Book Review: El Sistema – Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth

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As one of the more successful early blog writers on all things relating to El Sistema, I was frequently urged by friends and colleagues to collect my thoughts into a book on the topic. My standard response at that time was that every man and his dog were writing a book on Sistema, but flippancy aside, there was a more serious reason in mind. If my book were not to be yet another extension of the official narratives, it would require a degree of legwork that I simply didn’t have the resources to execute. It would require going off the extremely well-beaten track, sifting through pages and pages of forgotten print media and delving deeply into Venezuelan political and economic history, seeking out the other side of the tale.

This is what Geoff Baker, Associate Professor at the University of London Royal Holloway, has done in his book El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. Meticulously researched and written, the book is a frank, unflinching look at Venezuela’s national youth orchestra network. It exhaustively traces the origins and subsequent evolution of the program, its public messaging and its founder, José Antonio Abreu through media reports and countless personal interviews with program participants or faculty. But despite the depth of its research, it also feels surprisingly incomplete.

The work’s sense of deficiency doesn’t derive from Baker’s understandable reticence to put names to those making the most troubling criticisms or allegations. For the most part, Baker has done his homework. In his analysis of the history and popular/political reception of the program over its four decades of activity he has managed to unearth many surprising yet verifiable sources. The cover of the book, a caricature of Abreu as maestro, conducting an adoring media circus, might be a literal and figurative red flag to Sistema’s many supporters, but it originally appeared with a 1990s article investigating Abreu’s tenure as Minister of Culture. Those sources that remain unnamed are restricted to the most troubling claims, and it’s immediately understandable why the comments were offered under the strict condition of anonymity. The many allegations of endemic emotional, physical and even sexual abuse are deeply disturbing.

Baker’s insights or analyses are rarely faulty in and of themselves: their weakness is that often they don’t dig deeply enough. His deconstruction of the orchestra as a flawed medium for social change is well argued, but in his blanket condemnation he fails to identify any positive connection between the program’s international success and its choice of medium and genre. (For a broader discussion of this issue and a defense of the orchestra, see my previous entry, written before I had access to the book.) Similarly, much copy is given to condemning the repetitive, authoritative nature of the teaching in Venezuela but very little page space is expended on why the instruction has so evolved. Baker initially makes the reasonable argument that teachers “teach the way they were taught.” Later in the book he states that “El Sistema’s aesthetic and professional norms are determined by Europe, with the Berlin Philharmonic the ultimate benchmark. Workshops and masterclasses with members of the Berlin Phil are considered the pinnacle of instruction.” And further down the same page: “the gold standard for performance and teaching is still European.”(p.290.) If these statements from different chapters are reconciled, then the root of the problem is not Venezuela’s vision of music education, but that of the Western European pedagogical tradition. As Baker’s citations amply demonstrate, the latter is troubled enough: how dare the Venezuelans do what we’ve been doing for centuries?

Baker devotes a substantial portion of a chapter to issues of sexual misconduct within Sistema (Chapter 10) and separately to the concept of “peer teaching” (p.141) but again falls short of identifying and investigating a potential connection between the two. Under a formalized peer teaching model it is entirely possible that your boyfriend/girlfriend may be your stand partner on Monday, and your student as of Tuesday, thus manufacturing overnight a grey area at best, an ethical minefield at worst. This certainly doesn’t justify any alleged sexual misconduct, but there is a lesson here for programs mindlessly rushing to place children in positions of authority over other children (calling them “mentors” or worse, “teachers”) that is entirely missed. Baker uses the example of the Chetham scandal to illustrate the perils of the intimate yet dangerously imbalanced relationship between music student and teacher, but no recognition is given to the fact that responding to allegations of sexual abuse remains an extremely complex, challenging task for even sophisticated western $1.5 Billion (thousand million) USD operations like the University of Virginia. The level of challenge doesn’t obviate the responsibility, but if a major public US institution struggles with this issue beyond claiming “zero tolerance”, a loosely organized Latin-American cultural division probably doesn’t stand a chance at enacting an enforceable policy.

