Reflections on ISME 2016 (Part 1)

[03/08/2016] I’ve just come back from a very stimulating week at the International Society for Music Education conference. Ana Lucía Frega and I presented our paper “The IDB Reports: New Perspectives on the History and Historiography of El Sistema,” drawing on Frega’s unpublished evaluation of El Sistema in 1997 for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the archive of documents that she collected at the time. These sources provide interesting historical perspectives on present-day debates between critics and advocates of El Sistema, and furnish independent corroboration of many key points raised in my book. Working with Ana Lucía has been a great experience, as it allows me to see El Sistema through different eyes – those of one of Latin America’s most eminent music education scholars. Yet, interestingly, our vision of El Sistema is quite similar.

A few reflections on the conference follow.

The centre of gravity has shifted

There has been significant development in the nature and quality of work presented at the El Sistema SIG over the last four years. When Owen Logan, Gustavo Borchert, and I organized a conference last year, we had to put “critical perspectives” in the title. This year at ISME, there was no such tagline, yet critical perspectives were much in evidence. The centre of gravity has shifted, and in a short space of time, critical thinking has moved from the margins to the mainstream of academic discourse around (El) Sistema.

The centre of gravity hasn’t shifted

There were only a few people from the worlds of practice and policy in the SIG, and I see little sign that the issues raised at ISME (or previous conferences, such as Reframing El Sistema, El Sistema and the Alternatives, and ISME 2014) have had a significant impact on the ideology and practices of Sistema programs. There are exceptions, but they are precisely that – exceptions. All this discussion appears still to be very marginal as far as umbrella bodies are concerned (Sistema Europe, El Sistema USA, Sistema Global). It has made even less impact on the media, music industry, and wider public discourses. There’s a long, long way to go.

Perhaps that’s how education works, at least here and now. There often seems to be a gulf between what experts think of as good practice and what can actually take place. In education in the Anglo-American world today, there isn’t much space for progressive educational ideas. The result is much frustration on the part of researchers (not to mention teachers). Why should the Sistema sphere be any different?

The best part of conferences is the private conversations

Throughout the week, I had one fascinating conversation after another. In private exchanges, people were much more willing and able to explore the complexities around music education and research. The simple conclusion from these conversations? Doing good research is hard; educating well is hard. The bright people get this, and paint their own practice (including as Sistema leaders or teachers) as messy and complicated, like everything else in life. This in itself is no discovery, but it highlights once again that utopian advocacy discourse is useless, indeed counter-productive, for those of us who actually want to understand (El) Sistema, as it takes us away from (rather than closer to) what’s really going on inside programs. The brightest and (paradoxically) most inspiring people I talked to at the conference were full of doubt, and that was a lesson.

There is no magic bullet in music education…

Anyone who thinks that importing Venezuelan orchestral methods or musicians is a shortcut to social action through music is living in a fantasy world. Indeed, throughout the conference presenters were recognizing top-down, hierarchical, authoritarian, large-ensemble instruction as a problem, not a solution. It’s important to recognize that there is no magic bullet waiting to be discovered; any solutions to that problem are likely to be partial and messy. But that’s better than denying the existence of a problem, carrying on with centuries-old methods, and expecting radical new results.

A good place to start might be the article by Crooke, Smyth, and McFerran (2016), which argues on the basis of a literature review that maximizing psychosocial benefits might mean leaning more towards the methods of music therapy than pre-professional training. They suggest that standard training activities (goal-oriented, focused on expertise, in large groups) seem to be the least promising from the point of view of psychosocial outcomes; the best activities would be specially designed to promote wellbeing, and would focus on small groups and something more akin to play. There is no mention of Sistema in this article, but it’s extremely relevant (and challenging) in our context.

… particularly if you’re aiming at the wrong target

El Sistema isn’t a social program. It was designed for training up orchestral musicians quickly. That’s why the kids do little else other than orchestra, and do it far more intensively and repetitively than kids in most other countries. If the target is to create a youth orchestra quickly, then the Sistema method might be a good choice. But if the aim is to promote social benefits, then it makes no sense to use this method. You’ll get better social outcomes if you design your program around social outcomes rather than traditional musical ones (narrowly-defined “excellence” in performance).

Honesty vs. exaggeration

There seemed to be a growing acknowledgment within the Sistema SIG that, as I argued at “El Sistema and the Alternatives” and Jonathan Govias stated at “Reframing El Sistema,” more honesty is needed about the possibilities, problems, and limitations of (El) Sistema and social action through music. And yet, we live in an age of exaggeration. Honesty and modesty do not get you attention and funding. How can music programs be honest and appealing at the same time? (I don’t know the answer to that question.)

Public intellectualism

This issue came up during the session on The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education. The idea of the public intellectual points to questions about communication between the academic and public spheres. But I think there’s a more immediate and pressing issue. The complexity of private discussions in the conference did not even transfer fully into the public debates at the event, and the rich conversation about social justice in this session hadn’t even made it as far as some presenters in other conference sessions. Until music researchers and practitioners communicate clearly, honestly, and effectively among themselves, thinking about the outside world is perhaps premature.

Social justice and music education

Despite the point above, the discourse of social justice seems to be becoming more mainstream in discussions of music education. However, there is a danger with this process. Take Hilary Clinton, who told the Democratic convention:

You [Bernie Sanders] have put economic and social justice issues front and center, where they belong. And to all of your supporters here and around the country: I want you to know, I’ve heard you. Your cause is our cause.

When a committed neoliberal can talk comfortably about social justice without batting an eyelid, then the idea has become domesticated and defanged. It is important that social justice does not become just another platitude in music education, something that even the most conservative programs can trot out. Talking the talk is easy; researchers and practitioners need to focus on walking the walk.

Part 2 to follow shortly…


Crooke, Alexander H. D., Paul Smyth, and Katrina S. McFerran. 2016. “The psychosocial benefits of school music: reviewing policy claims.” The Journal of Music Research Online 7.