Researching El Sistema

There seems to have been an upswell of interest in research on El Sistema since I last posted, with new research-oriented groups launched: the Sistema Special Interest Group at ISME and the Sistema Research subgroup of Sistema Global on Linkedin. I’d love to be able to say that my last post played some tiny role in catalyzing this activity, but it clearly didn’t, since with one exception, the only reaction it provoked was dismay that I was taking a critical line rather than engagement with what I was actually saying.

One of my subsequent concerns was (and continues to be) a certain resistance to genuinely critical thinking among the Sistema community, so it was good to see Richard Hallam posting his thoughts on Linkedin about colleagues’ motivation for evaluation and research: “If the purpose of their research is to secure funding to continue their good work then there is the potential danger that they will not be sufficiently challenging of what they are doing or only report the positive elements that support their case.” I hope these new research groups will heed Richard’s words. There seems to be a widespread view that critical research constitutes a betrayal of the children, whereas in reality it is a failure to do such research that would be a betrayal.

Richard’s comment reminded me of a review article on studies of music and conflict transformation (Music and Arts in Action, Vol 2, No 2, 2010), in which Arild Bergh and John Sloboda demonstrate a healthy scepticism from which students of El Sistema could learn. Among the problems they identify are that participants’ opinions are rarely heard (they tend to be overshadowed by the views of those in charge); music’s role is often exaggerated via sweeping statements about the power of music; and real power issues are downplayed or ignored. According to the authors, it is in everyone’s interest to focus on claiming success, which is usually vital for funding, so evaluations are often done by project organizers themselves and rely on anecdotes as proof. What is salutary about this article is that the authors are personally invested in the processes and phenomena that they study – they want music to play an effective role in social healing – yet as researchers, they continue to believe in the importance of a critical attitude.

My own thought for the day is that the first step in conducting research of a qualitative kind is to see what’s staring us in the face. Let me take three examples from Tricia Tunstall’s book on El Sistema, Changing Lives. Most people who have got as far as this blog will probably know Tunstall’s book and appreciate its lively, engaging, engaged approach to El Sistema. But there are some moments in the book that raise big questions and seem to cry out for further commentary.

Tunstall describes a visit to a class in Venezuela: “We watch her [the teacher] lead the group in playing a D scale as she claps out a beat so strong it cannot be resisted. Over and over, they play that D scale… over, and over, and over.” Eventually the children are allowed to move on to some real music – a piece of Corelli; but “it is rehearsed in the same way the D scale was – phrase by phrase, over and over and over. The teacher is as ruthless as any symphony conductor about their entrances and cutoffs being exactly, precisely together.” This kind of authoritarian, mechanical learning, with its “ruthless” teacher who “cannot be resisted,” clearly draws its inspiration from earlier periods in Western music history. Why the excitement over this antiquated pedagogy that proceeds as though progressive movements in music education since the 1970s never took place? Does this class sound like a model for music education for the 21st century?

This vignette is all about discipline and obeying authority, two of El Sistema’s fundamental features – yet ones that have been much critiqued in (music) education research of recent decades. If we want to do research, why not start from the nuts and bolts – the pedagogy – and hold it up to current thinking on education and social justice?

Here is Alejandro Carreño, concertmaster of the SBSO: “Everybody who has been in the Sistema understands that the way you behave in an orchestra is the perfect way to behave in society.” That’s fine for the concertmaster to say… but what about back desk of the second violins? Is the perfect way to behave in society to keep your mouth shut, follow the person in front of you, and do what you’re told by the boss? Those who make these kinds of utopian pronouncements about Sistema orchestras usually seem to be either conductors (Abreu, Dudamel) or principals (Carreño), and it’s perhaps no wonder that they are extremely enthusiastic about a social microcosm that invests them with great authority. But if we’re interested in researching key issues like social inclusion, we might want to listen a bit harder to the back of the seconds – or perhaps even to the guy who dropped out of El Sistema.

