Weekly roundup, Sat 29 November

Joshua Goodman at Associated Press published an article that has been syndicated in several countries. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it has provided a lot of publicity for my book, and gets across several key points. On the other hand, it has some questionable aspects.

On the issue of sexual abuse, he writes: “Baker says he was unable to verify the claims and declined a request by The Associated Press to provide access to his confidential sources – ammunition for El Sistema’s backers who reject his charges.”

Of course I declined his request to share my confidential sources. That’s what confidential means. And of course I was unable to verify the claims. I would have had to be physically present during the alleged offences to do so. I’m surprised that Goodman decided to play down this issue. Shouldn’t journalists be taking this problem seriously and investigating it themselves?

Talking of investigating, Associated Press sent someone down to Sistema HQ in Caracas to talk to a few of the highly paid and pampered musicians of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in their break. Extraordinarily, these cosseted musicians, who would probably be fired if they criticized the program in public, said they considered my book’s claims to be “outrageous.”

That said, one tried to defend the program by saying: “It’s like American football — to be on a team, you have to have extreme discipline. The coach doesn’t say please and thank you.” With friends like that, El Sistema doesn’t need critics.

Still, asking members of the Bolívar what they think about El Sistema – on the record – is like asking the traders at Goldman Sachs what they think about Wall Street. They’re the winners, the top 0.1%. Where are the voices of the losers in this article? Yes, I know, they’re much harder to find, they’re not just hanging around outside the Santa Sede. That’s why I spent a year researching this stuff, unlike this AP reporter, who spent all of 15 minutes by the sound of things.

Everyone Goodman spoke to is a salaried employee at the top end of El Sistema, earning a fat salary for their loyalty, and so has a strong motivation to present a glowing picture. Why did he not speak to an open critic of El Sistema and see whether they found my claims “outrageous”?

Journalism doesn’t come out of this article looking very good. But then, with a small handful of exceptions, journalism doesn’t come out of the whole Sistema story looking very good (read my book for more details). Still, it makes the importance of academic research crystal clear.

My book is currently sold out on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Three seasoned Sistema watchers independently made the same joke (?) about who might be buying up all these copies.

Abreu and President Maduro had a much-publicized meeting this week, during which the latter promised the former anything he wanted. This neoliberal-meets-socialist handshake produced some quite intense reactions on social media. Composer/conductor/researcher Diego Silva suggested that the meeting had something to do with my book. Impact gold.

There were a few interesting details in the article, like the figure of 300 núcleos. But on the Fundamusical homepage it says 400. Then there’s the 600,000 kids. But a couple of weeks ago, when I last checked, there were 500,000. Then there’s the construction of Frank Gehry’s Dudamel Hall in Barquisimeto, turning El Sistema’s cult of personality into bricks and mortar. Just what Venezuelan music education needs – another huge and hugely expensive building.

Interview in the LA Times. It only bears a passing resemblance to what I actually think, since it’s been through two filters – my cack-handed attempt to summarise key points over the phone, and then the journalist’s attempt to cut that summary down to about 20% of its length – but still, I’m just glad they had the balls to publish anything at all in Dudamel-land.

Someone has posted a quite extraordinary comment below this article. Even if you’ve already read the article, I’d recommend reading the comment – you can’t miss it, it’s as long as the original article and 10 times as insightful. Some will agree with the political position expressed, others will not – but I would argue that the analysis of El Sistema stands from wherever you view it.

I posted a public response to Jonathan Govias’s most recent article. Here it is, with the second person singular retained for the sake of authenticity.

As I expected, the article is really good. Courageous, too. Great diagnosis, great prescription.

What intrigues me is where this leaves El Sistema. You are in effect arguing that the program could be wonderful, if only it completely changed its learning model from autocratic/hierarchical to social. I agree entirely, but this is about as likely as Abreu dancing the tango with President Maduro. In the meantime, the program is left harking back to older philosophies of education, venerating autocratic maestros and revealing little sign (at least to my eyes) of the “innate understanding of social learning” that you perceive.

Two points emerge from this:

(1) Surely pretty much any music education program could be wonderful if it turned into something else. So it’s not clear where this leaves the question of what’s special about El Sistema now (it hardly has a monopoly on the idea of large ensemble education). You come back to this question – “how is Sistema different?” – in the penultimate paragraph, yet your use of tenses is revealing: the question is posed in the present, while your answer is in the conditional.

(2) If social learning is the solution, then why not turn to a project like Musical Futures, which is much more closely aligned with that principle than El Sistema?

There’s an underlying problem here. As you note, El Sistema and its global advocates claim that it is a social project – and yet, the conversation keeps coming back to the symphony orchestra. It seems to me that all the social claims, and even your article, are efforts to make the orchestra more palatable, rather than to optimize the social benefits of musical learning. Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that you want to make the orchestra more palatable – goodness knows it’s needed, and you’re the only person that I know of who’s had the cojones to say so in Venezuela. But if the social were really paramount, then one would start with the desired social outcomes – inclusion, teamwork, democracy, etc – and then work out the best musical means to achieve them. And, if one surveyed the music education literature, one would not turn to the symphony orchestra, in fact it would probably be at the bottom of the list. One would be much more likely to turn to something like free improvisation. If that sounds unpalatable and unrealistic, then it suggests that El Sistema is still what it was when it was born: an orchestral (i.e. musical) program.

In sum, I think your article is fantastic, but I’m not sure that El Sistema comes out of it very well. If social learning is the answer – and I buy the suggestion that it is – then why not choose a program that is already highly compatible with that idea, like Musical Futures, rather than one that might (but might not) embrace this philosophy at some unspecified point in the future? It feels like you’re holding up an empty glass and saying “this has the potential to be a really thirst-quenching drink,” while the guy next to you is quietly sipping an ice-cold Coke.

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