How El Sistema turned into a musical Starbucks

How El Sistema turned into a musical Starbucks


norman lebrecht

September 14, 2016

In a review today in the Wall Street Journal, I argue that the greatest success of the Venezuelan education system is its global branding. But many of its claims for social improvement lack verifiable substance and the system’s slogans have alarming echoes of Soviet education in Stalin’s day.

Although El Sistema is not overtly political, its slogan is “to play and to struggle,” with an emphasis on “hard work” and “joy,” slogans that echo Soviet collectivization. Its dogma is equality and inclusion, and its methods involve teaching children in groups to play rhythms, read notes and cooperate with one another. “In ensemble they learn collegiality as an incubator for selfhood within community…”

Read the full review here.
abreu dudamel


  • enemigopublico says:

    This is a good corrective to Tunstall and Booth’s rose-tinted views. They resolutely ignoring anything that doesn’t fit with their Panglossian vision, including most of the academic research on El Sistema.

    Just one correction: El Sistema’s original orchestras weren’t “aimed to save thousands of street children who lived in the violent barrios” – they were aimed at ordinary young people, many of them already students in Caracas conservatoires. The whole “saving the youth” shtick came nearly 20 years later, when Abreu realised he needed to change rhetorical tack in order to get money from the Inter-American Development Bank and fit in with the new directions in Venezuelan politics, society, and economics embodied by Hugo Chávez.

  • enemigopublico says:

    Also, El Sistema has certainly produced some great musicians and orchestral performances – a “playing elite,” as you say – but daily life inside the higher echelons of the program has little to do with “reckless fun.” See and for warts-and-all insiders’ views.

  • Janis says:

    “El Sistema, for all its hype, has not saved its home nation from rack and ruin.”

    Glad someone is pointing this out. Wasn’t it supposed to turn everyone into perfect little model citizens? Looks like it’s hard to be a model citizen when your government can conscript you at will, kidnapping is a cottage industry, and you can’t even buy the most basic medicines and food.

    I love making music. My hands and my brain demand it. But I am not arrogant and egotistical enough to believe that my fabulousness in doing so just naturally percolates out into the world and magically improves people’s life situations. The arrogance of elite spoiled Westerners in imagining that this is is the case just stuns me time and again.

    I’ve said it before — classical musicians need to get the hell over ourselves, acting like we’re doing The Most Important Job In The Universe and communing with some sort of cosmic creative force by banging on levers, blowing into pipes, and pulling strings. Like Doc Severinsen said, we’re clowns and troubadours.

    Damn, there is nothing more frustrating than listening to well-fed Westerners talking about how Brahms is a more fundamental need for “the poor” than goddamned prenatal care and bread.

  • Kike Daube says:

    As always, Mr Lebrecht writes with such a tone of authority… but the truth is that he has very limited knowledge and probably zero personal experience of what El Sistema has done in Venezuela and what is happening in the Sistema programs around the world. So much so, that he actually thinks Sistema is a “method of teaching music”. Maybe he needs to sit down with the children involved in Sistema programs, or their parents, and explain to them that they are all victims of global branding and they would be better off doing something else. Maybe he can then suggest other ways in which children can have access to free music education – especially in countries like his own Britain, where the government has proven that music education is not a priority.

  • Halldor says:

    Read the book before commenting. It’s actually not about Venezuela – it’s about the global spread of “Sistema”-inspired programmes, many of which are very different from the Venezuelan model and serve different functions within radically different communities. The book’s not perfect, by any means, but the writers do acknowledge the lack of consistent research and make some attempt to find a coherent philosophical basis for a huge range of different international music projects. Meanwhile, saying that Venezuela’s economic woes are an indication of El Sistema’s failure is as blinkered and wrong-headed as saying that Gustavo Dudamel’s career is proof of its success.

  • Gabriela Montero says:

    Thank you to Norman Lebrecht for this crucially important article.

    I think that it is obvious to all of us who love music that we should strive worldwide for societies in which Art is considered a necessity and not a luxury. It is, I might even boldly claim, my life’s work.

    But we first have to build the society.

    Art alone, bourgeois or otherwise, is impotent. It takes competent, transparent governance to build a sustainable, secure society, the sort of society that most of us take for granted. In Venezuela, state support of music has mutated in the new millennium into state ownership of an entire music system, and all in the once-compelling name of “social change” and “inclusion”.

    Yet, Venezuelan society itself has been concurrently dismantled, the failsafe mechanisms of democracy itself destroyed, and its citizens now EXCLUDED from the basic human right to self-determination. While undoubtedly offering, to the individual musician, fleeting transcendence from daily insecurities, music has collectively “changed” nothing, only served as a macabre soundtrack to the epic, unfolding tragedy of Venezuela this past 18 years. Its dulcet sound and intoxicatingly youthful visual narrative – none of it accidental – has only served to mask the putrid decay of an entire nation.