We are told over and over again that orchestras are all about collaboration. Yet here is David Ascanio, a senior Sistema figure, on his experiences in the early days of the national youth orchestra: “José Antonio [Abreu] was obsessed with working on the sheer beauty of the orchestra’s sound. In rehearsals, he would say, ‘I want this sound!’ And they would play the same passage over and over and over, trying to get at what he wanted, until he would finally say, ‘That’s it! That’s the sound!’” The idea that someone other than Abreu might have a say in the orchestra’s sound seems not to occur to anyone. In most orchestral settings, as in this one, “collaboration” seems to be a euphemism for submitting yourself to someone else’s authority and working to achieve their goal.

I have chosen examples from Tunstall’s book precisely because it is so well known among Sistema followers. This is not obscure information dredged up from a distant corner of Venezuela, but examples that have been staring us all in the face for some time. If we are unable to analyze these simple vignettes properly, if they do not throw up urgent questions about the source from which all the Sistema-related enthusiasm and activity stems, then what hope do we have of carrying out meaningful research on more complex issues?

Yesterday, as I was sketching out this post, I kept being reminded of the phrase “the emperor’s new clothes,” one that I had heard from a couple of prominent musicians in Venezuela, and then I saw that Jonathan Govias riffed on the same phrase in his own blog, though coming from a very different angle. My interlocutors’ point was that there are big issues around El Sistema that are never publicly acknowledged despite lying in full view. My own adaptation here would be to say that if we cannot acknowledge these issues, we will not get very far with research.

11 thoughts on “Researching El Sistema

  1. A couple of comments in response to Geoffrey’s blogpost. First, I think you will find as these very first conversations about research grow and begin to find their way into consensus and even plans, that we are not quite as fluff-minded as we seem to seem to you. We are not kool-aid drunk acolytes without critical capacity, even though we seem not to manifest our analytic capacities in ways that are yet evident to you. These are early days for conversation about research; it is a big topic and a big field–give us some time before making judgments. Contributions are helpful. Judgments, not so much. Most sites are still working on program evaluation and are only beginning to find time in their busy days to have first thoughts about research.

    Second, I am fascinated by your interpretations of the three examples you cite from Tricia Tunstall’s book. You cast yourself in the role of truth teller calling out obvious falseness, as in the emperor’s new clothes analogy. I was present for some of those events Tricia describes, and your conclusions are not a innocent’s pointing out what everyone ought to be seeing, but are remarkably opposite to what was actually present in the event, and what she intended to describe, and what readers apart from you seem to receive. The point of the story about the intense work on the D scale was how joyful and aesthetically satisfying the work was, how much learning was happening. Yes, you can deconstruct that the conductor was telling them what to do, and that there was driving energy and repetition; but in the room, it was a marvel of artistic inquiry and collaborative endeavor that was quite the opposite of the authoritarian, ruthless, mechanicalness you deem it. This pattern is the same for your two other examples as well. While I have had many conversations with string players in the back stands of orchestra string sections, and they are indeed often filled with “shut up and play the notes the way you are told to” energy, this is exactly and remarkably not the conversation I have with players in those positions in El Sistema orchestras. Yes, if it emerges as a valuable research focus to study the attitudes of players the back of the El Sistema program string sections, let’s do it; but let’s do it without the loaded cynicism you impose on Tricia’s reporting, because in my first hand experience, it is unwarranted, and is not the open mind of research but the preconception-driven approach you seem to project onto others. And before you interpret David Ascanio’s story as evidence of the initial orchestra members as submissive pawns acting under Abreu’s authority, know that that is not how Ascanio saw it, or told it, or how others read it. They read a tale of the remarkable achievement of a group of artists seeking the elusive quality of an orchestra’s sound together, with a good leader that they needed on the podium guiding the inquiry, and achieving satisfaction within the whole group. They cite it as a life-affirming peak time in their creative lives, and you interpret it the opposite. When we talk research, let’s open a genuinely open inquiry.

  2. Eric, thanks for engaging with my post. We obviously disagree on many things, but I think it’s valuable to have this discussion and to do so in public, because it may help others interested in El Sistema to think more about the topic.

