The Simón Bolívar orchestra hits a bum note; and a neuroscientist is led astray

[06/06/2016] The press coverage of El Sistema is generally so compliant, even fawning, thanks to the bombardment of eulogistic stories from El Sistema’s hyperactive press office and its international representatives like Sistema Global and the Tunstall-Booth corporation, that it comes as a real shock when a journalist sounds a dissonant note. That’s what Iván Martínez did recently in a review of a Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra concert in the cultural supplement of Mexico’s El Universal newspaper. He broke two taboos: he criticized the quality of the music-making, and he talked politics. Spanish-readers can simply read the article for themselves, but for the benefit of others, here’s a summary.

Martínez claimed that Mexico’s Auditorio Nacional was more than half empty, perhaps suggesting that without Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra is less of a draw. (Diego Matheuz, a conductor with a less stellar reputation, was in charge.) Martínez was unimpressed with the quality of both the composition and the performance of the opening piece, the Sistema warhorse Suite Margariteña by Inocente Carreño. His response to Sinfonía India by Carlos Chávez was slightly warmer, and he singled out the woodwinds for praise, but he was still disturbed by errors in the playing and above all by Matheuz’s conducting. After the interval came a massive but messy, incoherently structured Mahler 1. Martínez accused the conductor of copying the physical gestures of his idols but not their musical thinking, creating a “Frankenstein” version of the symphony.

The crux of the article, though, concerned what the critic saw as a connection between the orchestra’s problematic style – loud, massive, “with grotesque inflections that sound more like a masquerade than a striving for musical grandeur” – and Venezuela’s current political situation.

The orchestra is not a product of Chavism, he was quick to note, but it has dedicated itself to Chavism. “Openly. In the street and, if you listen carefully, in the concert hall.”

If the “Venezuelan musical miracle” narrative rests on the claim that El Sistema is both a musical and a social triumph, Martínez disagreed on both fronts. He suggested that El Sistema didn’t qualify as an artistic or educational project, on the basis of its results, yet it also failed as a social project, given its limited impact on the everyday life of Venezuelans.

His conclusion: the orchestra was “the worst of populism made music.”

Such responses are virtually unheard of in Venezuela, given the treatment dished out to those few music critics who have dared to publish them. Abreu waged a vicious public campaign against the exiled Argentinean theater director Gustavo Tambascio, who wrote a critical review of a concert by the Simón Bolívar orchestra. Javier Sansón published a satirical piece about El Sistema on February 15, 2005, in his column “Música de solfa” in El Universal; he was suspended shortly afterward. A journalist told me: “When X left his job as a music critic for El Nacional, he recommended me to Y [a member of the paper’s culture team] to replace him, and in the interview, Y told me very clearly and upfront that if I were to become a music critic for El Nacional I would never, ever be able to say anything negative about El Sistema, not even in passing . . . about everything else, whatever I wanted.”

Whether or not one agrees with Martínez’s article, it’s refreshing just to see someone break the deadening consensus of writing about El Sistema, particularly since he’s coming from a Latin American perspective.


Talking of deadening consensus, I’ve generally stayed away from reading, much less writing about, the outpourings of the Tunstall-Booth corporation since publishing my book. I haven’t reviewed the last book, though I’ve read it twice (for my sins), and I don’t plan to review the next one, because I think that reviewing a book that you know in advance you cannot be positive about is intellectually and ethically rather problematic. They failed to understand one music education program, so their attempt to grasp 100 programs, spread across 25 different countries, will inevitably be another nail in the coffin of intelligent debate in this area. (Still, with public appetite for simple narratives only increasing, however faulty those narratives may be – Brexit, Trump – no doubt this book will do well.)

I also avoid more than the occasional skim of their newsletters, since their adulation of El Sistema and refusal to face up to any of its glaring problems, while almost heroic in its steadfastness, ends up just being plain annoying. However, I was drawn to reading a recent article, “Developing & Supporting ‘Executive Function,’” because it was by a serious expert: Adele Diamond, a Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Unfortunately – or perhaps unsurprisingly – this article is as problematic as so many others in this publication.

The problem is not the science – who am I to question a professor of neuroscience? – but the characterization of El Sistema to which it is attached, which comes, I strongly suspect, from Tunstall and Booth, or people very much of their ilk.

After a general introduction to executive functions and how to improve them, Diamond gets to the point: “El Sistema-inspired programs provide powerful support for executive functions.” But El Sistema-inspired programs have flourished in all sorts of different forms in different parts of the world – this is something that Sistema practitioners and advocates constantly stress – to the extent that there is little agreement within the field about what Sistema actually is or means. Do ALL these different programs provide powerful support for executive functions? If so, then any music program would – which rather undermines the article’s conclusion, that “no program does a better job of addressing the whole child – mind, heart, and soul – than does El Sistema.”

