The Morality of Pay-to-Play

Margaret Tobolowska and Orkidstra - from the Ottawa Citizen, photo credit: Bruno Schlumberger

(Or Dollars and Sense Part 5 or The Why of Sistema Part 2 or The Morality of Paid-to-Play The Sequel)

Early in the fall I was having a drink with Aristides Rivas, Sistema graduate, one-time student of Roberto Zambrano and now Boston-area cellist and teacher. Beyond his professional activities, Aristides is heavily involved in the social sphere of music, so I wasn’t surprised when he mentioned he was planning on starting a núcleo in the Boston area. I was surprised by what he said next, however, and I will paraphrase: “I don’t want to start a program that’s just for kids who can’t otherwise afford music. One of the most valuable parts of the experience for me in Venezuela was how it brought together people from across society.”

Valuable not just for him, but for society as well: bridging the growing divide between wealthy and poor is one of the most immediate and important social functions of Sistema in Venezuela (see this posting for more) – but it’s an element that has perforce been largely abandoned internationally. The reason is fairly simple: unlike Venezuela, where Sistema is the only option for music education, most developed nations have a well-established parallel sector, represented by conservatories, youth orchestras, and private instructors, providing very high-level training or experiences at commensurate prices. On the surface then, ensuring “access” for those for whom excellent systems already exist and are within financial reach is understandably a low priority. This situation is further compounded by the majority of funding or granting agencies who make it a condition of their gifts that monies be applied only to those with demonstrated need: Sistema programs could in fact be punished financially for attempting to broaden their reach.

And strangely, those few Sistema programs in the best position to integrate vertically generally decline to do so. There are a number of initiatives led by youth orchestras, but the level of interaction between the tuition-based and outreach programs has tended to be very low, or of a nature that emphasizes class divisions. The wealthy students (generally white or Asian in the US) “mentor” the subsidized students (generally black or latino), or play one or two side-by-sides a year, thus reinforcing stereotypical power relationships. It’s all done with the best of intentions, but like so many other things, that doesn’t make it helpful.

There’s one program I know of (please contact me if you know of others) that deliberately integrates vertically (Charter school programs excepted): Orkidstra, in Ottawa, Canada. The only way they are able to mix children of different family incomes is by charging students relative to their ability to pay, although many receive full subsidies.

Orkidstra makes the front page of the Ottawa Citizen

The crux of the issue is how “accessibility” is defined: completely and utterly free without exception, or relative to the resources of the student? Tina Fedeski, founder of Orkidstra, put it very simply in a private conversation at the Montréal symposium: “How can I look a funder in the eye and ask them to subsidize the child of a doctor?” she said. (I’m paraphrasing again.) The fact that her program encompasses such children is wonderful, in my opinion, and a very important dimension of its social impact. Furthermore, the integration reduces the all-too-common perception that Sistema is “just for poor kids,” an idea that only exacerbates the problem of social divisions.

How has the Fundabol reacted to this? Far from disowning and disavowing Tina and Orkidstra for their temerity in attaching a price tag, the Venezuelans hold their work in the highest regard.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of money in private music instruction. It’s one of the most stable and lucrative educational markets (parents being loath to see their children’s education suffer even during a recession), and could present a very valuable income stream to Sistema programs while diminishing the “poor kids only” perception, promoting integration and mollifying sponsors too. It could manifest in different ways: through paid private lessons for advance students, instrument rental fees, or a sliding scale for ensemble tuition.

The barriers to participation differ for each student: there’s no reason why programs should revisit what constitutes “accessibility” with this in mind. If initiatives have the ability to offer their services entirely free for all while promoting vertical social integration, more power to them, but they should ask whether their mandate could be broadened with a different approach. We live in a society that equates something’s price with its value. We know Sistema is priceless, but does that mean it should always be free?

7 thoughts on “The Morality of Pay-to-Play

  1. One only hopes that there isn’t a subtle shift in attention towards those who begin to pay (because there might be a perception that they need to get measurable and more accountable results in exchange for their tuition fees) to the detriment of those who are learning for free because they are unable to pay. This would be my worry if we were to try that experiment in India. The middle- and upper-income parents are more likely to be vociferous and demand results than their poorer counterparts, who have their attention devoted to far more pressing issues like food, housing and health, which “richer” India accepts as a given.

