Researching El Sistema (2)

This post uses a response by Jennifer Kessler to an earlier post as a launching-off point. Jennifer’s comment is eloquent and full of ideas, but rather than responding to all of them one by one, I’m going to make some broader points about researching El Sistema.

This is also in part a response to Isaac Selya’s following comment about my alleged “preconceived bias against the program” and his question: “Did you have a bad experience with them?” This made me wonder whether a few people might be missing the point about what I do. Academic researchers regard probing common assumptions (including their own) and asking difficult questions as a fundamental purpose – it’s not something we do out of a personal grudge. Skepticism, even about the best-sounding ideas, is a cornerstone of intellectual enquiry. (For the record, no, I didn’t have a bad experience with them, quite the opposite.)

As for “preconceived bias,” yes, you’re right, I did have one – like almost everyone else who visits El Sistema from overseas, I had strongly positive preconceptions. I arrived in Venezuela as a believer in the “Venezuelan musical miracle.” Where I seem to differ from the majority (though not from all – it’s just that the other dissenters keep quiet about it in public for fear that they will be subject to vitriol or ostracism for questioning El Sistema) is that I was prepared to abandon my preconceptions when the evidence contradicted them. That’s the difference between research and advocacy. So if we’re going to talk about preconceived bias, we might want to look at those whose absolute faith in El Sistema cannot be shaken by any amount of evidence or argument.


A productive way to go about researching institutions is to consider two levels: what they say they’re doing, and what they’re actually doing. In the case of an institution that places a particular emphasis on impressing observers, we might want to expand this to three levels: (1) what they say they’re doing, (2) what they seem to be doing, and (3) what they’re actually doing. The first is the public narrative – websites, publicity materials, mission statements, speeches, formal interviews with the media, compliant “documentaries” (i.e. PR films), and so on. The second is what you’re shown if you go and observe the institution as an official guest – the guided tours, the choreographed displays, the set-piece meetings, and so on. The third is the more mundane realities: what you see when you turn up unannounced on an ordinary day, or the things you hear or see by accident when people stop noticing that you’re there. Here we might also add private narratives – the kinds of things people start telling you off the record.

The third of these levels is the hardest to grasp, and it often takes a long time, which is why researchers who do ethnographies of institutions typically try to spend at least a year on site, ensure that they are fluent in the language before starting, and try to be as low key and independent as possible, rather than (say) forming part of an official delegation. Being shown round by guides and translators is not the same as doing research, though it might form part of it. Experienced ethnographers with prior knowledge of the culture and language may be able to do profound research in less time, but the risk of a significantly shorter research period and/or lack of linguistic fluency is failing to get beyond the first two levels – in other words, thinking there is nothing more to it than what one is told and shown.  Good researchers also try to look for multiple vantage points on the institution, finding out how those outside it but within its sphere of influence see it. The idea is to try to triangulate the official narrative – the institution’s public face – with other viewpoints and one’s own observations, and to investigate the relationship between these three levels, without making any prior assumptions (either positive or negative) about the accuracy of the stories one hears.

Your post focuses largely on the first and second levels. For example, you write:

Every teacher and administrator I spoke with explained that their núcleo was a place of experimentation and exploration, and that it’s constantly evolving according to the needs of the community.

Any social scientist worth their salt would reply: well yes, they would say that, particularly to a special guest from overseas. But is the núcleo actually a place of experimentation and exploration that is constantly evolving to the needs of the community? That’s not a cynical question, as some people seem to think, but rather a bread-and-butter research question – Social Science 101. And the answer is not necessarily something you can find out quickly, or just by talking to people whose job it is to show off the institution in a positive light.

To make an analogy, imagine I’m researching Barack Obama. I go and interview Barack Obama, and he says, “I’m making America a safer, fairer, and more prosperous place.” I then go and interview a bunch of people in the Democratic Party headquarters and read some publicity materials by the Democratic Party. And I then proclaim, “Barack Obama is making America a safer, fairer, and more prosperous place.” Would you think I had done my job properly? Would that constitute thorough research?

This is what 99% of writing on El Sistema in English is doing. It just quotes, rehashes, pads out, dresses up, or embellishes the institution’s own narrative. It is often eloquent, sometimes even moving and inspirational; but there are almost no levels, contrasts, or triangulation between different perspectives – just a repetition that is indistinguishable from propagandizing and far from research. The institution’s own narrative may turn out to be highly accurate, but that remains to be proven; that research has yet to be done (or published). Until such a time, it is just a story, and simply repeating it, however eloquently, adds little to the mix.

Back to Jennifer’s post, which paints a lovely picture of an eclectic program full of jazzers and rockers and traditional musicians and composers. Yet it’s a picture that few jazzers or rockers or traditional musicians or composers would recognize. Most composers, for example, are highly critical of the lack of opportunities granted to them by El Sistema. How many of El Sistema’s 250-odd núcleos have a composer in residence or regularly perform new music by Venezuelan composers? How many offer traditional music beyond a few basic cuatro lessons for the smallest kids? How many traditional musicians receive stipends? According to Borzacchini’s book, there are nearly 400 orchestras in El Sistema. How many jazz or rock groups are there? You may see these things at showcase núcleos like Montalbán and Valle de la Pascua, but are these núcleos the exception or the rule?

I’m not saying that it’s easy to come up with answers to these questions – that’s the whole point in a way – and the answers may well be constantly changing. Since the launch of Alma Llanera, traditional music has clearly moved up the list of priorities. There seem to be many more students studying traditional music today than even just a couple of years ago – in my year in Venezuela, I met one first-study cuatro player – though I still wonder what the classical/traditional ratio would be with respect to first-study instruments. Still, things appear to be changing. Yet if you take the whole history of El Sistema since the 1970s and look at how many first-study música llanera players it has produced compared to first-study classical musicians, you’ll struggle to see the drop in the ocean – and that’s a pretty important detail that your picture omits.

