El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth

CoverThe Venezuelan youth orchestra program known as “El Sistema” has attracted much attention internationally, partly via its flagship orchestra, The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, headed by Gustavo Dudamel, and partly through its claims to use classical music education to rescue vulnerable children. Having been met overwhelmingly with praise, The System has become an inspiration for music educators around the globe. Yet, despite its fame, influence, and size – it is projected to number a million students in Venezuela and has spread to dozens of countries – it has been the subject of surprisingly little scrutiny and genuine debate.

In this first full-length critical study of the program, Geoffrey Baker explores the career of its founder, José Antonio Abreu, and the ideology and organizational dynamics of his institution. Drawing on a year of fieldwork in Venezuela and interviews with Venezuelan musicians and cultural figures, Baker examines El Sistema’s program of “social action through music,” reassessing widespread beliefs about the system as a force for positive social change. Abreu, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, emerges as a complex and controversial figure, whose project is shaped by his religious education, economics training, and political apprenticeship. Claims for the symphony orchestra as a progressive pedagogical tool and motor of social justice are questioned, and assertions that the program prioritizes social over musical goals and promotes civic values such as democracy, meritocracy, and teamwork are also challenged.

Placing El Sistema in historical and comparative perspective, Baker reveals that it is far from the revolutionary social program of contemporary imagination, representing less the future of classical music than a step backwards into its past. A controversial and eye-opening account sure to stir debate, El Sistema is an essential read for anyone curious about this phenomenon in the worlds of classical music, education, and social development.

Buy the book: http://www.oup.com/localecatalogue/cls_academic/?i=9780199341559 or 


4 thoughts on “El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth

  1. Thanks for your contribution to the much needed critical debate about El Sistema. You might want to read my characterization and analysis of El Sistema in my article “Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of Talent….” in May 2013 Arts Education Policy Review

  2. Thank you Lawrence for supporting critical debate. Your article looks extremely thorough and thought-provoking. I really enjoy seeing a researcher come at this topic from a very different angle to me. My only slight qualm is the reliance on Tunstall’s book for the characterisation of the Venezuelan Sistema, as this is a work of advocacy-journalism, not research. But I do appreciate that there is a lack of reliable written sources, and from my initial skim of your article – I haven’t had time to read it thoroughly yet, I’m afraid – this seems not to detract significantly from your arguments.

  3. I am collecting information about El Sistema and it´s potential social benefits. One of the older studies is ”Music to My Ears: The (Many) Socio-Economic Benefits of Music Training Programs” written by José Cuesta from the Inter-America Development Bank. It was published 6 years ago and the conclusion is that the benefit/cost ratio is 1,68. Do you make any comments on that study in your book?

    • Yes I do. I found the study unconvincing, so I sent it to a top-level development economist (ex-UNDP) who found it very problematic. The IDB has since renounced this study (see my very first blog post, from 2 years ago).

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