Yearly roundup 2014

Don’t worry, I’m not really going to try and round up the year. Just a few final thoughts before I hang up my keyboard til the New Year. (I already know what my New Year’s resolution is going to be – ignore all (social) media commentary unless it has some substance and interest to it.)

My book is in this week’s Private Eye (I think you have to be British or well acquainted with British culture to get what this means). The piece sits somewhere on the fence – acknowledging some of my points, criticising others, and doing the same with the proselytisers. So it’s a pretty evenhanded review, and I can’t complain about that.

It’s peppered with bizarre points, though. The author claims that my book was reviewed sympathetically by the Spectator but vilified on social media, on radio and in print, and thus gives the impression that virtually all the coverage has been highly negative. This is false. It was also treated sympathetically in the Guardian and the Times, and the Associated Press article that was widely syndicated (e.g. in the Daily Mail) included a couple of sour notes but also took a lot of the book seriously. In reality, the only really critical review in the UK came from the Telegraph; the balance of the coverage in this country has thus been positive.

I’m genuinely interested to know what radio programs the reviewer has heard, since the 20-minute segment on BBC Radio 3 was much more sympathetic to me than to Eduardo Méndez (El Sistema’s executive director), and in the other two BBC debates the interviewers didn’t express any opinion one way or the other. As for social media, it depends what you read… But overall, this point seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a description of what’s actually been taking place over the last few weeks.

He also describes the book as “written to an agenda [and] based on anecdotal evidence.” To repeat myself for about the 50th time, and as I explain in the introduction, the book was not “written to an agenda.” It’s the outcome of a research project, which in fact began with a positive premise.

And yes, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence in the book – that’s kind of unavoidable if you’re going to do a lot of interviews with Venezuelan musicians – but it’s backed up by other kinds of evidence, wherever that exists.

Take the opening of Chapter 1. My portrait of Abreu is built up from a good number of newspaper articles as well as material from many interviews, and rests on published analyses by two investigative journalists who did in-depth research on Abreu and by two of The Maestro’s former close associates, among others. Hardly “unsubstantiated,” then, though you would think it was gossip that I picked up down the pub from reading this review.

Finally, he describes my claims as “overstated,” yet gives no argument or evidence to back up this allegation. They’re overstated because he says they are. Which sounds rather like the kind of unsubstantiated claim that he accuses me of.

Where is the research that contradicts my arguments? Where is the counter-evidence that suggests that my portrayal of Abreu is wrong? If there isn’t any, then perhaps it’s worth considering the possibility that those who provided the anecdotal evidence – Venezuelan musicians, journalists, musicologists, and cultural officials (in other words, people who know the topic inside out) – might just be right.

There’s been quite a bit of bleating about statistics in responses to my book. Apparently stats are the only thing that count as evidence for some people. So we can forget about about morality or ethics or philosophy or pedagogy.

So let’s talk stats. Yes, there are parts of my book that include or analyse stats, though you wouldn’t know it from those complaining, who just happen to ignore those bits. Let’s take four of them.

1) I looked at some of the numbers provided by El Sistema’s official historian, Chefi Borzacchini:

% of female musicians in El Sistema’s top touring orchestra, the Simón Bolívar “B” = 22%

Number of principal’s chairs occupied by women = 1

Number of women in the list of 31 up-and-coming conductors = 0

I find it interesting that not a single commentator has remarked on these particular stats, which suggest that you get a lot more social action for your music if you’re male.

2) I discuss the famous cost-benefit calculation of 1:1.68 at the heart of the report by José Cuesta that underpinned the Inter-American Development Bank’s $150-million Phase II loan. Unlike Sistema advocates, I actually took a close look at the report and its calculations, and discuss them in my book. Unsurprisingly, the IDB subsequently distanced itself from this report, though it took the advocates a long time to realise. It’s interesting that no one wants to talk about that stat now.

3) I discuss the report that was carried out by the Universidad de Los Andes in Mérida between 1999 and 2003. Again, it appears that others have not scrutinised this report very closely, since it contains statistical evidence that longer-term Sistema participation had a small negative effect on school attendance and academic achievement. I’ve never seen this mentioned anywhere.

4) I noted in my book that no one seemed to know El Sistema’s dropout rate. When Tom Service put this question to Eduardo Méndez on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters, the latter admitted that he did not know the answer. That’s quite an admission for the executive director of a major, state-funded education project.

So I’m actually very keen to talk about statistics. Why is no one else?

Here’s a little Christmas present: a video. It’s possibly useful to know that El Universal is run by José Antonio Abreu’s brother, Jesús Abreu Anselmi. A bit of cross-marketing within the family for the festive season.

Now that I’m on an upbeat note, let me finish with three more:

1) My book’s out on Kindle, so it’s no longer impossible to get it anywhere (though good luck if you want a hard copy).

2) I’m hugely grateful for the private messages of support I’ve received over the last 2 months, from current and former members of El Sistema, from other Venezuelan musicians, and from friends and colleagues. It’s not always easy taking all the flak, but these messages renew my strength and determination.

3) I discovered two great music projects this year, Future Band and Animate Orchestra, right here in London. This is what ensemble music education looks like in the twenty-first century. It may lack the journalistic hype and the big claims, but this is social action through music.

Y de ñapa, un dicho venezolano: solo le tiran piedras al arbol que da frutos.

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