To go back to the start of your post, I’m glad you brought up the Berlin Phil – it just underlines my point. The public narrative is about “music as social action” and “we’re not training musicians, we’re training citizens” – so why the love affair with the Berlin Phil? Why are the foreign visitors almost always expert performers of classical music? When I went to the Centro de Acción Social por la Música in Caracas, the VIP visitors were the Ensemble InterContemporain from Paris. Fantastic musicians, for sure, but “music as social action”? Does any top European classical musician now count as an expert in music and social justice? Or is social action something that mysteriously occurs when such a musician touches down in Venezuela? If the Berlin Phil or the Ensemble InterContemporain can catalyze social action just by being themselves, how does music as social action differ from classical music’s business as usual? And if they can’t, why are Venezuelan social funds being spent on them?

A Sistema musician said to me: “the masterclasses with the Berlin Phil were exactly the same as all the other masterclasses I’ve ever been to” – a completely traditional format, just at a very high level. There was also a tough selection process to ensure that only the best students in the country made it to the masterclasses. Music as social action is an appealing rhetoric, but how does the highly selective, competitive reality differ from standard classical music education in other countries (other than in the fact that El Sistema can afford to fly in the best in the world)?

I was looking at Marshall Marcus’s recent blog post on diversity, and there is a list of characteristics for a diversity network at the bottom, which include:

–       focused on equity

–       no aesthetic norm

–       cooperative not competitive systems

–       non-hierarchical

–       learn from Latin America

It also lists, at the bottom, “willingness to have the ‘hard’ conversations.” So here’s a hard conversation topic: how does the Berlin Phil masterclass example measure up to this list of characteristics?

Is there not a hint of old wine in new bottles here – the new bottles being the rhetoric that few are willing to examine closely? El Sistema’s success depends on persuading people that it is doing something radically new, but that’s precisely the kind of assertion that a researcher would want to consider carefully – and competitive auditions for a masterclass with a famous visiting classical musician from Germany doesn’t strike me as particularly radical or new, let alone an example of diversity.

As Robert K. Merton put it succinctly, social science asks “is it really so?” Some people – who are unwilling to set aside their preconceived bias – seem to think that isn’t an important question to ask of El Sistema, but I think it is an essential one to ask of any object of study, otherwise one is engaged in advocacy, not research. Advocacy can be a great thing, but without careful prior research, it can be a minefield, because you don’t know what you’re actually advocating.


(Coda for nerds: Some would argue that there’s no such thing as “what they’re actually doing,” no deeper reality waiting to be uncovered, and that it’s simply a question of competing narratives. So you’ve got your public narratives, private narratives, the observer’s narrative, and so on. Rather than a reality, there are realities. Then the objective of research would be to analyze and compare these different realities, bring them into some kind of dialogue, and work towards deeper understanding rather than definitive conclusions. This kind of view goes in and out of fashion in academia, but something that I think most researchers would agree on is that getting an in-depth understanding of an institution requires time, certain skills, critical distance, and a willingness to dig beneath the official surface into multiple realities).

One thought on “Researching El Sistema (2)

  1. At the risk of being considered one of those “whose absolute faith in El Sistema cannot be shaken by any amount of evidence or argument” (disclaimer: I am Venezuelan, I am not an academic but as a journalist I first wrote about El Sistema in 1994, and now I work at the In Harmony Sistema England charity, though this post is my personal opinion and does not represent the views of IHSE), I would like to say a couple of things.

    When I first heard of your research project, I had what you would describe as “strongly positive preconceptions” about the idea of an academic from outside Venezuela studying El Sistema. I knew one of El Sistema’s weaknesses is a lack of systematic research. So I was really looking forward to your work. But the truth is that I am yet to understand the scope and the consistency of your research.

    I still do not know exactly how much time you spent in Venezuela, how many núcleos did you visit, how much time did you spend in each of them, how did you choose them, how representative were they of the whole Sistema network, nor how many people did you interview, including children, young people, teachers and parents.

    In your November 2012 conference at the Institute of Education, I was surprised to hear you say that most of the children and young people in El Sistema “were middle class”, something that is in direct contradiction to a 2007 study, quoted by Josefa Borzacchini (2010), among 180 families from 15 núcleos in Caracas, Bolívar, Lara, Mérida, Miranda, Táchira, Sucre and Zulia, which found that 11% were middle class, 36% lived in poverty and 53% lived in extreme poverty. Where did your perception of a middle-class majority come from?

    Now I see you say that “most composers… are highly critical of the lack of opportunities granted to them by El Sistema.” Who are those composers? How many composers did you speak to? How representative are they of the whole universe of Venezuelan composers? Is this the official position of Sociedad de Autores y Compositores de Venezuela, SACVEN, the Venezuelan composers’ association?

    You question El Sistema’s focus on “social action through music” because of what you describe as their “love affair with the Berlin Phil”. But I have to say that this is a very capricious observation. While the Berlin Phil is delivering a masterclass in Caracas, El Sistema is also engaged –one example out of many I could mention– with the children at the “12 de Marzo” school in the village of El Soroco, Guárico, most of whom work classifying waste in a rubbish dump. They are developing skills, abilities and expectations that will enrich and transform their lives. Isn’t this social action?

    I agree that El Sistema needs less advocacy and more rigorous research and constructive criticism. I sincerely hope your work will contribute to that.

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