Exposing the underside of El Sistema’s musical revolution

Exposing the underside of El Sistema’s musical revolution


norman lebrecht

November 12, 2014

A forthcoming book by Geoff Baker, lecturer at at Royal Holloway, University of London, is puffed in the Guardian today on claims that it unpicks the Venezuelan music system that has been adulated and adopted the world over.

The book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (Oxford University Press), describes el sistema in its Venezuelan heartland as a tyrannical cult with regressive teaching methods and disturbing accounts of sexual and other abuses. He also claims it ignores the poor.

None of this is substantiated in Dr Baker’s article in the Guardian, which offers nothing more than general assertions.

abreu dudamel

Rumours of isolated abuses have flourished for a while, and there is no ignoring the personality cult that has grown around the system’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, and his stellar protégé, Gustavo Dudamel.

Nor can one cover up their intimate connections to a loathsome regime that fosters civil terror and lawlessness in Venezuela while cultivating intimate relations with Iran, Russia and other totalitarian states.

My own limited contacts with El Sistema graduates have yielded few suspicions of dissent or dissatisfaction on their part. I await the book to see what evidence Dr Baker has gathered on the ground.


  • Takis says:

    …”hierarchical, teacher-centred, focused on repetitive learning and performance”…

    ok, if somebody at last can give us the formula for progress and succeed in anything( arts, science, sports etc), without education( i.e teachers), practice( repetition), judgement and evaluation………..let published for global and eternal benefit.

    Also I’m very surprised that nobody knows anything and all are supporting the systema……..Abbado, Rattle, Barenboim, Harding, agents and managers from capitalistic west countries, major institutions, patrons etc.

    Ok, maybe it’s not the fairy tale story we have heard, but the critisism seems to me very weak and politically stubit.

    • William Safford says:

      The question is not the “what,” but the “how.”

      Is the teaching “teacher-centric” — is the focus on the teacher as the all-knowing sage who imparts his or her wisdom to the student? Or is the teaching student-centric: the focus is on the student, who learns with the teacher helping to facilitate the student’s learning?

      Etc. for the other points.

      I know nothing about El Sistema. I know a bit more about student-centric learning.

      • Takis says:

        I agree 100%.
        There is no easy way or shortcuts to learn and master in arts or science etc. But the educational system must be one of respect and dignity, justice and evaluation-for all parts, students and teachers. Not dictatorial or violent in any way.

  • Benjamin says:

    My wife worked there for 6 years. Can’t say I am surprised by this.

  • Hank Drake says:

    It seems every method and institution has drawbacks and a dark underside.

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    In evaluating any method of teaching in music performance, the “proof is in the pudding”. No other country in South America has been nearly as successful at producing musicians so the system is obviously successful whether it is progressive, regressive or whatever.

    • Don Ciccio says:

      No other country? Seriously? Brazil has in OSEP a better orchestra, Argentina has produced lots of musicians, most of them active in Europe and US, and virtually every other Latin American country has given world class musicians – let’s think at Florez or Orozco-Estrada for beginners…

  • George says:

    YEAH ! well said, Uncle Sam-Lebrecht ! Let’s go on a crusade against the forces of evil, Venezuela, Argentina (you forgot it!), USSR, China, Iran, Israel and France 😉

    • Anonymus says:

      Add Germany and Austria, Vienna in particular to the dark forces, brave White Knight Norman Lebrecht is fighting single handedly.

      • Simon S. says:

        And both of you forgot Switzerland!

        Anyway, N.L. sometimes doesn’t exagerate with diplomacy towards other countries, but he doesn’t spare Britain either.