Spot the difference

An interesting aspect of researching El Sistema is observing how people alight on and analyze differences or similarities between the program and music education in other countries. Advocates tend to focus on differences, while the critically minded are often struck by similarities. I began my research with an open mind: wearing my professional hat, I was an agnostic, though on a more personal level, on the basis of everything I’d read and seen about the program in advance, I was a fan. Still, I remember that some of my earliest first-hand exposure to El Sistema took place in the company of a group of music students from the U.S., and while everyone enjoyed their visits to Venezuelan núcleos, conversation returned several times to a slight but nagging perplexity over the lack of clear differences between what we witnessed and what we knew from back home.

That memory came back to me recently when I saw coverage of two events: El Sistema’s flute competition, and the U.K.’s Young Musician of the Year. I’ve long thought that competitions reveal some of the least appealing faces of classical music, so I am interested to see this practice has been translated to El Sistema.

In the press release about the flute competition, we read about an elimination round, during which 45 flautists were rejected and just 5 continued. Of those, 2 were chosen as winners. So the competition produced 2 winners and 48 losers. The winners received monetary prizes and recital opportunities; the losers, nothing.

An interesting detail: both winners had left their hometowns for the capital in order to further their musical careers.

None of this would be in the slightest bit remarkable in the U.K. or many other contexts, but it took place within a music program that is supposedly constructed on the principle of social inclusion and revolutionizing music education. I’m interested to know how competition and elimination contribute to the cause of social inclusion. I also wonder how concentrating benefits on a tiny percentage of the most talented, not the most needy, fits with this ideal. (As the principal flute of the OSSB, winner Katherine Rivas is already one of Venezuela’s best-paid classical musicians.) And then there is the added detail: is provoking a “talent drain” from provincial towns to Caracas the most effective way of promoting positive social change across Venezuela?

No doubt there are aspects to this story that did not make it into the Fundamusical press release. But from what I can see, it’s pretty hard to spot the difference between El Sistema’s flute competition and YMOTY.

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