It is this simplification of cause and effect, the incompleteness of reasoning, the unwillingness to explore the complexity behind some of the harshest criticisms that remains a disappointing element of what is otherwise a very valuable book. Baker might argue that his responsibility was solely to the what but I would strongly disagree: without looking to why, the idea of what becomes simplistic or meaningless. A prime example of this is Baker’s implication of Abreu’s complicity in accounting irregularities (p.275). While alleging multiple instances of fiscal mismanagement, Baker stops short of identifying any kind of motive, even admitting that Abreu lives like a pauper, leaving readers wondering why a man apparently so disinterested in personal wealth would actively aid and abet others in its accumulation.

There is no question that despite Baker’s protestations to the contrary, and his lengthy explanation of his own motives in the foreword, the book is heavily slanted. The most egregious example of this inherent bias may be Baker’s insinuation that Abreu was involved in outright fraud or embezzlement (p.31); even as he acknowledges there is zero evidence to support this assertion, by simply associating the ideas Baker speaks new existence into decade-old rumors. This stroke has a touch of Schadenfreude to it, if not a willful malice. It is unfortunate because the pervasive sense of partiality detracts significantly from the many penetrating insights Baker has to offer and the tough questions that, in asking about the practice within Sistema, he ultimately – if perhaps inadvertently- asks about our own work as music educators.

In reading the book, and the extremely polarized internet commentary Baker’s Op-ed in the Guardian produced, I was reminded of a conversation I had with some European colleagues over the films of the American documentary maker Michael Moore. My friends lauded Bowling for Columbine, a film on gun control in America, but expressed significant distaste for Fahrenheit 911, saying its condemnation of the George W. Bush administration and presidency was so biased as to render it unbelievable. Having moved to the US at the same time as the film’s release, I was particularly conscious of the intention of the latter film to offer a counterweight to the propagandist distortions of the American news media machine: without the requisite immersion in the current popular narratives the opposing perspective naturally felt imbalanced.

If I were to investigate the why, to ask myself what motivated Baker to take his particular approach to the topic, I might have a similar answer. To date Sistema discourse has largely been dominated by accounts that are extensions of the official narrative, works that are largely fictionalized, and one particular volume generously described by a senior Fundación official as “complete gibberish.” Like Moore, Baker places his contribution firmly in opposition to current narratives, and in so doing, defines the critical spectrum. Where then does the truth lie? Exactly where one might expect: somewhere in the middle. For those who can keep that in mind, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth is essential reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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

  1. Jonathan knows more about El Sistema than any other commentator writing in English, and his insights are more valuable and original than any others in the field. I was therefore looking forward to his review of my book. I’m a little disappointed, I have to be honest – it’s not quite up to the standard of his recent work. It’s not a review in the academic sense of the word, since many of the main points of the book are not even mentioned, and a lot of focus is placed on rather minor points of disagreement; but then again, it’s a blog review, not a journal review, so a more journalistic approach is perhaps justified. Also, in his defence, Jonathan has had three days to read and digest the book and formulate a response, which is no easy feat. His recent articles doubtlessly went through a much longer gestation. The result, though, is that some of his arguments are not quite as tightly formulated as usual.

    To respond to the main points of criticism:

    1. “he fails to identify any positive connection between the program’s international success and its choice of medium and genre.”

    Of course choosing the orchestra boosted the program’s international marketability, but (a) this is an example of the ends-justifies-the-means calculations that are so characteristic of El Sistema and require much more critical scrutiny, given the issues they raise in an educational context, and (b) what’s the point in being internationally successful if you fail to offer the best possible education at home? What’s the program’s ultimate aim – educating ordinary Venezuelan kids, or entertaining middle-class audiences in Europe and North America? I maintain my view: the symphony orchestra, in its traditional guise (as in Venezuela), is possibly the least effective musical vehicle for the kinds of social transformation that El Sistema’s supporters seek. Filling the Royal Albert Hall doesn’t change a thing in that regard.

    2. “much copy is given to condemning the repetitive, authoritative nature of the teaching in Venezuela but very little page space is expended on why the instruction has so evolved.”

    Has it evolved? Or is just the same old-fashioned European-derived pedagogy that the program started with in the 1970s? And why is it that way? The answer is written all over my book – because El Sistema is Abreu writ large, a “suit made to measure” as one of his former employees described it. Because there is minimal will to change it. Because the program has virtually no interest in music education research and its critiques of such pedagogy (e.g. its absence from the Sistema SIG at ISME in Porto Alegre).

    3. “the root of the problem is not Venezuela’s vision of music education, but that of the Western European pedagogical tradition. As Baker’s citations amply demonstrate, the latter is troubled enough: how dare the Venezuelans do what we’ve been doing for centuries?”

