2017: a myth-busting year in review

2017 was a bad year for Sistema myths. Some of the key ideas that took a big hit include:

El Sistema is a highly successful social program aimed primarily at the poor. The Inter-American Development Bank study was actually published in late 2016 but it did not come to public notice until early 2017. It revealed a low poverty rate among El Sistema’s intake, a high dropout rate, and few noticeable effects on participants. The launch event for the study, however, showed the main players behind El Sistema furiously spinning the results, to the point of serious misrepresentation. Furthermore, the reappearance of some 20-year-old evaluations of El Sistema revealed the flimsiness of the evidence base at the time that the IDB started to fund the program, and the existence of very similar problems to those that I found over a decade later.

Music and politics don’t mix. Gustavo Dudamel used to dodge the politics issue, saying “I’m a musician not a politician,” or having his PR handlers make it clear to journalists that he didn’t like talking about this topic, or entrusting the issue to soft-soap interviewers like Mark Swed of the LA Times. Having espoused this position for many years, despite the fact that his mentor is a politician-musician whose success has rested entirely on his blending of politics and music, Dudamel changed his tune in mid-2017 and made a series of political statements. His fans, who had praised his silence, now praised him for speaking out. His critics cried too little, too late. Either way, this turn of events raised questions over his longstanding claim that his priority and the motivation for his silence had been to protect El Sistema and its participants. Does El Sistema no longer need protecting, then?

El Sistema is a big happy family. The media finally caught up with researchers and observers of El Sistema when the journalist Sérgio Moreno published an article entitled “Authoritarianism and talent flight: cracks in the System of Orchestras,” in which he detailed allegations of secrecy, coercion, mass desertion, falling standards, frustration and apathy within the Simón Bolívar orchestra, and tensions between the orchestra and Dudamel. Since then, the cancellation of the orchestra’s foreign tours has simply increased the problems. On the Sistema-inspired front, Jonathan Govias formally declared his conversion from “apostle to apostate,” creating a headache for boosters who had claimed that criticism came just from outsiders who didn’t get Sistema and/or held a grudge against the program.

Sistema is radical / revolutionary / a significant departure from (and improvement on) conventional public school music education. Questions have been raised over such claims for some time now, but they came into focus last year. Govias concluded after a number of years in the Sistema orbit that “I couldn’t in good conscience and honesty say that Sistema was better, more socially oriented, or more effective, or as many most falsely claim, more ‘joyful’ than the music education I was witnessing [in the public school system].” 2017 also saw the publication of an academic study entitled “Benefits, challenges, characteristics and instructional approaches in an El Sistema inspired after-school string program developed as a university–school partnership in the United States.” In it we read:

Proponents of the ESI movement in the United States frequently try to distinguish their purpose, goals, and characteristics from what they refer to as “traditional US music education” (Booth, 2012b). The data collected in this study provide mixed support for those assertions. The ESI program’s curriculum was characteristic of American school orchestra programs. The instructional approach was large-ensemble based, which is typical of American school-based programs. There is also evidence that the social goals of El Sistema inspired programs are not distinctive from those of school-based music education in the United States. Instrumental ensemble instruction in the United States developed between 1900 and 1940 as a result of the “progressive education” movement, led by philosophers such as John Dewey (Lee & Worthy, 2012). Among the reasons cited for including bands and orchestras in public school curricula were (a) the blending of school and community, (b) the development of social skills, (c) public service, and (d) improvement of economic and social conditions (Humphreys, 1989; Lee, 1997; Lee & Worthy, 2012). In a manner similar to Abreu (2001), American school music advocacy efforts have focused on social, academic, and musical benefits of participation in school music ensembles (National Association for Music Education, 2014).

José Antonio Abreu holds a PhD in petroleum economics from the University of Pennsylvania. 2017 finished on an almost farcical note, with El Sistema claiming that this false information had circulated in the most official sources for many years as a result of an error (which no one had noticed). An interesting aspect of this story was not just the inaccuracy of Abreu’s official biography, but also the variety of the claims in different publications and websites (such as Abreu receiving a PhD from UCAB in 1961, and incorrect dates for his main political appointments). It is interesting that incorrect and conflicting information about this major public figure has been circulating for many years without anyone raising questions. One wonders what further fact-checking might reveal.

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There may well be more myths to uncover. For example, it is hard to believe that there are really 900,000 participants in El Sistema at the moment, which would represent a tripling of the program’s size during the worst economic crisis in the country’s modern history. Reports from the ground point to miserable wages, possible orchestral closures, an increasing exodus of classical musicians from the country, and struggles on the part of some smaller núcleos to keep going. Simon Rattle famously stated “I have seen the future of music in Venezuela” – let’s hope not.

There are more widespread myths whose fate may eventually affect El Sistema. The ideas of classical music as an exemplary sphere and the symphony orchestra as a model for society are coming under serious pressure from the sex scandals involving famous conductors and the wider critiques of this industry in the wake of #MeToo. With classical music journalists increasingly preoccupied by this topic, El Sistema’s claims to moral superiority will be lucky to survive much longer without renewed scrutiny.

However, new myths are being created, so we need to keep on our toes. For example, after many years of close and mutually beneficial ties between El Sistema and Chavismo, President Maduro’s conversion into an international media bogeyman has led the program’s supporters to try to distance the program from the political movement that has supported it since 1999 via some historical (re)writing. An institution that has a strong aversion to fixing its history in prose is one that will always be fertile territory for myth making.

El Sistema may be, in Robert Fink’s words, “perhaps the single greatest classical music myth of our time,” but Norman Lebrecht’s sign-off at the end of his article on Abreu’s phantom PhD – “Looks like the doctorate joins a lengthening roster of Sistema myths” – suggests that the penny is beginning to drop, at least in the classical music field, if not (yet) among the wider public.

Not that this will have any effect on public opinion, but I’m pleased to say that my article on the construction of the global myth of El Sistema will be published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Latin American Music Review later this year. Something tells me that I’ll have to keep updating it right up to the last minute.