The AHRC Report and In Harmony Sistema England

[15/05/2016] Tricia Tunstall posted a link to a text that rebutted Ivan Hewett’s Telegraph article about the recently released report “Understanding the value of arts & culture: The AHRC Cultural Value Project.” The author of the text (presumably Tunstall, though it is not signed) argued that Hewett’s take on this major report was one-sided and profoundly flawed. If one agrees with this argument – and I broadly do – then it illustrates a point that I’ve been making for some time: that culture journalists in general, and Ivan Hewett in particular, need to be treated with caution when they move outside their comfort zone and write about complex issues in which they may have little expertise, such as music education, Latin American society, and social action through music.

As I’ve argued before on this blog, Hewett’s take on El Sistema is no better, and like Mark Swed and Jim Oestrich, he is out of his depth when it comes to grasping the intricacies of what’s going on in Venezuela. Perhaps one should be sympathetic: after all, journalism is a beleaguered profession, and cultural journalism is pretty far down the list of priorities for scarce resources. Culture journalists rarely have time, therefore, to go into a story deeply, or indeed do much more than regurgitate press releases. Unless they have particular knowledge of a topic, or a particular feel for it, they may miss the target as they fire off a hard-hitting piece on the basis of a quick skim-read. There are positive exceptions – I’ve dealt with some really good journalists over the last 18 months, in at least half-a-dozen countries – but as a general rule, journalism on El Sistema should be treated with caution. So hopefully we can agree that journalistic reviews of my book by this trio should be consigned to the dustbin along with the Telegraph article, leaving the field clear for independent expert assessments – of which there are many, all of them very positive. (Two recent examples are review-essays by professors Randall Everett Allsup and Samuel Araujo.)


I absolutely endorse the author’s recommendation to go beyond Hewett’s article and explore the report itself, not least because one of the sub-projects on which the report draws focused on a Sistema-inspired program, In Harmony Sistema England. (This is a point that the text strangely overlooks – or perhaps not so strangely, if you carry on reading.) Indeed, serious students of Sistema should seek out the report behind the report, “Understanding the Cultural Value of In Harmony-Sistema England,” published nearly two years ago, also by the AHRC, and authored by three academics at the University of East Anglia, Mark Rimmer, John Street, and Tom Phillips.

To dive straight into this Sistema report, one key conclusion relates to family support:

One theme to emerge with some consistency amongst the children who spoke positively about their experiences of musical activity in IHSE was the importance of parental validation and the ability (built into projects to varying degrees) for children to take their instruments home. Indeed, parental interest in and support for children’s musical instrument learning seemed to function like something of a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for children’s expressed valuing of their IHSE participation. (26)

By way of counterexample, in many of the cases where children demonstrated a relative lack of interest in their instrument learning, when asked to describe how parents felt about their music learning they either had little to relate or else told us how their parents had, for example, said “Nothing” (Boy, Year 5). (27)

A second key theme concerns commitment to school:

For a significant number of those children who expressed broadly positive attitudes towards their IHSE participation, something of an adult-oriented (i.e., seeing value primarily in activities validated by adults) and school-committed attitude could be discerned. […] In this way, many children described their relationship with IHSE initiatives in ways which echoed their broader stances in relationship to school.

Correspondingly, this often meant that students who viewed school and scholastic endeavour as rewarding and valuable tended to transfer this attitude onto their IHSE ‘classes’.

While this virtuous cycle and the different elements which fed into it (home/parental validation, school-commitment, aspirational outlook), led to a positive responses to IHSE for some children, for other, less school-committed children, it could mean that IHSE participation was not seen as either intrinsically motivating or rewarding. (31-2)

In sum, those who had parental support and showed commitment to school tended to be more positive about IHSE, while children who were less supported or committed to school were more likely to be left cold by it. The postulation of a “virtuous cycle” for the most supported/committed children begs the question of whether IHSE may actually contribute to, or at the very least fail to disturb, a vicious cycle for the least supported/committed. It is not hard to see how IHSE might just provide another opportunity for successful children to succeed further, and for failing children to fail again. A logical question for a follow-up study would be: by providing another arena in which children who like school and have supportive parents can thrive, does Sistema actually exacerbate social divisions?