    If that’s what El Sistema and its global advocates said it was doing, there would be less to criticize or discuss here. And if it were small, meagerly funded, or even national operation, then again, this would be less remarkable, though I still think that substandard education is substandard education, and that to criticize it in one country but not in another is patronizing. But El Sistema is a program with a stated international agenda. It fully intends to expand internationally and Abreu has signalled his desire to be present in every country in the globe. Also, it has been sold to the world as a revolution in artistic learning. At that point, it’s no longer relevant to say “oh, but it’s no worse than the old-fashioned European tradition.” There’s no place for the view that poor-quality education is OK because it’s only Venezuela. So no, the question is more like: how dare they and their overseas ambassadors try and sell this distinctly low-grade coal back to Newcastle?

    4. “Baker devotes a substantial portion of a chapter to issues of sexual misconduct within Sistema (Chapter 10) and separately to the concept of “peer teaching” (p.141) but again falls short of identifying and investigating a potential connection between the two.”

    That’s because I think this is the least problematic manifestation of the issue. I’m much more concerned by examples where the power imbalance is greater, and where the teacher has power over the student’s career. It’s the accounts of núcleo directors having sexual relationships with students that really bother me, not students with each other. It’s the relationship between sex and power that needs most investigation.

    5. “no recognition is given to the fact that responding to allegations of sexual abuse remains an extremely complex, challenging task for even sophisticated western $1.5 Billion (thousand million) USD operations like the University of Virginia. The level of challenge doesn’t obviate the responsibility, but if a major public US institution struggles with this issue beyond claiming “zero tolerance”, a loosely organized Latin-American cultural division probably doesn’t stand a chance at enacting an enforceable policy.”

    Struggling with a big challenge is one thing; failing to acknowledge a problem or do anything about it is another. By all but admitting defeat in advance, Jonathan is coming very close to justifying institutional inaction here. El Sistema has the power and funds to institute child protection measures. They might be imperfect, it might be hard, but I see no moral justification whatsoever for not trying “because it’ll never work.”

    6. “Baker might argue that his responsibility was solely to the what but I would strongly disagree: without looking to why, the idea of what becomes simplistic or meaningless.”

    What, corruption is meaningless unless we identify a motive?

    7. “his simplification of cause and effect, the incompleteness of reasoning, the unwillingness to explore the complexity”

    This, I would argue, is precisely what Jonathan does by taking everything I say at face value and failing to read between the lines. He understands the inner workings of the Venezuelan program today as well as any other non-Venezuelan, and much better than most. However, his review reveals that this understanding is not matched by a deeper knowledge of and feel for the 40-year history of the program and its key players, and he therefore seems unable to join the dots in my book. I do not blame him for this. The only people I know who can join the dots in my book are Venezuelan musicians and cultural observers whose knowledge of El Sistema far exceeds both Jonathan’s and mine, and scholars who have looked long and hard at similar institutions in other countries (people like Ian Pace and Anna Bull, though there are many more). But they can do it – they have read my book and they get it. The answers are there, but not always on the surface.

    Jonathan’s final statement about the truth lying somewhere in the middle should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt: Jonathan’s truth may lie there, and someone else’s may lie somewhere else, but the truth of what I say is where I say it is. His reading of balance and counter-balance at the end is broadly correct, but that doesn’t mean that truth is to be found somewhere in the middle; truth is in all these places. What everyone does with all this in forming their own opinion is another matter, and of course, many people’s opinions will end up somewhere in the middle. Even if they only meet me part way, that’s still a big improvement on the current scenario.

    I write all this as an admirer of Jonathan and his work. It is a critical response to a critical review, nothing more. But I think there’s a lot more to discuss than either Jonathan’s review or my response manages to convey.

  2. Where it concerns male chauvinism and control over institutions and organizations, the problem is universal and on going in every culture. It is further complicated by class and privilege and the influence of super powers. No one is exempt. The status quo does not make the planet a sustainable place in the universe.

    Perhaps it is more noticeable to us when we are in a culture that is not our own because we are less immune to it. But being a woman I would rather hear from my female colleagues around the world as I think they have more expertise in the matter. Hopefully, that conversation will become more expansive in the future.

    Perhaps there should be more support in the arts for more performing organizations run and staffed by young women with in the global outreach to countries where women are the most vulnerable.

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