    Unfortunately I don’t have time to write a full response today, so this is just a place holder:

    First, I don’t think anyone is fluff-minded – I just think that the public conversations that have taken place so far (in English, anyway) have been pretty fluffy, which suggests that a lot of the real thinking is taking place behind closed doors. I would suggest that it would be valuable for more of this analysis to take place in the public eye, hence my posts here and elsewhere.

    Second, what was actually present at those events is a matter of opinion. Your reading of those events goes very much against what Tunstall wrote. Personally, I cannot for the life of me see what kind of inquiry and collaboration is involved in the first example, since the children are clearly not inquiring into anything nor do they have any say in what’s going on, which is surely a key part of genuine collaboration. Same with the third example. And with the second example, well, if you’d like to live in a society that worked like an orchestra, that’s your choice, but I certainly wouldn’t.

  3. To continue on from what I wrote before:

    I in turn am fascinated at your interpretations of these events. I am simply rephrasing what Tunstall describes. She twice uses the phrase “over and over and over” – the third “over” is surely no accident, and conveys the repetitive (i.e. mechanical) nature of the learning. She uses the words “ruthless” and “cannot be resisted,” and the teacher is the only person in the story who has any agency – the children are under her control and that of the irresistible beat. That is an authoritarian learning environment. I don’t see my interpretation as that of a cynical outlier, but as simply reading what’s on the page. It may be that there is more going on than just mechanical and authoritarian learning, but to claim that the scene does not show mechanical and authoritarian learning seems quite perverse to me. I can buy the idea that there was also joy present – authoritarianism and pleasure can easily coexist – but to describe playing a scale over and over and over again as “aesthetically satisfying” and “a marvel of artistic inquiry and collaborative endeavor” seems like a considerable contortion, and one that appears to rest on a prior conviction that everything El Sistema does is marvelous rather than the open-mindedness you advocate for.

    Then there’s the Ascanio example. Here it is again: “José Antonio [Abreu] was obsessed with working on the sheer beauty of the orchestra’s sound. In rehearsals, he would say, ‘I want this sound!’ And they would play the same passage over and over and over, trying to get at what he wanted, until he would finally say, ‘That’s it! That’s the sound!’” What Ascanio says is as clear as day: he says that Abreu knew what sound he wanted and made the orchestra keep playing until they achieved his ideal. Again, it may be that the musicians enjoyed the process, or it may not (you can be quite sure that anyone who disagreed with Ascanio wouldn’t have been let anywhere near Tunstall), but it seems to require a considerable contortion to interpret this vignette as “a group of artists seeking the elusive quality of an orchestra’s sound together, with a good leader that they needed on the podium guiding the inquiry.” Where is the communal inquiry you identify?

    It may be that in all these cases Tunstall did not record accurately what took place or was said, though I doubt it – one thing she is not is a bad writer. If her descriptions are accurate, then there is a considerable gulf between what she says and how you interpret it, which takes me back to my original post and the issue of researching El Sistema. The authoritarianism in these three examples is plainly visible, and if people refuse to see it, then it is very much a case of the emperor’s new clothes (not my phrase, as I made clear above, but that of a couple of well-known Venezuelan musicians).

    You attribute my critical attitude to cynicism and preconceptions. Nothing could be further from the truth. I went to Venezuela as positive about El Sistema as you are. If I now think it could be improved, that is because I spent more than a year observing it up close, and backing up my observations with intensive reading. In other words, my critical attitude is the result precisely of putting my preconceptions aside.

    There is one sense in which we are talking at cross purposes. You write that “these are early days for conversation about research” and that “most sites are still working on program evaluation and are only beginning to find time in their busy days to have first thoughts about research.” This is very true with regard to non-Venezuelan Sistema programs, but I am not writing about them: I am writing about El Sistema, a program that has been going for 37 years. The reasons for the lack of research on El Sistema may be complex, but lack of time is not one of them.

  4. Mr. Baker,

    Since your recent blog refers to several parts of my book Changing Lives in a way that significantly misrepresents my meaning, I feel it’s important for me to respond.

