Reflections on ISME 2016 (Part 2): The evolving research on El Sistema

[05/08/2016] I was asked to make a few comments on this topic at the ISME 2016 conference. I did so, but also went on to raise questions about the present and the future of the El Sistema Special Interest Group (SIG) at ISME. Here is re-edited version of some of what I said.

Thinking about the evolving research on El Sistema requires us to think about what research is, what it isn’t, and how writing about El Sistema has evolved over the last decade.

The first big wave of information to hit the UK came in the lead-up to the 2007 Proms debut of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, in the form of newspaper articles and documentaries (I attended a public screening of Tocar y Luchar at the Barbican that year). Then came “reportage,” most notably by Eric Booth and Tricia Tunstall, though a few people also discovered the books by the Venezuelan journalist and publicist, Chefi Borzacchini. These two genres are closely related to, indeed often interchangeable with, institutional publicity. El Sistema has a very active press office and a highly developed PR strategy, and its press releases and publicity materials underpin a lot of cultural reporting and reportage.

Then there was a proliferation of blogs by the likes of Jonathan Govias, other Abreu/Sistema fellows (both individually and collectively), and myself. Evaluations of UK programs started to appear about 5 years ago, and there has been an increasing flow ever since. Finally, there has also been a recent boom of academic research: the first monograph was published in 2014, and two journal special issues have appeared just in the last 6 months.

What I want to emphasize is that these are all different genres of writing, and they all have their pros and cons, their value and their limitations. But if we’re going to focus on the evolving research on El Sistema, then we need to be clear what we’re talking about, which is only one of these six genres.

I don’t think I need to labour the point that journalism, reportage, institutional publicity, and blogging are not the same as research. They can be very valuable – some of the best sources for my book were journalists and media articles, and I wouldn’t write a blog myself if I didn’t think blogs were important – but they are not research.

Where perhaps a little more attention needs to be paid is to evaluation. Some would argue that evaluation is a form of research, though I believe that there are sufficient differences between the two to justify different terms. For those who do not agree, we could perhaps look to Eleonora Belfiore’s (2009) distinction between critical or explorative research and advocacy-led research:

we need to reinforce the notion of a ‘critical research ethos’. ‘Critical’ is today a very loaded adjective, and it thus requires some qualification. I use it to refer to research that is disinterested, that is, indifferent to the requirements of advocacy – advocacy being a fully legitimate enterprise, but one completely distinct and, ideally, separate from genuinely explorative research. By ‘explorative’ research, I refer to a type of research that aims to describe, explore and illuminate complex issues around the role and condition of culture, cultural production, consumption and administration in contemporary society.

The terms are different but the point is essentially the same, so I will stick with evaluation and research.

Those interested in looking more deeply at this question should start with an important critical piece by the inimitable Owen Logan, who describes the Big Noise evaluations as “hand in glove” with the Sistema Scotland project and its neoliberal underpinnings. My own take focuses more on the pragmatics and methodologies of evaluation. Take the evaluation of In Harmony Liverpool, for example: the lead researcher, Susanne Burns, had previously worked for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the main partner behind the program under consideration. Recently, I wrote about the evaluation of Sistema Aotearoa, which included only the most successful students and their most positive experiences – which looks rather like advocacy-led research, to use Belfiore’s term. Also, a reputation as a tough critic is unlikely to be a career asset for an evaluator. Evaluation does have its uses and value – my next academic article will be based on a comparative reading of four evaluations, two of which are very informative – but its questions are generally limited to the terms of the project. The main task of an evaluation is usually to ask whether a project achieves its aims, rather than to enquire more critically into the validity of those aims and to examine more complex issues.

Academic researchers generally have greater freedom to explore and ask the questions that interest them, often drawing on critical theorists like Bourdieu and Foucault, and that can lead to quite different answers. It’s striking just how different the picture of UK Sistema programs looks if we observe through the lens of scholarship rather than evaluations. The sources listed at the bottom of this article range from mild to strong critique, but they all reveal a significant gap with the rosy picture that evaluators have painted. However we account for this gap, we need to acknowledge that it exists and that it demonstrates quite clearly that evaluation and academic research are not the same thing.

We might also recall that the history of evaluations of El Sistema in Venezuela is hardly illustrious. There have been several attempts to evaluate the program, but none of them convinced the IDB, its major funder – not even the one they used to justify the loan of $150 million to El Sistema in 2007, since they disowned it a few years later. The current IDB evaluation is something of a mystery: El Sistema’s executive director Eduardo Méndez said in December 2014, on BBC Radio 3, that it was about to be published. There has been not a whiff since.

This is not to suggest that academic research is necessarily more valuable than other genres of writing. A PhD on El Sistema and social values that was recently completed in Spain combines a naïve methodology with an uncritical reading of the data, producing a lengthy text that obscures more than it reveals about the Venezuelan program. Give me a good journalistic article or blog post any day.

