and taken seriously, and critical reflection much in evidence. The best presentations gave one hope for the fate of “social action through music” outside Venezuela.

While I’m loath to single out individuals (as it means omitting others), I found Jonathan Govias’s reflections particularly original and thought-provoking. I don’t always agree with all the details, but the overall vision is the most advanced in the Sistema world, including Venezuela. Jonathan has been documenting his views in articles and blog posts for several years now, and it’s fascinating to be able to observe how those views have developed over time from slightly formulaic and reverent accounts to the cutting edge of critical thinking and practice. In his own reflections on ISME he pulls no punches, which is exactly what the field needs. (For once, as I write these words, I think there’s a chance that I might not be automatically cast as the bad cop…)

I learned a lot about Sistema-inspired programs around the world and heard more nuanced and thought-provoking views than I had expected. Going to conferences is worthwhile when you hear opinions that are in advance of what has already been published and when you are reminded that human beings and their views are often more complex than the simplified versions that we present (or read) on the page. In some respects, the Sistema world seems less black and white to me than it did a week ago.

I’ve been collecting information on El Sistema and its spinoffs for a number of years now, and at this conference I could see some clear evolution in thinking. There was also a sense of critical momentum building over the week, with conversations at the end seeming to have moved on from those at the start – again, a sign of a productive conference.

I was pleased to see that advocacy and critique could coexist in the same space, and that coexistence seemed to be productive for all concerned. The conference reaffirmed my belief that critique and debate are constructive rather than something to be feared (a point that will be obvious to most, no doubt, but has not been embraced by everyone in the Sistema movement). We always need to be trying to build something better, and in order to do that, we need to understand what we already have, and particularly what its flaws are.

A full account of the event and all the side-conversations would be too long for this medium, so I’m just going to pull out a few points that seem to me to be worth highlighting or discussing further. Some of them I articulated publicly or privately during the week – apologies to anyone who has heard some of this before. I hope that those who participated, as well as those who could not be there, might feel moved to provide their own thoughts below and keep the conversation moving.

The relationship between El Sistema and Sistema-inspired programs

I was repeatedly struck (in a good way) by the differences between the aims and practices of the global Sistema offshoots and their parent organization in Venezuela. There has been lots of talk in recent years about whether to copy El Sistema, adopt it, adapt it, or (most recently) be inspired by it. In my opinion, the time has come for the next step – to critique it. It is a program conceived in the 1970s, and it needs to be deconstructed so that it can then be reconstructed in a form that is fit for purpose in 2014. Despite the shifts in language overseas, one can still discern various forms of subordination and dependence, with global Sistema programs voluntarily playing the role of the poor cousin trailing along behind (though Sistema Aotearoa showed this didn’t need to be the case). Critique of the original model is the opposite of an assault on global projects; it creates a new space for them, and even allows them to move ahead and become leaders in the field of “social action through music.”

Does it matter if we don’t know what El Sistema is?

One leitmotiv of the week was the uncertainty over what El Sistema actually is. Indeed, there is something of a black hole at the heart of the SIG, with research on its central feature (the Venezuelan program) almost entirely lacking, and the focus very much on the reflections. As a result, there is still a tendency to build academic papers on a foundation of (often ill-informed) media representations of Venezuela, which is not a good strategy for serious academic research.

The question raised by Richard Hallam, though, was: does it matter? I’m in two minds. As a researcher, I’m inclined to be drawn to unpicking myths and to think that a lack of knowledge about the centerpiece of one’s field is a problem, but I can also see merit in the argument that a myth can be productive despite being factually inaccurate (and I say words to this effect in my forthcoming book). If a myth helps people outside Venezuela to grasp an idea and persuades cultural officials to fund good projects around the globe, then what’s the problem? That said, a lot of the basis for arguing that these projects are good is the assumption that the program works in Venezuela, which remains unproven. Also, an intervention from Ana Lucía Frega in the final session revealed exasperation with the poor grounding in Venezuelan realities from a distinguished and knowledgeable source, and underlined how this poor grounding puts the SIG in a vulnerable position when it is juxtaposed with a research community.

We are perhaps left with paradoxes (another theme of the week): an idea that shows problems at home may yet lead to positive outcomes when translated overseas; an idea may be both strengthened and weakened by its mythical properties. I am persuaded by the idea that Sistema-inspired programs don’t need to think about Venezuela when going about their day-to-day business, but I would argue that when we come together for this kind of research forum, then we do need to push ahead with understanding what El Sistema really is – and that, for me, should be an important goal for the SIG moving ahead.

Latin American involvement

One thing that struck me about the SIG was that Latin America was underrepresented relative to its importance in the Sistema movement. I think it’s important that the critical debates that are taking shape should not be limited to a predominantly North American, European and Australasian crowd. Although we had two useful papers from local researchers, I was surprised not to see more Brazilians among the presenters and audience, considering the location of the conference and the plans afoot to expand Sistema-inspired programs in the country. Many Latin American countries with Sistema-inspired programs were entirely absent. Most striking was the lack of Venezuelans. El Sistema manages to send huge orchestras to perform in Brazil on a regular basis yet did not send even a single music education specialist to the Sistema SIG. What does this say about its priorities? Why did it choose not to participate in cutting-edge debates about music education and learn about innovations in other parts of the world? Whatever the answers to those questions, it seems to me that strengthening the SIG – and the broader Sistema debate – entails encouraging more Latin American involvement.