    With music itself as my weapon of dissent, I have been resisting this collapse for 12 years now, refusing life-altering offers to play music on the terms of a Castro-Cuban autocracy under which real “social change” can be measured in a 700% increase in the homicide rate. It is deeply encouraging, therefore, to see that eminent authors like Geoff Baker and journalists like Norman Lebrecht are finally exposing the disturbing cognitive dissonance of Venezuela’s government-owned music system to the world.

    My hope is that the Venezuelan people will rebuild our society soon, that we will celebrate its rebirth with a new music, a new sound, motivated by the core values of Art, and not by the dictates of a moribund political fallacy.

    • Juancho says:

      Gabriela, I share your pain and your outrage for what Nicolas Maduro and his thugs are doing in Venezuela. I also share your contempt for Gustavo Dudamel, a man that did ads for Rolex while embracing Chavez.

      But what exactly is your problem with el Sistema and with the idea that other countries use it as an inspiration to ways of providing free music education to children that can’t pay for it? What is so terrible about giving kids access to music?

      You might despise Dudamel, the chameleonic Abreu and the Simon Bolivar players that live in another universe compared to the rest of Venezuela. But they are less than 1% of el Sistema. Do you also despise the underpaid teacher that works in a nucleo in a slum and that does all he can to make sure the kids around him do not become criminals? Do you also despise the mother that takes his son to a nucleo because she knows the only other option is for him to join a gang? And do you despise the kid that decides to become a musician instead of dealing drugs?

      You are a great pianist, but when you launch your attacks on music teachers and students in Venezuela, who by the way have a much better idea than you about how messed up the country is because they are victims of crime and they can’t find food or medicines, you are being very unfair.

      • Gabriela Montero says:

        Dear Juancho,

        You raise a very important set of questions which require diligent answers, in order to dispel all confusion, and even accusation.

        – I absolutely support all initiatives worldwide that bring music education specifically and education generally to ALL children, not just those who can’t afford it, and I revere those who work so passionately to do so. Music ought to be an integrated part of our education system. Let me make that abundantly clear.

        – A few minutes of research into what I have written over the years will also reveal that I wholeheartedly SUPPORT the teachers of El Sistema and their parents. In fact, I have repeatedly criticized the pyramidal system that rewards the top echelons while neglecting the very people you rightly protect in your message above. I am in constant communication with these teachers and students, and I have even helped some of them financially from my own pocket, behind closed doors, knowing that they are not getting paid. I consistently advocate for them and I do so right now.

        – Now for the drug gang hypothesis. This is a hypothesis I simply do not buy, and it adds to the myth that El Sistema is a rescue mission. It is not, nor was it conceived as such 40 years ago. This is a narrative that has been conjured in recent years to justify its “social change” claim, to fit the Chavismo mission statement, to secure financing from the Inter-American Development Bank, and, in turn, to retain monopolized power.

        It is a given that the course of millions of lives worldwide are changed daily by focussing on extra-curricular disciplines, from music to sport to intellectual endeavors. But it is simply preposterous to claim that the only choice in Venezuelan life specifically, for 40 years, has been the local gang or the local orchestra, even if there are, as would be statistically expected, multiple stories of lives transformed by the focussed pursuit of music. It is a myth which distracts from the very point of my message above, which is that we must concentrate first and foremost on building societies FREE from the very gangs that threaten these same kids, FREE from the kidnap, and murder, and hyperinflation, and deprivation, and medical shortages, and food shortages, and power outages, and impunity, and narco-kleptocratic governance that have threatened the entire future of these children. That means putting competent, decent people in place to run the country, and getting rid of this mafia regime once and for all.

        But how can we do that if our orchestras serve as their propaganda machine throughout the globe? How can we internationally condemn the government’s record while extolling their ideology on the world stage by wearing their colors and dancing to their tune? How can we advocate for security in a homeland which ranks among the most dangerous on Earth while prostituting ourselves with Delcy Rodriguez before the UN Security Council as beacons of collective cooperation?

        It is because I care about the real and substantive future of the kids, the teachers, the parents and the very existential survival of the nation, that I implore people to focus on building the society first, rather than complying sheep-like with the very government that has destroyed it. It is simply a moral impossibility to represent this particular regime while claiming to advocate for positive social change. I resolutely reject the moral justification of those who wear the colors of this government abroad in the name of music and in the name of social change, while their paymaster condemns the rest of the nation to utter misery, decay, and death. It is self-serving, it is spineless and it is has no moral validity except to the most Machiavellian of minds.

