Conference: El Sistema and the Alternatives

El Sistema and the Alternatives:

Social Action through Music in Critical Perspective

Friday 24 & Saturday 25 April 2015

Room 349, Senate House, University of London

Programme with abstracts

Keynote speaker: Professor Robert Fink (UCLA)

In association with the Institute of Latin American Studies, the Latin American Music Seminar, and the Humanities & Arts Research Centre (Royal Holloway, University of London)

UntitledHARC logo

The Venezuelan youth orchestra program known as El Sistema, founded in 1975, has attracted considerable international publicity and funding in recent years. Said to be an effective means of resolving a wide range of social problems and now operating under the banner of ‘social action through music’, it has inspired attempts to adopt and adapt it in dozens of countries around the world.

However, there are very few critical analyses of the program’s aims and no rigorous studies which demonstrate that it achieves them. Furthermore, its methods are poorly understood and obscured by idealistic rhetoric. Efforts to transplant El Sistema overseas have taken place without reliable written sources about its history and its pedagogical and philosophical program.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this intellectual vacuum, there is currently a global wave of enthusiasm for the Sistema model, and there have been many public events devoted to promoting it in Europe and North America. Overwhelmingly shaped by advocacy, their discussions have largely ignored a number of contradictions – for example, the fact that the program’s fastest expansion has coincided with rising crime rates in Venezuela. Similarly, there has been a failure to interrogate how an orchestral training scheme became rebranded as a project of social inclusion, or whether an expensive program underwritten by a petro-state is suitable as a global educational paradigm. The consequence is a paradox: El Sistema is both the best-known and the least-understood music education program in the world today.

This one-day conference will be the first event dedicated to critical thinking about El Sistema, its derivatives around the world, and programs that provide alternative models. We aim to stimulate deeper reflection on a shift in the function of the orchestra towards social inclusion and discipline. The combination of European art music, a rhetoric of salvation, and a proselytising approach invites comparison with older, colonialist conceptions of music education, yet the enthusiastic embrace of the program by business and financial organizations suggests a need to investigate its relationship with neoliberal ideology.


Geoff Baker, Reader at Royal Holloway, University of London, author of El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuelan Youth (OUP, 2014)

Gustavo Borchert, doctoral candidate at the University of Turku, Finland, researching the renegotiation of the symphony orchestra as a tool for social inclusion and post-Fordist corporate management model

Owen Logan, Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen, co-editor of Contested Powers: The Politics of Energy and Development in Latin America (Zed Books, forthcoming)

4 thoughts on “Conference: El Sistema and the Alternatives

  1. Dear Sir Baker, I am a “product” of El Sistema, currently doing a doctorate in cultural diplomacy in France, with a strong emphasis on El Sistema, for me will be a great pleasure to participate in this conference, not only as a researcher of the topic, but because I have been formed from my childhood in El Sistema and have trained many children and young people as Director of “nucleo” for many years

  2. Dear Dr. Baker:
    This situation presented thru “Addicts’ Symphony” is on 27 August at 11pm on Channel 4,should also be a “subject” of your researches, since it is also a human problem. Similarly, there in LSO, they do have a failure to interrogate how come an orchestral training scheme has pushed their musicians out of a project of social inclusion to the point of making them become ADDICTED PEOPLE. That´s sad, isn´t it?
    Ms. Orellana

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