    Your general point seems to be that my descriptions of El Sistema in Venezuela portray an authoritarian kind of pedagogy that has been discredited by modern research in music education. While Changing Lives was not written with the goal of looking at El Sistema pedagogy through the lens of current research findings in music education, I think that is a worthy area of inquiry.

    However, I think there is a distinction to be made between music education in general and orchestral development in particular. The vignettes from my book that you have chosen to criticize involve not general music education, but the creation and development of orchestral ensembles devoted to performing symphonic music. Because such ensembles are engaged in pursuing mastery of complex musical works, they tend to require both clear leadership and technical rigor, more than would a music education classroom.

    I have not attempted to argue that El Sistema rehearsals are exemplars of modern music education theories. The gist of my message about El Sistema is that even within the constraints of orchestral practice, children experience a good deal of collaborative learning – in addition to intense and joyful engagement with the music they play.

    To be specific: regarding the episode about an El Sistema teacher leading string sectional in repeating the D scale, you maintain that the episode represents “authoritarian, mechanical learning” and “antiquated pedagogy.” I think this would be surprising news to any teacher or conductor of orchestral groups, especially involving children; having orchestral students play scales together continues to be a virtually universal as a way of warming up and coming into tune with one another.

    You describe this vignette as being “about obeying authority.” No: the vignette is about how an orchestra teacher deeply and affirmatively engaged with her students can turn a necessary exercise like a repeated scale into a spirited, participatory act of “play” in both senses. The students in this session clearly relished their teacher’s positive energy. With each repetition of the scale, they grew more excited and engaged. During breaks (which the “authoritarian” teacher allowed frequently), many kids kept practicing the D scale, as if it had caught their imagination in some compelling way. These are aspects of the rehearsal, as I reported it, that you did not mention.

    You quote my use of the word “ruthless” to imply that the teacher is a dictatorial despot. But the sentence from which you pulled this word reads as follows: “The teacher is as ruthless as any symphony conductor about their entrances and cutoffs being exactly, precisely together.”

    That sentence is not about dictatorship; it is about rigor in the quest for excellence in musical ensemble. I am inclined to doubt that “the progressive movements in music education in the 70s” to which you refer have discovered paths to ensemble excellence that do not involve clear orchestral leadership and meticulous repetition to make sure that entrances and cutoffs are exactly, precisely together.

    Regarding your second point: I quote the Simon Bolivar concertmaster, Alejandro, as saying that “the way you behave in an orchestra is the perfect way to behave in society.” As you interpret this, the concertmaster means that things are fine for him, but for the rest of the orchestra, “the way to behave is to shut up and do what the boss tells you to do.”

    That is, lamentably, the behavioral norm in some professional orchestras. But it is very far removed from the context and meaning of Alejandro’s words. Let me note just a few of Alejandro’s further comments that you did not choose to include.
    “When you are part of the Sistema, the feeling is not ‘Oh, that’s your problem, you go take care of it.’ No – if you have a problem, it’s everyone’s problem.”
    “For us, music is never solitary…We play together from the beginning, and we learn together.”

    That, Mr. Baker, is what Alejandro means by “the perfect way to behave in society” – not, as you cynically suggest, that he’s simply delighted to be the most important person in the violin section.

    Finally, you cite my description of the way Maestro Abreu led the first Simon Bolivar orchestra, 35 years ago – in particular, his quest for an orchestral sound. You say that this belies my assertions about the collaborative nature of the Sistema, because the orchestra members were simply “submitting to someone else’s authority” and working to achieve his goal.

    It’s certainly true that the orchestra members were working to achieve Abreu’s sonic image – exactly as members of orchestras everywhere work toward the musical goals of their conductors. An orchestra is not a direct democracy.

    And yet even within the restraints imposed by orchestral structure, that first orchestra was collaborative in many ways. You neglected to mention my description of how they rehearsed for hours every day without Maestro Abreu (because he worked full-time during the day), teaching and learning from one another. There was, in that ensemble, a practice of peer learning and a spirit of collaborative endeavor that is rare in orchestras or in learning cultures of any kind. Many of the founding members told me that in those early days, their enterprise was widely scorned by the classical music establishment and conservatories of Venezuela, precisely because of its collaborative aspect.