        • Beatriz Lozada says:

          Dear Gabriela, I fully agree all your words and I am very impressive for being so clear about our critical situation in Venezuela. I completely endorse your criteria and meaning of your statements. As a Venezuelan living in the USA, I appreciate your opinion on this and I think it deserves the full support of Venezuelans worldwide.

  • enemigopublico says:

    When has Gabriela Montero ever launched attacks on music teachers and students in Venezuela? You’re confusing the institution of El Sistema and its ordinary teachers and students, something that Montero doesn’t do.

    Do you know who despises the underpaid teacher that works in a nucleo? The institution that underpays them. The institution that has no interest in their basic labour rights. And do you know who supports this? People outside Venezuela like the authors of this book, who refuse to look at what’s really going on with the 99% of El Sistema, and so give the institution not just a free pass but a propaganda boost. This is one reason why things never change. If you’re interested in defending the 99%, support the people who flag up their situation, not those who cover it up.

  • Etienne Abelin says:

    I don’t know where Norman gets the idea that in the international networks practicing a Sistema-inspired approach, there is something like a dogma. There is none. Rather, there is an approach: combining inclusiveness with high frequency and a social learning environment. So let’s say – as a typical European example – a group of children that can’t normally benefit from music education due to financial, cultural or infrastructural barriers meets on two afternoons and on Saturday morning each week for a total of seven hours and learns to play music together in smaller and bigger groups. These three elements, combined, are not commonly practiced in Western music education systems and therefore offer an interesting alternative approach, that in my experience as a music educator, is worth studying and exploring. This approach doesn’t have to, but can, lead to impressive results such as this performance of an orchestra of Sistema-inspired program Superar in Vienna: These young musicians have, at the point of the video, only played their instruments for two years and two months and the type of inspiration and musical intensity they display and enjoy has a lot to do with the specific music pedagogical approach that they and their dedicated team of teachers practice weekly. I’m active in the European umbrella organization Sistema Europe and am delighted at the many programs that have started in the last few years in many European countries. I also find the level of variety, discourse and critical reflection high and have not at all the impression of anything resembling Starbuck’s franchise structure. The combination of inclusiveness, high frequency and a social learning environment would not necessarily have to be linked to El Sistema – after all they are simply ideas. Why do many programs still refer to what they do as Sistema-inspired? Quite simply because by far most impulses in this particular approach to music education come from the 40 years that El Sistema has been active. Credit where credit is due.

  • Gustavo Medina says:

    The process of enlargement of the existential horizon trough the music is a reality for musical practice, however, more evident when it comes to children’s or youth musical groups (not necessarily only orchestras), because it presents the opportunity to provide for them an aesthetic experience of large amplitude, assimilating a context of relationships with a possibility of expansion is really difficult to measure. Their confrontation with the artwork should not stimulate the mastering as a technical goal looking forward a vanity, instead as a challenge to overcome their self. The integration to the musical group should be in communion with the aesthetical interests grown on tradition who hold those responsible. The technique must be a phronetic experience where the work and seek target to overcome the expressive obstacles, extending the vision of the own possibilities and feeds the desire to experience more. Develop a taste for music as a value that elevates the spirit because it enriches the existence on Dasein, the be-in-world. However, just participation does not guarantee this goal. To reach this, the work should be driven in an ethical way to construct the production of knowledge. The bearer of tradition (the maestro, the Guide, the professor, the teacher) should be ethical, social and existentially committed to the impact of the application. The means and the ends cannot be predesigned because the purposes come true as far as they are apply appropriately to each particular situation. The exercise of power cannot be marked by laying before must legitimize itself through argumentation and persuasion doing credible action, anyway, you should be aware of to be balancing factor when revealing inequalities that divisions arise weakling the cohesion of the set. Enlarge the spaces of communication and distribute fairly the skills looking for the knowledge generation respects asymmetries. These provisions constitute a body of guidelines applicable to any unit of social practice and its purpose. These provisions constitute a body of guidelines applicable to any unit of social practice and its purpose is the uplifting of knowledge application toward hermeneutics understanding. So, would start to circle which leads to an experience of construction of own Being, where the space of inter-subjectivity meets the individual judgment and transforms it into an aesthetic experience, this experience, knowledge of art is not a knowledge of the object but a form of knowledge of own life, molding with the identity. A sensitive knowledge that is taken from the spiritual world of human values. An ontological event that indicates the path to the revelation of truth, the paradox of aesthetic experience.

  • MiguelPerez says:

    The El Sistema-produced musicians I have met in the last 15 years are 99% of them mediocre. Of course there is a 1% that is absolutely brilliant, but most of the musicians in El Sistema Venezuela have excellent orchestra-playing skills but they lack often basic musicianship skills, theory knowledge, and the ability to play solo and small ensemble repertoire.