“The music book of our times”

[01/03/2016] The journal Music Education Research began its January 2016 issue with the following introduction:

Geoffrey Baker’s book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, has raised controversy as few other books regarding music education. Politics, money and culture in music, and music education, are among the issues explored in the book, generating multi-national conversations. As El Sistema and El Sistema-inspired programs are a global phenomenon, and in recognition of this book’s impact among music education scholars, two reviews were commissioned, representing both North American and European perspectives.

First ‘The Enchanted Empire: An Essay Review of El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth by Geoffrey Baker’ is presented as a Review Essay by Randall E. Allsup based in the USA. Following this we include Cambridge-based student Stephen Fairbanks’ thoughts on the influential title.

Very happy to see both these reviews in print.

Allsup’s fascinating review essay “The Enchanted Empire” follows. Those with institutional access to the journal can find the original (with footnotes) here.

The enchanted empire: an essay review of El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth by Geoffrey Baker

          The ‘victims of magic’, I think you’ll agree, are those who change their mind because they are under the spell of pleasure or fear. (Socrates)

          It seems to me that everything that deceives does so by casting a spell. (Glaucon)

In Book 3 of The Republic, Plato’s Socrates and his merry band of interlocutors are found discussing the means by which an education in music can shape society as well as one’s soul. Just like modern-day curriculum mappers, Socrates, Adeimantus, and Glaucon put the culture of their day up for examination: Should we include song lyrics in our lessons to the young? (yes, but no more lamentations); harmonic modes? (syntono-lydian, maybe); rhythm? (regular meter, at a moderate tempo). Erring always on the side of caution, they make a distinction between simple music and simple-minded music. They know, like we know today, that music has a way of shaping who we are, and that the very music we shape, shapes us in return. They also know that teachers are the republic’s guardians – of taste, culture, and history.

As an experiment, I read Geoffrey Baker’s El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth alongside Plato’s Republic and Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? In these books, one encounters the certainty that a better society, redesigned through art, must be lovingly constructed through the will of a strong and caring leader, from a person who knows the difference between real art and its counterfeits. In Baker’s ethnography we meet such a personage, un caudillo extraordinario, José Antonio Abreu, the founder and ‘orchestrator’ of El Sistema. Abreu has emerged as the global spokesman for an education in music, speaking of its transformational possibilities through the language of social justice. He reminds me, as with Plato and Tolstoy, that there is a very small line between the music teacher as nanny, activist, and reactionary.

This claim is related to contemporary debate around the republic-building-through-orchestra-education-poverty-rescue-programme called El Sistema, a phenomenon qua discourse that uses orchestral training as an explicit method for the transformation of body, mind, and soul. Baker set out to examine whether, how much, and to what extent El Sistema is ‘a particularly effective vehicle for positive personal and social transformation’. If you’re a music educator, you will know that Venezuela has provided the world with a new a model for formal music education, one that has inextricably linked social welfare with training in music. You will also know that the violin is its means and its end, ‘a social right, a right for all the people’, leading ‘to frequent media descriptions of the musicians as ‘playing for their lives’.

Baker started his research on how El Sistema aligned with its social mission. But he senses its enchantment. ‘I arrived in Venezuela with my heart full of the programme’s amazing sights and sounds; but during a year of research, I tried to use my head’. This struggle, between heart and head, is a major theme of Baker’s book. It is also a traditional aesthetic battle. But there is a parallel struggle as well, one between hope and fear, a struggle that any arts advocate is likewise caught up in.

Baker (like Plato’s Socrates) wants us to consider whether we are victims of magical thinking, spellbound by our fear of classical music’s demise and the genuine conviction that the pleasures of music are unforsakeable.

Plato and Jose Antonio Abreu are not the only philosopher kings to examine the role that music plays in shaping a good and just society. Tolstoy was likewise an arts nanny, social justice activist, and aesthetic reactionary. Sounding a lot like Abreu, Tolstoy suggests that when people

live lacking the fertilizing, improving, influence of art, [they] therefore not only do not advance toward perfection, do not become kinder, but on the contrary … they yet tend to become continually more savage, more course, more cruel.

Interestingly, in contrast to Abreu, Tolstoy was anti-elitist, preferring (like Plato) the simple over the simpleminded and the sincere over the artificial. In fact, Tolstoy was an enemy of magical thinking. ‘Occupying in society the role of the amusers of the rich,’ classical musicians were too often dehumanised by their training and thus denied the fortifying affects of ‘real’ art.

