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El Sistema ‘produces musicians like sausages’

February 3, 2018 by norman lebrecht

29 comments.


A highly critical analysis of the Venezuelan educational model has been published in the journal Music Education Research. Based on fundraising documents from the mid-1990s, it questions the objectives and effectiveness of the organisation. The questions are significant since Sistema has been adopted in many other countries.

The report’s authors are Professor Geoff Baker of the University of Holloway and Ana Lucia Frega, who was an assessor for one of El Sistema’s requests for foreign bank loans.

Among many negative testimonies they uncover are these three:

– the kids had to work on weekends from the morning into the late evening, when there is a concert it’s horrible, they even have to miss school and everything because they have a rehearsal in the mornings, during exams on Saturdays and Sundays, they shut them away, […] so of course they’re isolated, it’s work morning, noon, and night.

– why do you even go to school at all? What you need is this [El Sistema]. Why would you go to 4th and 5th grade or try to go to high school and get a high school diploma? What are you going to do with that?

– many of my peers didn’t get their high-school diploma, we even have figures of authority who didn’t even finish primary school, and they have high posts, [education] is like an anti-value […] anyone who talks about specific aspects of music-making, phrasing or whatever, is looked down on as a know-it-all.

You can read the full report here.

Dudamel conducts Scotland’s Sistema orchestra


Comments (29)

  1. Dave says:

    Interesting picture; those Scots have been getting more sun recently.

  2. harold braun says:

    A string of totally superficial conductors(i am not talking about Dudamel here).In contrast to Dudamel,who is a very fine conductor and has matured a lot,and became very economical in his gestures,they are mostly waving their leonine manes….

  3. Freddyny says:

    How about devising a “sistema” that can train young people to run the country….?

  4. herrera says:

    It’s not that Venezuela has no more oil, or that its oil is not good, it’s that the world market is pumping out more than enough oil that other countries don’t need Venezuelan oil.

    Same with orchestral musicians.

  5. Trebles All Round says:

    The University of Holloway sounds like a gangland euphemism for the late (un)lamented women’s HMP. It shouldn’t have been that difficult for you to check that Prof Baker is affiliated to Royal Holloway, University of London. Nor, as Dave has suggested above, is that a pic of Dudamel conducting the Raploch band, whatever your caption says. Go on: take a close and careful look, Norman.

    Your ‘interesting’ way with accuracy should be a source of worry to you. It certainly is to some of your readers.

    1. KAREN says:

      You guys are all too serious. This is the Breitbart News and TMZ for classical music. Lighten up!

      1. V.Lind says:

        And that is what it is aspiring to? They tell lies rather than make chronic errors. All they have in common is particular attitudes, here represented by constantly negatively-spun stories about particular musicians and positive ones about others (most of whom seem to have given the blogger a good interview so are therefore consigned to The Immortals).

        1. Karen says:

          The difference between “lies” and “chronic errors” is the intention or motive of the author, which you cannot possibly know. How you characterize the misinformation depends on how charitable you want to be. For a reader there really is no essential difference.

          1. V.Lind says:

            Good point. But you do not seem to mind the chronic mis-statements, errors of fact, misreadings, mistakes, etc. here. Some people do. And after the recent Juilliard case, with no apology forthcoming, it does not seem to be a priority with the blogger.

          2. Karen says:

            You misunderstood me. It’s not that I don’t mind the chronic mis-statements, errors of fact, misreadings, mistakes, etc.. It’s just that these things are fully expected from sites like the Breitbart News or TMZ.

        2. steven holloway says:

          My word, you’re very good at hitting the brad on the noggin! Playing the interview granting/denying game; plugs owing to various commercial ties; following press magnate Lord Northcliffe’s dictum to tabloid journalists: “Never lose sense of the superficial”, plus a hefty bit of political pot-stirring, and you’ve got yourself a blog.

      2. harold braun says:

        You certainly have a point here….

  6. Geoff Baker says:

    Interesting that so far there has been a lot of comment on the mis-captioning of the photo (which has no bearing on the story), and no comment at all on the fact that an official evaluator of El Sistema recorded the program’s musicians using words like exploitation, manipulation, domination, and humiliation to describe their experience.

    Priorities, people, priorities.

    1. Simon Scott says:

      Sounds like police state……

  7. Been Here Before says:

    The headline reminded me of a remark by my old piano teacher. He used to say that in Russia they grow pianists on farms.

  8. Michael says:

    Over 40 USD to have reading access for 24h? Any other possibility to read such an important paper? I can’t believe Baker did it for $$…

    1. Geoff Baker says:

      Unfortunately the publisher only allows a fixed number of copies to be downloaded for free. After that you have to access it through an institution with a subscription, such as a university, or pay. If you have a serious interest in reading it, you can contact me privately and I will send you a copy. (Academics are not paid for academic articles, by the way.)

  9. Alex Klein says:

    It’s so easy to criticize, no? To poke fun. To make comparisons with the country’s political and economical situation. What strikes me is that these comments and articles come out of a comfy chair, perhaps even while sipping a glass of wine? The prespective is missing in these arguments, leading me to see that the haves are uncomfortable with the spectacular success of the have-nots. Any other program would succumb under such economic and political pressures. As for “going along (with Maduro) to get along”, please tell me what would happen with Porsche, Benz and VW if they decided to stand up to their more controlling early-20th century leaders. C’mon. They’d be history. But El Sistema is hanging on tight. It is not the problem with Venezuela. It is what works.