Every genre has its pros and cons, then, its good and bad examples, and this isn’t about simply creating a pecking order of value. The biggest determining factor in that regard is simply the quality of the work, which depends on a range of factors, particularly insight and depth of knowledge. Having said that, the peer-review process of academic research is an important, if imperfect, means of quality control that the other genres don’t have. Also, academic research is expected to reference earlier studies, whereas I’ve looked in vain for references to Sistema research in the UK evaluations. We therefore get the bizarre situation where publicly funded research by Rimmer, Street, and Philips (2014) is ignored in publicly funded evaluations of publicly funded music education.

So what comes next?

The easiest answer in an academic conference is always to say, “we need more research.” That’s always true, but I think it’s actually not the highest priority. The top priority, I would argue, is to use the research we already have. If we’re going to build an edifice of knowledge around Sistema, then we need to use the most solid foundation stones we have to hand. It’s no longer 2012, there’s plenty of research now published, so there is no excuse for referencing superficial reportage or media stories in the academic sphere unless it is to hold them up to a critical light.

We also need to use the research as a springboard to action. We have enough information already about the limitations of the original Sistema model, even in its ideal form. We know that the distinctive features of El Sistema, such as intensive, authoritarian group instruction, came from Abreu’s urge to create young professional orchestral musicians in double-quick time, not from any social vision. There is lots of non-Sistema-related research on the pedagogical and ethical issues around such an approach, and even on its limited psychosocial outcomes. In The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education, even the most sympathetic view of El Sistema – by Eric Shieh – displays major caveats. Other chapters, whether explicitly or implicitly, present the Sistema approach as either problematic or well past its expiry date. We don’t need any more research in order to say: if social action is our primary goal, then the best thing to do would be to rip up the Sistema rulebook and start again.

What next for the El Sistema SIG?

A very curious thing about this SIG is that it’s called the El Sistema SIG, yet it barely engages with El Sistema. This time, as in 2014, there were no Venezuelan presenters and very few presentations on Venezuela – in fact, there was an uncomfortable silence around El Sistema in most of our sessions. El Sistema has become the elephant in the room in its own SIG. This is an extremely bizarre situation.

The critical research points to ways out of this conundrum. One option would be to re-imagine the Sistema SIG more clearly and explicitly not as an advocacy group, but as a reform group, again using the existing research as a springboard. I believe that if a Special Interest Group is to exist, it has to take a special interest in its central topic and to act on what it finds, rather than deciding it would rather avert its eyes and focus on something else. The El Sistema SIG at ISME should have more to say on El Sistema than almost anyone else, rather than skirting around the topic. And when the stakes are as high as they are in El Sistema, this is not just an intellectual responsibility – it is also an ethical one.

Another option would be to dissolve the SIG altogether and merge into the wider field of progressive music education. After three ISME conferences, there’s still little clarity about what Sistema really is. No other program has its own SIG. A SIG is a recipe for insularity, separation, and timetable clashes. Why are we dividing ourselves from community music or social justice? Would the best way for the SIG to move to the next level actually be to disappear altogether?

Certainly, some might disagree with both of these options. Some might argue that the purpose of the SIG should become unflinching critique of the practices and ideology of (El) Sistema, shining an uncompromising light on one of the most problematic music education initiatives of our times, and revealing important issues that powerful institutional, business, and media interests would like to remain in obscurity. This might be the moment to act like an ivory tower – to stand apart from, and in critical relation to, wider currents in society. I would agree, but this isn’t likely to happen at the ISME SIG. I would be happy with either of the options above, which would be a valuable step away from the SIG’s advocacy roots.


Allan, J., Moran, N., Duffy, C., y Loening, G. (2010). “Knowledge exchange with Sistema Scotland.” Journal of Education Policy, 25 (3), 335-347.

Borchert, G. (2012). “Sistema Scotland: A critical inquiry into the implementation of the El Sistema model in Raploch.” Masters thesis, University of Glasgow.

Bull, A. (2016). “El Sistema as a bourgeois social project: Class, gender, and Victorian values.” ACT 15 (1), 120–53.

Logan, O. (2015). “Doing well in the eyes of capital: Cultural transformation from Venezuela to Scotland.” In J. A. McNeish, A. Borchgrevink y O. Logan (Eds.), Contested powers: The politics of energy and development in Latin America. London: Zed Books.

Logan, O. (2016). “Lifting the veil: A realist critique of Sistema’s upwardly mobile path.” ACT 15 (1), 58–88.

Rimmer, M., Street, J. y Phillips, T. (2014). “Understanding the cultural value of In Harmony-Sistema England.” Arts & Humanities Research Council/University of East Anglia.


Belfiore, E. (2009). “On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research: notes from the British case.” International Journal of Cultural Policy 15 (3), 343-359.