It is yet more terrible to reflect that lively, kindly, children capable of all that is good, are devoted from their early years to such tasks as these: that for six, eight, or ten hours a day, and for ten or fifteen years, some of them should play scales and exercises; others should twist their limbs … a third set should sing solfeggios … they should waste their physical and mental strength, and lose all perception of the meaning of life.

What? Doesn’t Tolstoy realise that these children, otherwise assumed criminals and all around ragamuffins, are safely off the street? In Abreu’s account, his orchestra members find salvation in music. In music! ‘For the children that we work with, music is practically the only way to a dignified social destiny.’ We are ‘rescuing children and young people from an empty, disoriented, and deviant youth’. Baker documents over and again the insufferable language of paternalistic social justice, as when Abreu ends his infamous TED Talk with this flourish.

From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor. He becomes a child in progress, heading for a professional level, who will later become a full citizen. Needless to say that music is the number one prevention against prostitution, violence, bad habits, and everything degrading …

I shared Abreu’s video with graduate students in my philosophy class this summer. Otherwise critical and careful thinkers, students who are more inclined to deconstruct than support a writer’s argument, fell under a strange form of enchantment that I had not hitherto seen. At the conclusion of the video, some students were softly weeping. Others pointed with pride to the power of music to change lives. Ways of speaking I had not heard before, these children, those children, awakened a class/race division that was previously inert or strategically hidden (or both). What was in the secret sauce? How did Mr. Abreu make this wonder happen? ‘This is why I teach music.’ When a critique emerged, coming mainly from the students of colour, defenders of El Sistema felt attacked for their beliefs. In the struggle between the heart and head (can music really prevent prostitution and everything degrading?) a rational argument is seen as unlovely, or unloving.

Music critics, those whose jobs depend upon the mysteries of classical music, have treated Baker like a badly behaved boy at a birthday party. A critic from the New York Times felt ‘oppressed’ that Baker’s research describes El Sistema in ways that are socially unjust, being unable to ‘recognise’ the possibility that orchestral training can be ‘joyless’ and ‘alienating’. Another went to greater levels of distortion, suggesting that even if rehearsals were as dehumanising as Baker (and Tolstoy) suggest, such practices are good life lessons for these children. ‘The cost of Abreu’s emphasis on excellence,’ writes Mark Swed, ‘may put a premium on dedication over creativity as an early-childhood group activity, but that too is an education in citizenship’. It is good to be reminded that every time you are yelled at or humiliated in music school, it is preparation for the real world.

There are many reasons to read Baker’s account of El Sistema, and I have only focused on one theme. But, rarely has a book so clearly exposed our secrets. I have argued elsewhere that ‘fear’ is a strangely under-researched aspect of professional music study, especially given how much fear controls what we do. Fear of the loss of our tradition, fear of performing, fear of our teachers, the use of fear to instil discipline, fear that we are not sufficiently ‘musical’ (the list goes on). At the same time, aesthetic notions like the sublime, transcendence, and beauty have been effectively banished from contemporary philosophical discourse in music education circles. Under the spell of pleasure and fear, and in a scholarly environment where such topics are foreclosed or hidden, a fog of enchantment descends upon us and the contradictions multiply. Hucksters like Abreu – our modern day Harold Hill – tell us what we want to hear, playing on these twin emotions. Music saves lives; society can remade through art; music makes us less savage; the poor and disenfranchised can be elevated through quality art; music teachers matter (the list goes on).

These are cheap sentiments. But not because I don’t believe them. Like Tolstoy, I do think society can be made better through a quality music education. Rather, these sentiments are cheap because Abreu and the supporters of El Sistema – as documented by Baker – profit by strategically confusing our hearts and our heads; they have built an empire on enchantment. Still, there is a case for music in the schools, but its justifications are too complex and too equivocal for most trustees, politicians, policy-makers, critics, and administrators to accept. Music is more perilous than so-called ‘praxial theory’ allows. More culturally-bound than a theory of the sublime affords. Music makes us smarter … somehow. Access, study, and performance are related to class and power. There are practices, methods, and genres at once elevate, and at another moment they destroy. Advocacy is a short-term strategy. I wonder if Baker knew what he was walking into. Whether he did or whether he did not, he has written the music book of our times. Baker has started a conversation that we need to have – yes, with our heart and with our heads.