Sistema Through the Noise


It’s Thursday evening in the city of Mozart’s birth, and the formal part of the Sistema Europe conference, organized by European Mozart Ways and Maria Majno, has drawn to a close. As is the nature of these convenings, the informal part seems to have only just begun as dinner plans are being drawn up. The agenda of Sistema Through the Noise or International cooperation has been replaced with one of sausages, sauerkraut and beer. I assume there will still be noise and international cooperation at the table, just of a more convivial and less musical type.

But the pre-dinner menu was no less satisfying, actually. I won’t go into minutiae over what was presented, but there were a few new themes that emerged then surprisingly recurred throughout the day. The overriding theme is one that I launched, if I may take credit for it, by stating that we’re in the third phase of Sistema – long past simplistic Venezuelan adulation and imitation, and now largely through a second period of internationalization. The third phase is one of thinking about the idea itself, without geographical trappings, thinking about the connections between different forms of social change and music, and appreciating that there are limits to what can be done with the medium and our current practice. There’s always been a sharp difference between Sistema in Venezuela, Sistema as perceived/researched/reported by the rest of the world, and finally the idea that positive social change could be effected through music. Those lines are starting to be more clearly understood and drawn.

And as part of the process of drawing those lines, (Marshall Marcus and I shared “Sistema through the Noise”) today I débuted a new definition of Sistema. I’m sure it angered some of those in attendance by excluding many of the emotionally-laden trappings, if not misconceptions, about the program in Venezuela, but it shouldn’t have, really. Once you look at El Sistema for what it is – what its leadership says it is – it loses none of its nobility of intent or impressiveness of scope of execution. Here it is, the new definition of El Sistema in Venezuela:

El Sistema is the public applied music instruction network of Venezuela. Under a social mandate of accessibility, Sistema uses conventional pedagogical techniques to offer program participants the established benefits of music education.

There’s not much to unpack there, but I’ll unpack it anyway. 1) Sistema focuses on teaching children how to perform as instrumentalists or vocalists, with musicology or theory a very low priority. 2) The organizational strategic focus, as made clear by Eduardo Mendez in his interview with Tom Service, is one of improving access. There’s nothing wrong with this. It is a very valid and also very quantifiable social objective. 3) There are multiple established extra-musical benefits to participation in conventional music education, and providing these benefits to children under the remit of access does provide an essential developmental and social benefit.

The usual adjectives such as “revolutionary” or “innovative” or “joyful” are not included. They weren’t necessary or even appropriate. This will offend some, and I don’t doubt a host of the usual semi-literate graduate students desperately looking for grist for the slow grinding mill of their theses will pick my new definition apart (you wouldn’t believe how many didn’t bother to read that the Five Fundamentals apply to Venezuela, not El Sistema in general), but I believe the above statement describes the activity in Venezuela fairly and accurately. The Five Fundamentals still apply, of course, but they describe only the structural requisites for social action through music in Venezuela.

Fairness in the definition is critical. Until recently we’ve been unfair in our rhetoric, creating expectations that could never be met, imposing our own visions and aspirations for music education (noble intentions that they are) on the work in Venezuela, buoyed by unconstrained moral elevation. That has proven unfair and actually unhelpful to the Fundación, and this definition is offered in direct support of their work.

Someone famously once said that once you can define something, it’s dead. It makes for a lovely sound bite, but it’s also not actually true. Heisenberg came closer to the truth: measurement/definition of any entity will not kill it, but it will only capture some dimensions of it existence, not all. In the case of atomic particles, it is possible to determine speed or position, but not both at the same time. This definition of Sistema is true now (position), but it does not reflect the program’s ongoing evolution (speed), and a new definition will hopefully be required later. Definitions can be an integral part of that afore-mentioned reception history, and offering a new one now might provide a point of reference for future change.

But for the moment, my interest in measurements, relating to both quantity and speed, are directing themselves towards the agenda of sausage, sauerkraut and beer. I expect a research-intensive evening.






11 thoughts on “Sistema Through the Noise

  1. I have a question for you Jonathan… But first a definition of my own.

    Definition: A neurochemical and neurological process which enables two sentient organisms to establish a psychological attraction and then attachment in order to procreate.

    Essentially that’s a definition of love…

    Everything can be reduced to the base form in life. Emotions are just chemically based effects… there is no such thing as beauty, joy, love, hate, passion, happiness. They are all constructs of a neurochemical and neurological process – thinking.

    Everything, however, is so much more that the sum of the “parts”. You can define the process of Sistema as you have, but it becomes so utterly clinical and valueless, because you’ve left out the humanity. You’ve reduced it to a base description. What then is music? But noise.

    I think you have managed to capture the “Noise” part of the “Sistema through the Noise” quite well. But isn’t music so much more than noise, and so is Sistema.

