An El Sistema-inspired program under the lens

Given the paucity of academic studies on El Sistema-inspired programs, the publication of Hopkins, Provenzano, and Spencer’s 2017 article “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 the International Journal of Music Education is to be welcomed. Those with access to this journal can simply read the article, but for the benefit of those without, here is a brief summary and commentary.

The authors begin by looking critically at the claims of radical difference that are frequently made by Sistema advocates:

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) with ESI initiatives in the United States representing “a radical departure from both traditional music education programs and accepted symphonic practice” (Mauskapf, 2012, p. 196). It is often unclear, however, what characteristics and accepted practices ESI proponents believe they are departing from. A synthesis of the ES and ESI literature base yielded the following distinguishing program characteristics and instructional approaches: (1) an intense fast-paced, high energy rehearsal environment with many hours per week of rehearsal, (2) rigorous expectations for the students to strive for excellence, (3) a safe and supportive learning environment, characterized by caring and kindness, (4) teaching characterized by flexibility, purposeful planning, encouragement of exploration and curiosity, and a variety of teaching techniques, (5) a learning environment that includes large ensemble, sectional learning, and individual lessons, with the large ensemble being the main learning tool, (6) parent involvement and support, (7) opportunities for peer mentoring and student leadership, (8) regular student assessment, (9) frequent performance opportunities, (10) repertoire that includes arrangements of classical repertoire, along with examples of American music (fiddling repertoire, jazz, etc.), (11) repertoire includes simple arrangements of big pieces (i.e., masterworks) with big sound. (Booth, 2012a; Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar, 2013; National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired Programs, n.d.; Tunstall, 2012; Yola Resource Library, n.d.). Many of these “distinguishing” characteristics can be found in quality school-based music education programs throughout the United States

Further down, they make the same point in different terms:

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).

They do note that,

however, one crucial difference is the frequency of instruction at the elementary level

Despite all the claims, then, the authors conclude that the only thing which clearly distinguishes ESI programs from “traditional music education” is the intensity – not the pedagogy. This is unsurprising, given that El Sistema is not – contrary to widespread belief – a method. As the researchers state plainly:

El Sistema and ESI programs do not have a distinctive pedagogy found in other methods of instruction (e.g., Suzuki).

In their close study of one program, the researchers found that intensity lay behind the main perceived benefits of the ESI approach. And yet:

An interesting finding from this case study was that the increased intensity was the source of most of the benefits and challenges reported by the participants.

The high level of time commitment required meant that attendance was a problem, and some students (and the researchers) raised concerns over the focus on excellence that accompanied the intensity. Most strikingly:

In the student focus-group interview there was near unanimous opinion to reduce the number of meeting days per week or the length of the after-school rehearsals.

In other words, the one genuinely distinctive aspect of ESI was difficult to implement in practice and unpopular with the students. If the students’ views and other commitments were to be taken into account and the intensity reduced, the result would be something that’s pretty much indistinguishable from “traditional music education.” So much for the Sistema “revolution,” which looks in this light more like a highly successful branding operation than “a radical departure” from anything.

This is a rather sobering conclusion, considering (as the authors note)

the extraordinary investments being made by universities, foundations, and philanthropists in ESI programs

– investments, it should be noted, that have been made without a robust foundation in research, and more recently, in the face of scholarship on the drawbacks of the Venezuelan model. Of course, the fact that action preceded research means that the ESI field today has little space for independent, exploratory, critical enquiry, and rather exemplifies the phenomenon of pursuing policy-based evidence. It will be interesting to see if the ESI field pays any attention to this latest research.

If all this investment takes place on top of the funding of standard public music education, then perhaps the effects of the Sistema illusion may be partly positive. But if it introduces greater competition for resources, or serves as a media-friendly “veil of culture” (Logan) behind which to cut social services and/or other music education provision, as may be the case in Scotland, then the Sistema illusion will cause more harm than good.

Other readers may find other points of interest in the article, but two that struck me, since they echoed other research and testimonies that I have encountered, were

  1. The problems of creating a parallel system and introducing inequality of opportunity:

One unintended consequence of offering the after-school ESI program to strings only was that it introduced an inequality of educational opportunity for the fifth-grade students. The fifth-grade band director and strings teacher reported that the band students expressed feelings of envy toward the ESI program. The band and orchestra directors both reported instances of negative behavior between the orchestra students and the band students. Eventually, the band director began inviting her fifth-grade band students to walk to the nearby middle school two days a week to participate in an after-school practice club, in an attempt to ameliorate the disparity of instructional opportunity between the fifth-grade orchestra and band students.

  1. A rather negative view of collective instruction, which is El Sistema’s cornerstone:

Private lessons were included, but were not introduced to the ESI curriculum until week 15 of the 23-week program. All three teachers recommended that the private lesson component of the program start earlier in future programs.

Although it is possible to use group instruction with beginning instrumentalists, it is generally recognized that individualized supervision by a teacher is superior (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993).

I remember talking to professional musicians in Venezuela who had trained in the UK, and who were incredulous that the UK was now importing what they saw as Venezuela’s inferior model.

Finally, a point that puts the whole debate in perspective:

El Sistema USA’s data indicates 58 ESI programs in 27 states, serving approximately 9000 students (Hamm, 2014). It is important to note that these numbers are extremely small in comparison to the government and private data suggesting that approximately 27% of the 132,000 elementary and secondary schools in the United States have orchestra programs, with three times as many bands and choirs (Bergonzi, 1995; Doerksen & Delzell, 2000; Gillespie & Hamann, 1998; Kleiner et al., 2002; National String Project Consortium, 2002, 2010; Parsad & Spiegelman, 2012; Smith, 1997; Snyder & Dillow, 2013).

I am as guilty as any of being swayed by institutional propaganda from all sides, exaggerated media attention, and the echo chamber of social media into thinking that ESI is a bigger phenomenon than it really is.