    El Sistema has done more than teaching violin. A few years ago it closed the Salzburg Festival with an orchestra of 200 children (mostly 8 to 12 year olds) under Rattle, playing Mahler 1 with such a precision and commitment so as to be the envy of many a professional orchestra in a “developed” country. El Sistema clarified in vivid colors the hard work of latinamerican industries and researchers who may otherwise lie in obscurity. No more “mañana, mañana” and the idea of latinamericans being lazy smoking pot at the beach. These kids can play, and they can hold their own with many top conductors and festivals. And they carry the latinamerican flagpole of success and commitment. And….puhlease….how many of us or other professionals don’t run a whole night and weekend wanting to finish a big project? You really want to complain that this – the all-nighter standard for commitment – is somewhat bad for kids in socially challenged areas? How? I have seen this upfront, and seen the bright eyes of kids living in subhuman conditions in a world obsessed with the rich and famous and their lavish lifestyle. And their wars. These kids LOVE the challenge, of working towards a higher goal. I’d say “give it to them”, ask them to practice day and night and on weekends, absolutely! The basic idea of El Sistema, that we can use music as a bridge out of a failed mindset and social policies, is here to stay, thankfully. No project is perfect, and no one criticizing the work of the Venezuelans has a leg to stand on. They did it. They succeeded. And they are a strong example to all of us privileged enough to be commenting here. Let’s drop that glass of wine for a second and see the horrible mess our capitalist economic and social policies of the last few hundred years have created (yes, far worse than Maduro or Chavez could ever imagine) and work together towards social inclusion and equality, in all senses, and make every human being count. El Sistema did it. They are an example of social success and inclusion. Cheers!

    1. Geoff Baker says:

      You didn’t read the article, did you? Or even read the abstract?

      1. Saxon Broken says:

        Why would he, he “knows the truth” already, and doesn’t need any facts or evidence. Actually, facts and evidence are rather inconvenient and “false news” if you know the truth already. Just shout loudly until everyone agrees with you, that is the way to establish the true facts.

  10. FS60103 says:

    Interesting and troubling: Baker asks questions that few others have the inclination to ask.
    But don’t, please, make the mistake of thinking that there is a single international ‘Sistema’ model, or that the use of the name denotes any meaningful similarity betwen Venezuelan practice and what goes on under that name in – say – Denmark or the USA, however eager those organisations may have been in the past to claim kinship to the Venezuelan project, for reasons which (with the benefit of hindsight) now appear misguided. Different things, very different practices; whatever the philosophical similarities. (And remember too that whatever else these projects are, they are emphatically not intended as training schemes for the music profession.).

  11. Bruce says:

    I keep seeing this headline as meaning “Produces Sausagelike Musicians.”

  12. YoYo Mama says:

    I listened to a recording by the Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, which was presented as if it were professional, and it was clearly not at a professional level. It was very good, but I’m sure no better than any of the superb youth orchestras we have in this country. What is it about La Sistema, other than the name and the politics, that is in any way better than what we already have here? No one ever states that, or appreciates what we have. Why import their system? And what system is more effective than the French music education system, or the Kodaly?
    When you teach music as mechanical activity, as technical and skilled labor, that is what you here. It is deprived of its cultural values, context and history. We are potentially facing a future in which every musician sounds Chinese, and classical music is just sonic wallpaper.

    1. Bruce says:

      I think the basic underlying idea is that it’s for all kids, not just rich kids. In the US, music lessons, instruments, youth orchestras, etc. are mostly — not completely, but mostly — for young people whose parents can afford to pay for all of it.

      I don’t know a lot about El Sistema, but it seems like that, and the communal, make-it-central-to-your-life, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts character (at least as portrayed) are the main differences from the US system, where serious study of music is oriented more to the individual student (and strictly extracurricular).

      (P.S. It’s EL Sistema — sistema is masculine, despite ending with an “a.”)

  13. Winger says:

    Wow, an “analysis” based on “fundraising documents” (?) from 22 years ago. I’m surprised this hasn’t been making headlines around the world!

    1. Juan Mora says:

      Quite! I mean, who could possibly be interested in things that happened in the past? And not just the past – 22 years ago! That’s like ancient history. And no one cares about ancient history.

      And why bother analyse on the basis of documents? Why not just retell half-baked stories you heard down the pub or saw on telly, like everyone else?

  14. Anon says:

    I agree the Venezuelans should quickly go back to the good old tried system of the US, where only children from at least wealthier middle class families can afford to have a thorough music education. Music is not for everyone! It’s strictly only meant as entertainment for the upper classes. Duh!
    And, if those handful of upper class kids can’t fill the colleges, you can always fill the free spots with Chinese. They have ambition and supply is plenty. Yay!
    No Commie socialist liberal classical music programs for the masses, YIKES!

    1. Geoff Baker says:

      If you had read the article or followed the topic, you would know that a study by the Inter-American Development Bank (El Sistema’s major funder) in 2016 estimated the poverty rate among El Sistema entrants as 16.7%, while the rate for the states in which they lived was 46.5%. In other words, El Sistema entrants were three times LESS likely to be poor than all 6 to 14 year-olds residing in the same states.

      Not so different from the “good old tried system of the US” then.


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