“Was this the greatest prom of all time?” the Daily Telegraph’s arts editor was moved to ask, after hearing Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the Royal Albert Hall in 2007. The SBYO is the public face of the Venezuelan youth orchestra system, known as “El Sistema.” This program – according to Sir Simon Rattle, “the most important thing happening in music anywhere in the world” – has attracted much attention internationally, partly via the activities of its flagship orchestra, and partly through its claims to use classical music education to foster social inclusion. The System has blossomed since the late 1990s under the government of Hugo Chávez and has become a paradigm for music education around the globe. It is being emulated in North and South America and in several English-speaking countries, and has inspired Sistema Scotland and the English “In Harmony” program.
In 2010 and 2011 I spent nearly a year in Venezuela researching El Sistema. This project entailed observation of Venezuelan núcleos (orchestral training centres), interviews with many Venezuelan musicians and figures in the cultural world, and analysis of the policies, ideologies, and discourses underpinning El Sistema, comparing theory and practice. I was interested in El Sistema’s claims to harness the power of music to transform lives, and I looked into the idea of music as social action and the notion of the orchestra as a school for citizenship and a “harmonious society.” I was also keen to assess the impact of El Sistema on music in Venezuela.
My book has now been published by OUP (November 2014), but I will continue to publish my latest thoughts and discuss my book’s arguments with readers on my blog (see below).