    That spirit of interdependent playing and striving continues to distinguish the learning culture of El Sistema today, and is the reason, I believe, that its youth orchestras play with such infectious joy.

    Scholarly inquiry was not my purpose in writing Changing Lives. I wrote as an act of tribute to the extraordinary vision and achievements of El Sistema. But there is certainly the potential for fruitful, constructive scholarly inquiry here. As the voices of scholars join those of practitioners, we will all learn more about the intersection between rigor and freedom upon which every truly creative act of teaching and learning depends.

    I must reiterate: El Sistema’s youth orchestras are not models of modern music education, nor are they meant to be. But they are exemplars of how orchestral learning can be invigorated by the spirit of positive energy and contributive connection to produce virtuosic and joyful ensembles.

    Tricia Tunstall

  5. Tricia,

    Thank you for your full response, which is very thought-provoking. It is very interesting that you underline the gap between El Sistema and modern music education theories – one of my main points. You also allude to “the constraints of orchestral practice,” which you identify as things like the need for rigorous leadership, the submission of the members to the vision of their leader, and the resulting lack of democracy.

    You finish with the strong statement: “El Sistema’s youth orchestras are not models of modern music education, nor are they meant to be. But they are exemplars of how orchestral learning can be invigorated by the spirit of positive energy and contributive connection to produce virtuosic and joyful ensembles.”

    So, if El Sistema’s orchestral practice (a) has inbuilt constraints, particularly with regard to democracy, and (b) is far from modern music education theories, then why would anyone want to take it as a model for music education in other countries in 2012?

    I can understand the view that if you already have an orchestral system, then to reshape it along El Sistema’s lines would “invigorate” it. (I don’t agree with it, but I can understand it). But I cannot understand why, if you were starting from a blank slate, wanting to create a program for music education and social justice, you would deliberately choose an option that has inbuilt constraints and diverges from progressive ideas about music education. That would be a clear case of putting the music first and the social second, which is precisely what El Sistema programs are not supposed to be doing.

    You write: “And yet even within the restraints imposed by orchestral structure, that first orchestra was collaborative in many ways.” Why choose a structure that militates against collaboration and then try to overcome that hurdle, rather than choose a structure that actually promotes collaboration? There are all kinds of alternatives out there…

    I think it’s wonderful that El Sistema has put the idea of music education as social action on many more people’s agenda, but it’s not the only model around. Is it not possible that the aim is brilliant but the means of getting there actually flawed in some ways and inefficient?

    I think you are right to doubt that progressive educationalists have found many ways to ensemble excellence that do not involve clear leadership and meticulous repetition – which is precisely why a number have questioned the whole idea of using large ensembles (orchestras, bands) as the central element of music education. However, there are a small number of professional orchestras that have attempted to address these kinds of issues and that could serve as interesting models.

    Orchestras are hierarchical, authoritarian structures, unless specific measures are taken to counteract these features (Benjamin Zander is quite interesting on this topic). In Sistema orchestras, as in most orchestras, the back desk of the second violins is not consulted on organizational or artistic matters, but has to do what the section leader and conductor tell them. They may be happy with this, they may even enjoy it, or they may not. But to suggest that this is “the perfect way to behave in society” is much more contentious than you make out, since – as you also admit – it is not a democratic form of social organization.

    The meaning of Alejandro’s words are a matter for debate – there is no right or wrong interpretation per se. He is one of El Sistema’s prime official spokesmen, so you would expect him to be absolutely on message. The question is what really goes on in the orchestras, which is one of the things that I was researching in Venezuela.

    You quite fairly point out that scholarly inquiry was not your purpose in your book. My post was aimed primarily at those for whom scholarly inquiry is part of their purpose, or at least part of their interest, and I believe that there are several issues that your book raises that could be starting points for further debate. You cannot be criticized for not doing something that you didn’t set out to do, but those of us who are interested in a more scholarly approach may want to take your material and run with it.