    Here’s a revised version for you:

    “El Sistema” is the public instrumental and choral music education network of Venezuela. Under a social mandate of accessibility, Sistema uses conventional pedagogical techniques to offer program participants the established benefits of a rich music education: El Sistema enables the effects of music – intrinsic and extrinsic – including the perception of self, imagination, wonderment, the experience of joy, order, self-expression, empowerment and passion – in a safe, benevolent and encouraging environment – enabling the process of emergence – and the development of experiences and the creation of ideas in each of its participants, often unable to be achieved singularly. It creates this through a purposeful, and powerful process of social learning – a process which unlocks the power of many into the lives of each.

    El Sistema is not anything more nor less than that. It’s far more than the sum of its parts Jonathan – and I didn’t use “phenomenon” nor “revolutionary” or “innovative” or “joyful” – I added the experiential, and humanity to it.

    To simplify it down to the molecular level is all very well if you are trying to deconstruct it but unless you realise there’s more to it than the molecules and lower, the atoms, and lower the nuclear particles… you can no longer see the wood, for the trees.

    So my question to you is: why are you doing this? What are you trying to achieve by stripping Sistema down to the atomic level?

    1. You know, I looked that up before I wrote it because as I typed it the same thought occurred to me. It appears it’s actually “sound bite.”

  2. In some ways this definition seems like a step forwards: it strips away some of the more problematic aspects of earlier attempts to define El Sistema. But it also seems like a step forwards down a path that goes backwards. I find myself (surprisingly) concurring with Christopher Nicholls: what is the point of this?

    It takes me straight back to an exchange we had last year (;, and I maintain the same position: that defining and simplifying is actually counter-productive in the process of trying to understand El Sistema. One of the program’s biggest problems is its love of slogans and soundbites, which makes it more like a brand than a serious enquiry into music education. We should be trying to unpick and examine these aphorisms rather than create new ones, since they hinder rather than help understanding.

    To take a couple of aspects of your definition: you describe El Sistema as “the public applied music instruction network of Venezuela.” This simplifies a complex reality in which there are multiple public music education networks (most of them now much depleted, thanks to the monopolizing tendencies of El Sistema) – in public schools, via the old conservatoire system, the music schools provided at state level, the municipal band system, the orquestas típicas, etc. It also obscures the issues around the “public-ness” of El Sistema, which, as you know, is only available to a minority of Venezuelan children, and is publicly funded but operates to a large extent like a private organization.

    Your “social mandate of accessibility” is uncontroversial, but your accompanying statement “there’s nothing wrong with this” again obscures a complex topic. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing right with it either. Access is only positive if the thing being provided is positive. Giving people wider access to sexism or racism or fascism would hardly be laudable. This is the conversation that needs to be had: is El Sistema providing children with access to the best possible music education? For me, a definition is only really worth having if it opens up that kind of question.

    Finally, to say that El Sistema offers participants “the established benefits of music education” only tells half the story. To be meaningful, it should read “the established benefits and drawbacks of conventional music education.” These drawbacks have been well known and widely discussed by music education experts for at least 40 years. A definition that fails to acknowledge this huge and highly relevant area of scholarship simply perpetuates the division between El Sistema and music education research, which is another of the program’s fundamental weaknesses.

    Now, I could contradict my own argument by saying that Christopher Nicholls’ response points to the capacity of your definition to promote debate, and since debate is the top priority, the rightness or wrongness of your definition is of secondary importance. I’ll buy that up to a point. But I do think that abandoning the whole urge to simplify and define in favour of complexifying and unpicking would be an even more positive step. It would allow the voices of ordinary Venezuelan musicians, and their complex reactions to El Sistema, to enter a debate from which they are largely excluded.

  3. And now I find myself incredibly to be partially in agreement with Geoff Baker. Whatever I am a part of in my own country, in this vein, will have rigorous and open process when it comes to research, ethics in governance and the very best positive music education one can provide. It has to have high and ethical principles otherwise it potentially debases more than benefits its participants at several levels.

    I think the Venezuelan El Sistema is not transferable exactly, elsewhere, nor should it be. It’s like the city that grew from a single waypoint, into a mighty metropolis, with less planning than it should have and without many of the necessary brakes and critical process than it really needed. The important and laudable elements of it should, however. I’d sure rather learn from its mistakes, and gain from its strengths, in order to build something which has the best of both worlds and is transferable globally, and is something that its critics can find value rather than take issue with.

    I am certainly an idealist in that I can see the wonderful parts of something like El Sistema, and the potential they offer; however, while I have not witnessed the dark parts that Geoff Baker has reported, as in any ‘metropolis’ I will acknowledge there are always going to be bad elements – especially is such a system and such an environment.

    Maybe that is the point to your blog: pull away all the superstructure down to a base level, so that we can see it without the branding, aphorisms and slogans – without the mumbo-jumbo. But you can’t do it that injustice, because there is always an element of magic in such things. Regardless of the critics and regardless of what we intend in trying to define and pin it down.