  2. Very valid point, Luis. The other danger of course is that it could become the first and worst recourse for programs that are struggling – incremental increases here, slight bump there, and suddenly it becomes out of reach for the very people it was set up to serve. Think of governments and taxation…

  3. Jonathan,

    This is something we are looking at here in Australia too. I voted for the first option, but it there had been one that said, “Not until the social inequity is reduced considerably” – I would have ticked that. For it is in these key communities that a world of pain and national unrest is taking place. The social evil that is taking place in these communities impacts everything else – look at drug and alcohol abuse, gang-based crime, violent crime, and community health issues which cost our nations, billions of dollars. If we can reduce that, stem the tide a bit, then we do good everywhere.

    I also agree with Maestro Abreu’s statement that he supports the notion of “A Venezuela where every town, regardless of how small, will have its choir and its orchestra.” Why is this important? Because of the socialisation value, because of the cultural value and because of the community value of such a thing. And that’s where music and its practice, enjoyment and participation equalise the community.

    I ask this: Where did Abreu start? In the Barrios. Where should we start? In our poor, disadvantaged communities. But should this remain so? Well no. I think El Sistema’s value is inevitably for EVERY child in EVERY community. So we must build this into the equation.

    I don’t think that creating an El Sistema-based program is necessarily about “imitating” Venezuela, it’s about taking the lessons they learned, the practice they are still developing (37 years in the making), the fundamentals they set up, and the model they established and applying that to our own situations. As we all know, the “System” is less a concrete methodology and more a set of principles, ideas, and a key philosophy and approach on how to positively change our society, to a better one. Everything else is less important than that.

    In Australia we have another form of disadvantage: geographic disadvantage. The children and communities of the regional areas of Australia particularly (but not solely) the more remote communities, simply do not get the things that city kids get. Regional and regional remote communities suffer from all sorts of issues – suicide rates are often high, education outcomes often low, and there are always the socioeconomic issues there too. So this too is an area we are looking at – plus we have the additional dimension of an indigenous community, our native people. They are amongst the most disadvantaged in our entire nation, and many of them live in communities, remote and regionally isolated.

    These are different issues from those faced in Venezuela, and for those experienced in Raploch in Scotland, and Baltimore in the USA – so we need to deal with this in a unique way. So whilst the methods and structure may well be very different, the fundamentals will be identical.

    My goal is to get government in Australia to make it free – for all children – as it essentially is in Venezuela. Education is essentially “free” in this country, why not music? We know that in Venezuela for every dollar spent, $1.53 is returned in social equity. I will argue a similar line here and use other empirical research data to convince those in power to fund such a thing. This happened in the United Kingdom with their ‘Music Manifesto’ and a £332 million funding package was allocated by the government for music education. So why not here too – for nucleos around Australia?

    The question to my mind is not “should it be free?”, but “how do we make it free?”


    Chris Nicholls

  4. Chris, you hit on a number of excellent points, and I’m glad you brought them up.

    Prioritization of social goals is part of the issue, as you noted. In Canada, the social services network is better established and more comprehensive than in the US, so the need from an economic perspective isn’t as great – which is why Orkidstra places a higher emphasis on social integration. it’s a luxury they perhaps have, and their physical location within the city also straddles multiple socio-economic groups. The situation is different everywhere, as per your synposis of Australia – although the rural/urban divide is prevalent worldwide, and the indigenous population in Canada is by and large the face of Canadian poverty, sadly.

    But then again, is it possible – through models of collaboration you yourself have outlined – to effect greater vertical integration? Is it always necessary to choose between servicing one social need or another, or can they be approached in a holistic way?

    And I do have to correct you – Sistema in Vz was ALWAYS for everyone, from day 1 – there was plenty of solid middle and privileged upper class representation in that first group of 11.

