El Sistema is dead! Long live Sistema!

In the past, I have opened the Sistema magazine The Ensemble with some trepidation, due to its flirtation with “alternative facts,” but the most recent edition (August 2018) turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Most of the issue was devoted to topics such as student voice, ownership, and leadership; student-centred learning; the possibilities for a “Liberatory Orchestral Music Program”; collaborative composition; and prioritizing process over product. Sistema Toronto’s new “social skills curriculum” sounds intriguing, and the short article on it left me wanting to know more.

I’m very pleased to see that the North American Sistema sphere is finally engaging with these issues, which underpinned the criticisms and proposals in my book, published in 2014. At that time, The Ensemble’s future editors, Eric Booth and Tricia Tunstall, and many others in the Sistema field, roundly rejected my research – in some cases, before they had even read it – and I became a pariah and then unmentionable in quick succession; but now they seem to be coming round to educational questions that I raised and suggestions that I made (though I myself continue to be unmentionable). In a sense this is unsurprising, because I did not invent these ideas; they are pretty standard fare for the progressive end of music education practice and research, and all I did was translate them into the context of El Sistema.

Sistema leaders cannot yet bring themselves to criticize El Sistema (for reasons that are not hard to discern – the clue is in the name), but the criticism is still implicitly there. Beneath their new concerns is a recognition – if unspoken – of the flaws of the original Sistema model. Why would they become intensely concerned with student voice unless they had become aware of its absence and the problems that this poses for a socially-oriented music program?

Indeed, nothing could have been of less interest to Abreu than student voice. His System was a maestro-centred program. He was a puppet-master who spent his whole career pulling others’ strings; this is why his musicians (yes, his) would describe themselves as “cogs” and “pawns” when interviewed anonymously. His protégés surged ahead, as long as they remained in the Maestro’s good books. But a Venezuelan musician with many years’ experience in El Sistema spoke to me just yesterday about the reverse of this coin: Abreu’s iron fist, punishing and blocking the careers of those who did not follow his rules.

Gustavo Medina, former conductor of Venezuela’s National Children’s Orchestra, put it best, describing El Sistema as

“a gigantic flattery machine designed to satisfy the interests of its founder José Antonio Abreu, without regard for the fact that the cost may be generations of young people who believe that their future depends on their efforts and dedication, without realizing that without the ‘unction of the maestro’ that future does not exist.”

Medina’s successor, Dudamel, is a case in point. His public utterances are a mixture of homage to his mentor and cookie-cutter, beauty-contest statements about world peace (while his home country slides into chaos and violence). But he is far from the only prominent Sistema figure who has channelled his master’s voice rather than developing his own.

According to Tunstall: “The inquiry seems more mature now—more responsible, more self-interrogating, more ambitious. […] We are beginning to grow up.”

Well, up to a point. If they are now “self-interrogating,” where is the discussion of their mistakes and misunderstandings of the last ten years? Where is there even a hint of acknowledgment that they got some things wrong, that El Sistema is more complex and contradictory than they first thought?

The latest edition of The Ensemble is a positive step, to be sure. What is still lacking, though, is explicit engagement with music education research, which has been discussing issues like student voice for a long time. The editors like to talk about neuroscience, but how often do they cite research on music education and social justice, which is supposedly what Sistema is all about? They seem determined to reinvent the wheel. At least the wheel is starting to look round rather than square, but if this publication and those it represents really want to become more mature and responsible, they would do well to recognize and learn from existing knowledge and experience in these areas, rather than acting as though Sistema were blazing a new trail.

El Sistema is dead!

Of course El Sistema as an institution isn’t really dead; the Venezuelan program is wounded and losing blood, but it’s still alive. Many of those who cried “tocar y luchar” when the oil money was flowing have left, but many others remain, whether through choice or necessity. Where El Sistema is really on its last legs is as a model for music education. To judge from The Ensemble, even the North American Sistema heartlands have grasped that intensive orchestral training is, well, intensive orchestral training, not music education designed for maximum social benefit. They continue to use the Sistema brand name for strategic purposes, but the ideas and practices they are now embracing represent the opposite of the Venezuelan model.

They are now joining programs that have never self-identified as Sistema-inspired and so were quicker to move away from the conventional youth orchestra model. For example, a recent 3-day international conference in São Paulo called “For all: Youth and musical connections,” a collaboration between the Brazilian program Guri and the international NGO Jeunesses Musicales, explored issues such as autonomy, identity, youth development, collective composition, group improvisation, and the changing nature of the music profession. It thus focused squarely on the gaps and weaknesses in El Sistema and similar conventional orchestral projects. Furthermore, there was no mention of El Sistema in the program for this large South American event on collective, socially-oriented music education – a clear sign that the Venezuelan model’s influence is waning and the forefront of the field is moving on, looking to the future rather than the past.

Long live Sistema!

Well, that depends. There are still significant issues with this model and the thinking behind it; the debate is far from over, indeed the interesting part is just beginning, now that Sistema is moving beyond the denial and anger that erupted four years ago and drawing closer to progressive music education. Also, what I can’t tell from reading The Ensemble is the extent to which Sistema practice reflects the new concerns set out in the magazine. The gap between theory and practice was a recurrent feature of my fieldwork in Venezuela, and I get mixed reports from Sistema employees around the world. Most who write to me lament the lack of critical discussion, and lack of interest in critical discussion, within their programs. There still seems to be a long way to go with the self-interrogation. But if Sistema-inspired programs are acknowledging, even if only implicitly, that the model they inherited was flawed, and are recognizing, even if belatedly, the need for change, then that is an important step towards better health for the field.

The unspoken convergence between The Ensemble in 2018 and my book opens up intriguing possibilities for dialogue. In fact, while I continue to be unmentionable in the virtual corridors of El Sistema USA, I’m involved in a number of interesting conversations with leaders and employees of Sistema-inspired programs in several countries (including, yes, the USA). One even wanted to hire me as a consultant. After all the initial rejection, it turns out that we actually have quite a lot to talk about. I don’t think Sistema’s North American leaders are ready to retract their accusations and hold out an olive branch quite yet, but what they treated as heresy in 2014 (when uttered by me), they now present as an exciting new direction for Sistema (when uttered by them). At this rate, I could be invited to Take A Stand by 2022.

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