    • Geoffrey,

      Thanks for your response. A few thoughts:

      About the orchestra model as a learning culture: You write that orchestras are “hierarchical, authoritarian” structures. But hierarchical does not necessarily mean authoritarian. The fact that an orchestra has a leader and is not a direct democracy doesn’t negate its usefulness as a structure for social change; as used in El Sistema, the deeply inter-connective structure of orchestra provides children with the opportunity to feel they are valuable and skillful contributing members of a larger whole.

      Alejandro Carreno expressed this idea clearly, and I can’t see how his words are “a matter for debate.” As with any interviewee, I think it’s only fair to assume that Alejandro’s words mean what they say.

      In answer to your question: If it has these constraints, then why choose it? First, every artistic or pedagogical model has “inbuilt constraints” of some kind; there is no choosing a model without constraints. Second, the orchestral model as practiced by El Sistema offers some very compelling reasons to choose it: it can include large numbers of children; it fosters peer learning and mentor learning; and, not least, it offers children the experience of participating in the creation of works of surpassing beauty.

      It’s true that El Sistema is not the only model around. But it is the model that has captured imaginations and inspired passionate activism among musicians and educators across the world, and spurred an international movement for social change through music on a scale we’ve never scene before – de facto proof, I think, of the power of its vision and mission.

      That said, there is certainly a need for research and evaluation. The emergence of the new Sistema Research group, dedicated to pursuing evaluation and research and to sharing it internationally, is great news. I’ll welcome the results of objective scholarly research about El Sistema, and will be pleased if my book has a part in spurring this important work.

  6. Thank you for your points, which are well made.

    Non-democratic structures of social change have been pretty widely critiqued in the development literature. They were commonplace in the past, but today most development projects would aim to give more space to the opinions of those being changed and less to those of the changing institution.

    As for the orchestra, children may be part of a larger whole, but they have no say in the nature or direction of that larger whole, but are rather expected to bow to the authority of those above them in the hierarchy – which is by definition authoritarianism, even if it may sometimes be benevolent.

    Of course Alejandro’s words are a matter for debate, on many levels, as are anyone’s words. If a politician gave a speech, we wouldn’t think twice about analyzing it in terms of layers of meaning, hidden or unconscious messages, intended outcomes, and so on. Reading between the lines is a crucial part of grasping meaning. People’s words often reveal far more than their conscious intentions, and the meaning of these particular words is not limited to what you think he was trying to say. I am quite sure that Alejandro did not MEAN to say that he approved of a hierarchical, authoritarian society, but that doesn’t make his words “the way you behave in an orchestra is the perfect way to behave in society” any less problematic.

    I agree that every artistic or pedagogical model has inbuilt constraints of some kind and that there is no silver bullet. But looking at the literature on music education, it becomes clear that some kinds of models have more constraints than others, and that projects that start out with the intention of minimizing those constraints – something that El Sistema did not do, since it started out as an orchestral training program – may offer greater advantages if we are interested in putting the social first.

    I agree even more with your statement about El Sistema as capturing imaginations and inspiring a renewed movement for social change through music. It’s a reason to be grateful that El Sistema exists – but that does not mean that those who feel inspired need to copy what El Sistema actually does. It could also inspire people to think more deeply about the idea of music and social action and to go much further than El Sistema.

    Like you, I welcome the new wave of interest in research and evaluation. As others on the Sistema Research group have noted, this research needs to be multi-faceted, and qualitative as well as quantitative – which means looking into contentious issues of culture, power, ideology, politics, and so on, which in turn means more debates like this.

  7. People involved with the US el sistema movement are generally very passionate about the difference music education can make in the lives of children who live in impoverished or underserved communities. This is exactly what is missing in many, certainly not all, music education programs in typical school situations. The undeniable proof of the value to society in Venezuela’s music program will be difficult to duplicate here in the US. Still, we shall give it our level best. I’m one teacher who pushes the limits on what children can learn everyday—musically. I don’t know how we can measure in the short term the social impact that we are striving to achieve or how to prove these as valid outcomes to potential contributors and funders of our programs. What measures are being used to measure what? Do the children feel better about themselves? Do they come to school more often? Are their test scores going up at school? Do their families become engaged in making a difference in their local program or in the community? Is there some kind of psychological assessment that show progress in children who have very difficult time with anger, anxiety, feelings of self worth, etc? These would all be useful. At some level, I’m not sure I care as much about some of this. I know I don’t have the skills or training to correct these problems. I DO know of many children who have extraordinary music aptitude and yet suffer in many of the academic and social skills they need to be successful at school.