    In its purest form El Sistema is a social learning program – not simply a music education program – regardless of how it started. It always confuses musicologists and many musicians with these twin goals and perhaps loses its way in both depending on how well it is managed at any given time. We need to understand it fully, and have peer-reviewed scientific process in research of it so the effects and process are clear and unencumbered by ideology and social politics. And we do need to differentiate the Venezuelan El Sistema from other versions of it around the world – “El Sistema” is not a brand – it’s more of an idea.

  4. I’m not surprised that you gentlemen (Chris and Geoff) are in agreement, because at heart you both and I want the same thing: a progressive, holistic, universally accessible, socially engaged music education system. This is Sistema No. 3 of the three I outlined, the idea that music can affect society profoundly and positively.

    The problem that Chris has exemplified in his responses is the ongoing confusion between Sistema No. 3, and Sistema No. 1 (Venezuela). (Chris, your last paragraph is an eloquent argument on behalf of my position.) Sistema No. 3 as an idea is extraordinarily compelling. It is more than that, it is credible, it is accepted in a way that is almost axiomatic, that is to say, true unto itself and requiring no proof. (To answer Glenn’s question.) But as Geoff has pointed out, in reality Sistema No 1 has only the most tenuous connections in practice to Sistema No. 3, thanks in large part to the noise that is Sistema No. 2. (I’d be more specific in my reference but I’m 7000 miles from my copy of the book.)

    So the definition derives from the same force that motivates all the respondents to this blog. We all want Sistema No. 3. We can only hope to achieve that if we first understand where we are, where Venezuela is (Sistema No. 1) so we know what must yet be accomplished. The only point in defining Sistema No.1 is to move past it – if not to stop talking about it. Contrary to Geoff’s neo-colonial impulses, we have no right to dictate Venezuelan music education policy. I respect their newly-stated social goal of access, and I consider it entirely valid. Given the origins of their pedagogy, their work is in general no better and no worse than anything on offer in the northern Americas, and I would never advocate taking what little we currently have in the US and Canada away because of the deficiencies that most teachers and practitioners already acknowledge and try to overcome. I believe that the benefits far outweigh the detriments, except in the most extreme/criminal cases (of which the northwestern world clearly has its fair share). Similarly, what I perceive as the shortcomings of their approach are only relevant in terms of my own practice as an educator and my advocacy in shaping Sistema No. 3.

    Venezuela’s great domestic achievement is the program’s scope. Venezuela’s great international achievement is the catalyzation of a new conversation about music education. They have my respect and appreciation for both, but when it comes to evolution of the program I’d rather influence the process by convincing its teachers of the merits of an alternate practice I can demonstrate, rather than condemning their existing work. That’s just the educator in me.

    Sistema No.1 is simple, and I have expressed it simply. Sistema No. 3 as an aspiration can be expressed equally simply. In practice its expression will be extraordinarily sophisticated and complex, requiring the best of us as educators and researchers. And Sistema No. 2 (to which I acknowledge I have contributed greatly in the past) is just noise.

    From Munich at 1am CET.


  5. Thank goodness you’ve explained the thought processes better… And I do agree that Geoff Baker and I have more in common than we seem to think. I listened to the interview he gave to Sistema Global and found myself agreeing with several of his points. Not all however.

    But that is another thing. I have arrived at what you call Sistema No.3 which is capable of being expressed simply but as you say, is capable of being immensely complex. It pays great homage to Venezuela as a catalyst for such ideas and ideals, but the new approach has to be different – there’s little point, sense or ability to transfer an “El Sistema” (Sistema No.1) model holus bolus into a place like Australia, or England or anywhere, pretty much. I tried a Sistema No.2 model and it was successful to a point, but it was totally unsustainable. Creating a Sistema No.3 model allows one to observe the criticisms of the Venezuelan and second generation Sistema programs and tries to produce what you call, “a progressive, holistic, universally accessible, socially engaged music education system.” I would add: open, ethical, well managed and governed, with a continuously monitored and researched process.

    Let’s move away from the noise.

  6. It’s good to see this outbreak of agreement. Perhaps the value of Jonathan’s post has been proven.

    I had a good chuckle about my “neo-colonial impulses”! This makes me sound like the High Commissioner for Venezuelan Music who has just issued a decree banning a poor defenceless music program. The power balance is of course the other way round, and trying to promote debate is hardly the same as dictating policy. My alignment with the anti-colonial strand of Venezuelan cultural politics is also pretty obvious in my book.

    It comes down to the big universalism vs. relativism debate, which won’t be resolved in the footnotes to a blog post. However, I think the issue is rather less complicated when the cultural form is European and is indeed often known as “universal music” in Venezuela. In such a case, I think the argument against universalism – and therefore cross-cultural critique – is much weaker.

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