Connections between the Sistema sphere and the broader field of music education research

We all agreed that making connections with the rest of the conference was essential. In some cases this was made difficult by scheduling clashes. Unfortunately, two highly relevant and challenging papers by the Costa Rican scholar Guillermo Rosabal Coto clashed with Sistema SIG sessions. But we should be listening to his critique of the Costa Rican Sistema-inspired program as form of neocolonialism or self-colonization, shaped by the interests of transnational corporations (in search of hard-working, obedient workforces in developing countries) and reinforcing a Eurocentric vision of national identity promoted by social elites since the mid-nineteenth century.

However, other sessions were more accessible to Sistema SIG members, who may have discovered or been reminded that outside the Sistema room, a lot of treasured features of the Venezuelan program and many of its global offshoots – a focus on large, directed ensembles; cultural hierarchization that puts classical music at the top; the propagation of European-style music education around the world – come in for some serious criticism, and indeed have done so for years or even decades. In the session on music education and social justice, a researcher presented a long list of ensembles that were suitable for teaching for social justice; the orchestra was a notable absentee. In the session on collaboration and creativity, the directed orchestra was placed at the bottom end of the continuum of collaborative practices. In many cases, the Sistema sphere is not so much resolving such complex questions as simply ignoring them, which is a dangerous strategy, even if a disconnect between research and practice is a problem that is hardly unique to the Sistema corner of the music education field. Occasions like ISME are an opportunity to face up to these issues, something that is essential if Sistema researchers are going to carve out a stable space for themselves in the broader sphere of music education research.


Jonathan Govias started an important conversation about values on the first day. He rightly talked about the importance of practice. We also need to think about funding: who supports the program, and why? It was interesting to see that the Guatemala City project is funded mainly by the city’s mayor, though also in part by USAID. It is thus tied to local and international political objectives. This is a point I’ve made previously with regard to Venezuela: expansion has come with significant political strings attached.

To take up a point made by Rosabal Coto, it is not just politicians but also the world of business that sees potential in Sistema programs. Examples of this business orientation can be found around the world, but at ISME it was particularly evident in the presentation by Adena Portowitz, who described a program in Israel built on the “Baldridge Core Values and Concepts,” espoused by a program called Baldridge Business Excellence. These core values include “Valuing Workforce Members and Partners.” Even the inspiring slogan “quality is a journey, not a destination” is taken from the world of commerce. If we are going to talk about El Sistema and values, then we need to recognize that beneath the language of social change lies a program whose values have a marked business orientation. There seems to be a slippage from forging good citizens to training obedient and productive workers, which are not necessarily the same thing. Can a push for social justice really be framed within the core values and concepts of a business organization?

The issue of who is funding Sistema programs and why is thus an important one, because it points to a backwards step (or several) since the groundbreaking work of Paulo Freire: from education as a critical and emancipatory practice to education in its more familiar guise as a tool of government. There are two distinct educational visions from Latin America here, only one of them radical. At the very least, we might want to pause for thought when we realize that both politicians and business leaders have their eye on Sistema programs. That’s good news for funding, but is it good news for social action through music?

Focusing on values means doing some hard looking and thinking. Values may be explicit, implicit, or even hidden. They may be expressed verbally or enacted, with differences potentially emerging between the two. If we’re going to grapple with values – and we should – then we need to identify the ones that are paramount in Venezuela (and not just at the level of official discourse) and their translation or mutation as they travel overseas. Just behind the official surface of the Venezuelan program lie religious and capitalist values. As the program travels, the religious ones seem to fade a little (though not always – some global programs maintain a missionary spirit, and overseas expansion was memorably described as a “crusade” on day one at ISME), while the capitalist ones sometimes gain strength. We also need to get a firmer grip on the history of El Sistema in Venezuela and the transformation of its own value system over time. This is not an easy proposition: as Elaine Sandoval revealed, even plotting the history of the Sistema movement in the US – a much more recent phenomenon and one that has left extensive traces on the Internet – is a tricky task. Tracing the evolution of El Sistema’s value system over four decades is a considerable challenge, but one that needs to be faced at some stage. To take the example that I presented at the conference, the concept of social inclusion – taken today as the program’s core value – did not exist when El Sistema was founded. So what were its values at the start, and when and why did they change?

The need for a new online discussion space

Despite the critical points raised above, I hope it’s clear that I found the Sistema SIG to be a productive space and one that I would like to see developed beyond its biennial meeting. What is needed is an online forum in which the full range of viewpoints aired at ISME can be heard and debated without attempts at censorship or an editorial direction that overly skews the balance. Forums that lack a diversity of opinions are weaker. Furthermore, it is essential for the Sistema movement to practice its values; if not, any aim to effect social change is dead in the water. You can’t promote social justice by marginalizing voices that disagree with you and dismissing critical reflection and democratic procedures. From what I saw at ISME, the SIG does practice what it preaches, but I’m not sure that other umbrella bodies always do – or to be more precise, I know that some other umbrella bodies don’t. I hope we can agree that this week’s progress cannot be maintained and continued within a non-democratic forum, and that a new option therefore needs to be sought.

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