    My role as a music teacher, not so much as a community activist, is to help children gain the skills and knowledge to be stellar musicians. From their having gained superior levels of achievement, I can only hope that they learn to feel special for how talented they are, and how their hard work over time provides them with exceptional value in life. I also hope and feel that music provides something unique in terms of expression, and breath, and life, and some access to dimensions of life that are difficult to experience or understand in the absence of a music education program.

    The research I’m interested in doing (and have begun) is in how children best learn to understand harmonic functions, or develop the capacity to be creative—not to simply to train them to imitate or play the notes on the page. The latter leads to musically unsatisfying performances, out of tune, stylistically drab, and sometimes emotionally barren. I want musicians of every kind: composers, improvisors, performers, listeners; and in every style, not just classical.

    The value of our work canNOT be measured in the short term, though it will be, and it is an open question as to whether the social impact will be as promising as that seen in Venezuela. To consider the gargantuan challenge to programs in the US and to dwell in the void is daunting indeed. How we persevere in spite of our particular circumstances will indeed be a true test of our commitment to make a difference.

  8. Geoff,
    Thank you for a challenging, critical, and unromanticized post. Jonathan Govias and I have spoken of “self and group efficacy” and I think it is a valid point. However, I certainly think it can be accomplished through El Sistema programs.

    I had a conversation with Juan Palacios (nucleo director who produced the doublebass player for the Berlin Philharmonic) in San Diego who told me how different his nucleo was which I alluded to briefly on my blog post:, but I do think one must be careful what they say publicly, especially online. Even so, I appreciate the question being brought up.

    i ask you how you think nucleos SHOULD be conducted to incorporate the questions you just raised and what you like so much about El Sistema that you are a supporter. I also am curious as to what other models you mention that are out there using music to evoke social agency. Of course, there are other programs out there before El Sistema came to the US (Harmony Project and Community Music Works to name two), but another model that has been globally spread, I know not. Are you proposing we should look at other models to spread and if so, which?

    As far as the orchestra being a model of society, I have asked multiple people why music and not a soccer team (as the example seems to be) and someone mentioned there is no bench in an orchestra. My high school choir director always told us we all had an important role to play and the person on the end of the row was by no means the weakest member, in fact, they had to have a strong ear to be placed there. Perhaps, it is this idea of everyone having a role in society, regardless of where he/she is in the ensemble row or in life how “high up or low down” totem pole one is, to which the the quote refers (I am only speculating). Unfortunately, it is unideal, to strive for an egalitarian society where everyone truly is equal; I believe we fought a whole war to evade communism, right or wrong aside.

    Again, thank you for your view. It is through challenge that we grow and learn, in a respectful way of course.

    Sara Zanussi (Sistema Fellow ’13)

  9. Sara, thank you for your thoughtful post. I’m going to have to half duck the first question, because to answer it would require a whole essay that I just don’t have time to write at the moment (I will at some point). But I think that anyone who sees themselves as advocating for music and social justice (as opposed simply for El Sistema) ought to do some research into the range of alternatives, which include programs or ideas for programs based on jazz, free jazz, popular music, traditional music, a mix of classical music with some of the above, etc. The information is out there, and it’s not that hard to find. We shouldn’t assume that El Sistema is the best just because it’s the biggest.

    Venezuelan orchestras do have a bench – it’s called “practice level.” There are various ways in which students who do not fulfil musical or disciplinary norms may be excluded.

    You are entitled to your opinion on egalitarianism and communism. My interest is primarily in underlining that the conventional symphony orchestra encodes and reproduces particular social and political values and should not therefore be seen as neutral.

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