    If American politicians were at least aware of the horrendous damage done to the nation by educational inequality, the grossly unequal tax burden placed on the lower and middle class, and the effect the two have on fostering social unrest, they might actually be able to reduce that unrest at the legislative level. But no, we have the leading Republican candidate dismissing this issue as “envy.” He’s smart enough to know the truth, just as he’s smart enough to know his campaign won’t be bankrolled by those living of state aid…


  5. I like Chris’ summarising sentence: “The question to my mind is not “should it be free?”, but “how do we make it free?””.

    How indeed? Especially in a place like India where state-funding for western classical music is non-existent, because it’s still viewed with suspicion as some sort of post-colonial Trojan horse, meant to shatter our much-ballyhoo-ed “parampara” or our own music tradition. And in the few cases where the state does step in (as in Goa), there’s colossal wastage of money, lack of direction and lack of the right input when it comes to planning and decisions regarding infrastructure, etc.

    Our private sector has still not woken up in a comprehensive way to address this either, despite all the fuss about India being an economic superpower, etc etc.

    Trouble is, there are just too many and prohibitive inbuilt costs in western classical music, down to the instruments themselves, salaries for good teachers (if they even exist locally), and favourable venues for the performance of music.

    I dream of a day when like-minded charities and music institutions can help each other out across the world e.g if advanced students or musicians from El Sistema USA or Australia or wherever, could come and work or apprentice here on in needier teacher-starved parts of the world, it would not only help them but us as well. And who knows, someday into the future we can return the favour!

    I realise I am digressing, but it might be one way to keep costs down and therefore make music more accessible in parts of the world where it is virtually non-existent. The lack of any good teachers is a huge stumbling block in our plans to grow, and if not urgently addressed, might mean we slowly wither away, although I’m trying my damnedest to prevent that form happening.

    1. Luis,

      I think what you’re advocating is very possible: In 1998 I brought a group of young socially-minded musician to Calcutta to lead a “Boot camp” for the orchestra musicians there, to train a group of teachers with the expectation they would pass on what they acquired to a next generation of students. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to repeat the program, which would have helped extend the benefits/results.

      Almost all the fundraising for this was undertaken offshore, unfortunately.. It’s difficult to advocate for classical music when social need is much greater and much more visible in other spheres.

      I’ve tried very hard to connect initiatives such as yours to University programs in America, but there’s been little interest here; The conservatory system is caught in the trap of having to prepare its students for jobs in professional orchestras, even while being painfully aware that perhaps 1% will find actual employment of that nature. If the system here were honest with its students, it would prepare them to be entrepreneurial, active contributors to their societies, rather than deceiving them into thinking they have a fighting chance to join a failing industry.

      Attitudes have to change all over the world… we’ll get there.

  6. Jonathan,

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that El Sistema Vz was selective, but the fact remains that over 81% of the children participating in its El Sistema programs are from the lower stratums of Venezuelan society (FESNOJIV (2006) 2005 Annual Report), and the very identity of El Sistema is ingrained with social action, albeit through wonderful music and the phenomenal orchestras which play it.

    The point I was really trying to make was that the most valuable asset of El Sistema by far is it’s ability to bring such positives to the disadvantaged communities, not so much to meld the different socioeconomic groups – as nice a feeling as that might bring. To me, to engineer this is almost condescending. In Venezuela it happened naturally – the benefit coming as a result of it’s establishment. And if we try to re-create El Sistema in other countries by merely copying what we see from 37 years of development, we could very well be missing the entire point – and its value.

    Here in Australia we determined that the goal is very much for all Australian children, but the programs have started with those children that just don’t get music at all.

    Regardless of all of that – I still think it is imperative that it is free to every child. We cannot means test this. I think that parents who can afford to, should be encouraged to donate to the programs. This will provide a far greater social and cohesive benefit, than merely paying for their own children. They could also sponsor, or donate instruments, music, and of course any parent could contribute through voluntary work and support – “in-kind” support.

    I also think what Luis asks is possible. I know that the Australian National Academy of Music sent several of its students to East Timor last year to run a music program for their children – it’s not a big jump from that to creating a Music Corps which could appoint resident teaching artists in communities abroad. In fact I have been studying the US Arts Corps for a while ( thinking that this might well provide a model for such a concept.

    Clearly there is much that can be done it that area…


    Chris Nicholls

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