After all, the report notes further down:

What also emerged however – again echoing the findings emerging from our discussions with children – was the fact that higher levels of parental engagement and support were only forthcoming from certain sections of the community:
“I get the impression, certainly the people I see, it’s always the same faces actually you know, the people who’ll be coming in to pick them up at the end of an ensemble session and it’s always the same group of parents” (IHSE Musician) (48)

This certainly appears to indicate the reproduction of a social division. Whether or not this is the case, the portrait painted raises serious questions for a program that hinges on claims of social inclusion, in other words, of reaching out particularly to the most disadvantaged, disconnected, and disaffected. According to the report, this constituency actually appears the least likely to respond to IHSE (along with those who are particularly passionate about music… see below).

Other findings are only striking because of the contrast they provide with the utopianism of so much Sistema discourse, and even of official evaluations. So we read about children complaining about the physical challenges of playing instruments (33); a sense of obligation pervading many children’s accounts (34); and beneath all the talk of passion and excitement, a fair proportion of the kids seeming bored or uncomfortable (35). This (very normal) picture finds a close echo in Nicolas Dobson’s detailed insider’s account of a Sistema-inspired program, yet is very much a rarity in a field overwhelmingly dominated by advocacy.

Another notable finding is that on the whole, adults valued the project more highly than the children/participants did (42). This is well worth remembering, given how much of the Sistema literature to date has been produced primarily through interviews with and self-reports by project leaders, (head) teachers, funders, and other adult figures of authority (see, for example, this recent self-congratulatory Arts Council blog post). Putting the voices of ordinary participants at the centre, rather than letting higher authorities to speak on their behalf, may reveal quite a different picture, as my own research in Venezuela demonstrated. To put it bluntly, the idea of disciplining children through ensemble music-making seems to appeal more to the adults in charge than to the children themselves – hardly a surprise, one might think.

The tensions between classical and popular music, and the resistance of children who had active musical lives outside of school, are also worth noting:

it was also clear that for some children (and especially the older children who expressed indifference or disdain for their instrument learning activities), the sense in which their participation was generally obliged (something which appeared to be amplified when children were allocated instruments rather than choosing them) was not always especially welcome. Others, in pointing towards what they saw as a limited range of choices and freedoms inherent to their IHSE participation (over things like repertoire, instrument choice, duration of learning sessions, performances), often set this in contrast to the way in which they approached popular music-related activities. Indeed, when children expressed notably avid engagements with popular music forms and associated activities (of the sort detailed earlier), this tended to be accompanied by generally less positive attitudes towards IHSE activities (35)

This finding appears to fall into step with previous research findings which have highlighted how some students feel estranged in music education when there is an emphasis on the established Western canon (Shepherd and Vulliamy, 1994; Vulliamy, 1977). Related, we feel, is the fact that when prompted to describe the kind of music with which they were engaging in their IHSE projects, children often used terms which appeared both to set it apart from popular music forms and frame it in terms of an absence or lack (e.g., “just instrumental”, “just music”, “just like music with instruments”). This perception of IHSE music as characterised by relative ‘lack’, when compared to popular music, was especially noted by children who expressed high levels of interest in the visual, symbolic and lyrical components of popular music. Yet the group of children who expressed perhaps the lowest levels of interest in their IHSE music learning were those who detailed relatively active home musical lives, but of a sort centred on popular genres. (36)

The authors’ language is cautious, but such findings, summed up in phrases like “the nature of the initiative’s cultural dimensions (as well as the associations of these) presented certain challenges in terms of sustaining children’s engagement,” raise, for the thousandth time, the question: why classical music?

I’m a classical musician, I like classical music, and I think that children should have the opportunity to learn classical music. But I also think that a program like IHSE should be able to provide a strong argument for using music that presents “challenges in terms of sustaining children’s engagement,” particularly if that faltering engagement is displayed disproportionately by children who are supposedly the program’s primary beneficiaries. I’m sure such an argument could be made – I have some musicologist friends who could make it – but what I hear from Sistema are usually weak arguments or no argument at all.

Many of the findings of the study are highly foreseeable, as the authors note above. For example, the fact that the value that children derived from their participation correlated with “cultural fit” – that is, the fit “between the valued-dimensions, practices and characteristics of children’s out-of-school and pre-existing musical environments and those prioritised within IHSE” – is entirely predictable to anyone with a passing knowledge of the sociology of education. Viewed through the lens of this report, the program itself – an “extremely expensive initiative,” according to the review of Music Education in England carried out by Darren Henley in 2011 – appears not only to be having rather mixed results, but also to have been designed with little reference to decades of research on (music) education, depending instead on a bedazzlement by a superficially understood Venezuelan Sistema and a mistaken assumption about its social efficacy, which – it has subsequently and inconveniently emerged – has never actually been demonstrated.