“There are characteristics of El Sistema that make it likely to be especially beneficial, compared with other arts, athletic or cultural programs.” What is this “El Sistema” of which you speak? Is it the Venezuelan program? Or one of the Sistema-inspired programs, which vary enormously, as stated above? This article rests on the assumption that there is a singular, stable, definable thing called “El Sistema,” with universal and universally agreed characteristics – and anyone who has followed the field with an iota of critical attention will know that this is not the case. (Also, the article switches confusingly between “El Sistema” and “El Sistema-inspired programs,” which are not the same thing at all.)

The article defines three supposed characteristics of El Sistema:

1. “El Sistema’s emphasis on the sheer joy of making music, especially together.”

Joy is not El Sistema’s core characteristic: discipline is. (As always, I’m distinguishing between the Venezuelan program (El Sistema) and the international offshoots (Sistema, or Sistema-inspired), even if the article doesn’t.) Its teaching methods are based around drilling and if necessary bullying children into playing difficult orchestra music correctly. Joy may be a by-product in some cases; in others it definitely is not. The assumption of joy as a Sistema hallmark and constant is simply wrong.

“El Sistema concentrates on building positive feelings like pride and self- confidence; children are encouraged not to worry about making mistakes, but to enjoy the process of music-making. In Abreu’s words, ‘Mistakes are simply what happens on the way to getting things right.’” Again, Professor Diamond appears to be channelling Tunstall and Booth here, and therefore gets it wrong again. I’m not going to repeat the points I’ve made before about Sistema practices like its oppressive “stand-by-stand technique” – anyone interested can follow them up easily enough in my book, or look at Luigi Mazzocchi’s insider’s account. But the picture painted here by Diamond is far from many Venezuelan musicians’ experience. Abreu didn’t keep young musicians rehearsing til 2am in order for them to enjoy the process of music-making; he kept them there until he was happy with the standard of their performance.

Are Sistema-inspired programs different? Some may be, others may not, and many may fall into the murky middle ground described in such detail by Nicolas Dobson, in which joy was talked about by adults more than demonstrated by children.

2. “El Sistema’s emphasis on community.”

El Sistema certainly makes a big emphasis on talking about community, but in practice things are often rather different. Again, I’ve provided more than enough material on this in my book and blog, but I’m also going to be presenting new evidence later this year of the longstanding gulf between what El Sistema says it does and how its musicians actually experience participation in the program. It is, after all, a highly competitive, selective, stratified program: how do competition, weeding-out, and inequality create community spirit? Here’s a member of the Simón Bolívar talking to another researcher – not me – about their experience of the orchestra: “one of my traumas in that institution is the impossibility of becoming part of their society, I’ve always felt isolated and I see that in general it’s not just me, all the musicians there are isolated.”

In a nutshell, talking a lot about community isn’t the same as enacting community, in the same way that talking about joy isn’t the same as sowing joy.

3. “El Sistema’s emphasis on the physical activities of playing and practicing.”

Most music programs place an emphasis on the physical activities of playing and practicing. This is not a Sistema characteristic.

I repeat, I do not question any of the science in this article. The problem is that it is articulated to an understanding of El Sistema that is simplistic and flawed, probably through no fault of the author’s. She was probably just misinformed by Sistema advocates. But the result is a strikingly naïve article.

We can see clearly here a growing problem in the Sistema sphere: a whole field of knowledge is being constructed on a faulty foundation. Even experts like Diamond are being misled, because coming from other fields, they can easily end up writing about an ideal of music education rather than a reality. Unless they do their own long-term research on (El) Sistema, they are dependent on intermediaries, and if they choose the wrong ones, the results will be flawed from the start. The value of interdisciplinary research is likely to be defined by its weakest element, so to depend on non-expert opinion for one half of the equation is to take a serious risk.

Senior academics like Professor Diamond should not be basing their publications on the views of the likes of Tunstall and Booth, who are neither Sistema practitioners nor researchers; they should be drawing on peer-reviewed research in this area, and talking to scholars of equal standing in the field of music. Diamond might write that “no program does a better job of addressing the whole child – mind, heart, and soul – than does El Sistema,” but I’ve never seen that degree of endorsement from an experienced, independent researcher of music education – indeed, there is considerable scepticism from this field – and that tells us a lot.

It’s good to look sideways and consider how other fields of scholarship can shed light on music and music education – but not at the cost of looking straight ahead and considering how music scholarship can shed light on music and music education. If we look through the lens of the recently published Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education, for example, El Sistema appears as a small and rather unimpressive fish in a large pond; there are actually lots of programs that seem to do “a better job of addressing the whole child – mind, heart, and soul – than does El Sistema.” This cutting-edge, specialist research is the sort of work that Diamond should be using as a corner stone for her article, not Tunstall and Booth’s amateur and self-serving reportage.