Book Review: Playing for their Lives

ReviewThis review originally appeared in the February 2017 edition of the European String Teacher Association (ESTA) Journal.

In 2009, before I left for Venezuela to work with its national orchestra network, better known as El Sistema, Tricia Tunstall presented me with a copy of her piano memoir Note by Note. One evening on my travels I opened it, and I did not put it down until I reached the back cover, so entranced was I by its warmth and humanity, the depths of its insight and the universality of its narrative to anyone who had ever studied piano. Two years later, as someone deeply involved in El Sistema, I eagerly read Tunstall’s second book, Changing Lives, the story of the program in Venezuela. I enjoyed it, but the volume suffered from its attempt to explicate an unsophisticated, incomplete narrative into a full-length volume. In her most recent publication, Playing for their Lives: the Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change through Music, Tunstall and co-author Eric Booth look beyond Venezuela to the international spread of similar programs to even less effect.

Ignoring the incongruity of title with that of its precursor, Playing for their Lives is an attempt to give shape and, ultimately, guidance to what can be legitimately considered a grass-roots phenomenon. Beyond El Sistema, it’s difficult to think of another program that has been so widely emulated geographically, and the book succeeds in conveying both the scope and the energy of the movement, crossing the globe for examples of initiatives inspired by Venezuela. Tunstall’s strength is her capacity to craft engaging narratives, and in this regard the book makes for an inspiring read – provided the reader is willing to suspend all critical thinking faculties in the process. The picture that Tunstall and Booth paint is utterly unblemished. Everyone’s work in this sector is heart-warming, inspirational and, by dangerous implication, worthy of emulation. Legitimate ethnographic critique is dismissed off-hand and the complexity inherent to any form of social action through music is assiduously avoided.

Accordingly, a more informed and impartial eye will find more for concern than inspiration within the pages of glowing anecdotes. Trained music educators seem to be a minority of practitioners in this sector, with much of the described work led by performers – occasionally accomplished performers, sometimes decidedly otherwise, with good intentions regularly presented as a substitute for years of training in the delivery of music education. This mismatch of skills to task is made even more apparent in many of the anecdotes the book relates, which lay bare the deficiencies in knowledge of both the authors and the practitioners they describe. A two-page section entitled “Including the disruptive child” ignores the wealth of current research on effective strategies, and depicts programs as painfully ill-equipped to deal with a population they at least acknowledge is the most needful of the intervention. The passage immediately following, on the inclusion of children with Special Needs, similarly exalts the rudimentary efforts of many of the programs again without reference to any current best practices. Yet, in a theme common throughout the book, the testimonials on the effectiveness of the activities are uniformly glowing. This isn’t surprising, since they are almost all provided by those delivering the interventions. Only one participant is interviewed in this section, a young Italian man with Down syndrome, and his contribution is limited to twenty-two words, the final ten of which are “Playing music is the most important thing in my life.” A statement that might have been the launch point for an exploration of participant impact instead becomes the closing flourish, with genuine inquiry abandoned for dramatic effect.

But, as the authors stress, this isn’t that kind of book. In their introduction, they assert their disinterest in waiting for “hard data” in favour of extolling “the value and positive impact of Sistema-inspired work,” as explicitly determined through their own impressions, or the testimonials of program faculty. In short, for Tunstall and Booth to state it as fact, it only needs to feel right – an irresponsible claim for Tunstall, who describes herself on her website as a journalist. The ensuing chronic lack of detail on pedagogy in relation to social context, except for the broadest strokes, has the effect in the book of reducing Sistema to a panacea for all the ills of society, a suggestion that makes as much sense as claiming that penicillin can treat foot pain, depression, and cardiac arrest. In a chapter ironically entitled Different Cultures, Different Needs, the message is that whether in Afghanistan, Palestine, Korea, Colombia or Japan, a good dose of music is all that is required to address the most divergent social issues.

Who does this book truly serve?

Music educators can easily forgive Tunstall and Booth for wanting to believe that. What is harder to forgive is that their perspective at times seems willfully uninformed, to the extent of arrogance. The chapter What We Can Learn from El Sistema includes twenty pages of advice for orchestras, conservatories, civic leaders, and music educators, and concludes with three pages of what Sistema might in turn learn from them. Placed at the end of a book that is long on rhetoric and hype, but very short on practice, this final condescension to music educators outside of Sistema comes as no surprise.

The idea of changing society through music is inescapably complex, and any text to deal effectively with it must engage with that complexity, not ignore it. Informed music educators understand that all music education is fraught with tensions of practice and philosophy, and to ignore them, as this book does, represents a serious injustice to the practitioners and participants the authors claim to serve. Academic rigour would have been unnecessary: mere journalistic rigour would have helped bridge the divide between existing music education networks and the trenches where much of this admirable work takes place. Doubtlessly the authors will take refuge in the claim that “this wasn’t that kind of book” but that doesn’t answer the question what kind of a book it is. Given the authors’ stated preference for feelings over fact, I have a suggestion: fan fiction.

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