Looking under El Sistema's hood

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Sistema
What’s behind those smiles?

I apologize for not posting about this sooner. Nonetheless, make sure you read The Guardian’s scorching takedown of El Sistema.

British academic and musician Geoffrey Baker did what few people have been able to do: go to Venezuela and take a careful look at El Sistema’s claims of being a flagship model of social integration. What he finds is something much more complex, much less rosy than propaganda would have us believe. He is even coming out with a book on the issue, and he also has a blog on the topic.

The stand-out part of the piece:

Seen overseas as a beacon of social justice, at home the program was characterised variously as a cult and a corporation. There were numerous allegations of irregularities around its financial affairs, and I also heard claims of sexual abuse and relationships between teachers and students, presaging stories that subsequently emerged from specialist music schools in the UK.

I found many Sistema musicians unconvinced by claims that the project was aimed at Venezuela’s most vulnerable children. Pointing to a lack of mechanisms for consistently targeting this demographic, they suggested that most musicians came from the middle levels of society. They doubted that many children from truly deprived families would remain long in such a demanding program.

Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema’s superstar conductor, describes the orchestra as “a beautiful model for a society”. Ordinary musicians were more sceptical, however, seeing it instead as the world in miniature, with its problems intact or even intensified. “Yes, it’s a model”, said one, “of absolute tyranny: a society where someone will always be telling you what to do…. It’ll be organised, of course, because you have someone with lots of power who tells you exactly what to do, and you keep your mouth shut, end of story.”

Yowza.

Baker goes on to question the claims that the system is for the poor, and he ends up calling it “a model of tyranny.”

El Sistema has become an integral part of the Revolution’s international PR machine, despite the fact that the system of orchestras predates Chávez. For example, few people are aware that José Antonio Abreu, the headmaster of the system, was actually a minister for Carlos Andrés Pérez, the same man that Hugo Chávez violently tried to depose. He even sat in on the Cabinet during the Caracazo, fer cryin’ out loud. None of this gets a mention in Abreu’s Wikipedia pages – in Spanish oEnglish.

Abreu’s work deserves to be looked at critically, particularly when so many of our petro-dollars are at play. Just because a social program is (literally) music to our ears does not mean it’s sensible social policy. Costs and benefits have to be looked at, just like in any other program.

I don’t know to what extent Baker is looking at the numbers, but anything other than unconditional fawning has to be welcome news.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Badly written, poorly sourced, anecdote led, data-poor, repetitive…I hate the way this guy Baker writes. It’s a shame, because El Sistema really should be a prime target for debunkery. But you gotta do better than this!

    A major, quantitative evaluation of El Sistema by the Inter-American Development Bank should come out within a couple of months. THAT will be fun.

    • I agree that it’s a terrible article.

      Although, the burden of proof really rests on Abreu &Co. They are the ones that should justify why they deserve $120m a year.

    • But it makes me ask: El sistema is sustainable without all the money the state gives to them? It has an independent system of Checks and balances ? I agree at least that it is not all that perfect thing, and personally, i have seen a good group of private initiatives with a bigger scope that struggle with funding (Why not propose that the government funds those based on their results and not because it makes them look good?)

    • I agree, it’s poorly written and probably the research was not any good. HOWEVER, he dares to say something FEW people in Venezuela would dare to point out: that probably, perhaps, there might be a chance that El Sistema is not as effective as it has made us believe. It’s the challenge of every charitable endeavour: proving that your money is being well spent in your theory of change. So far, El Sistema hasn’t proven their theory of change, we’re just exposed to their constant PR.

  2. wow, this article is bad, really bad. He just went and interviewed a few disgruntled people and quoted them at length and did not cite any of his sources. El Sistema is a rigorous program, with an emphasis on discipline and hard-work, but it’s not an authoritarian model. By his definition, schools (where the teachers tell the students what to do and how to do it) would also qualify as brutal dictatorship. Abreu is indeed a politician, but I don’t think he’s Machiavellian. You do need a certain political know-how to get things done in Venezuela but he’s not some kind of dictator.

    The program might not reach as many people as it could, or maybe as it claims to. But, I know for a fact (because my entire family works for El Sistema and I know they are doing this work) that they’re constantly trying to include more people from all areas and socio-economic statuses. They have orchestras in prisons and have been trying to reach out to the indigenous communities. They also have the paper orchestra where the instruments are made of paper because they can’t afford real ones. They also have the white hand choir, for deaf and mute children to participate in the act of music-making together. Tell me if that isn’t at least trying to bring people together with music. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than what we had before, in the 80s, which was a true 19th century style music scene dominated by European and American musicians who would come to Venezuela when times were good, make a quick buck, and then leave as soon as the situation worsened. I’m not sure what the author would consider as good social programs, since “The “boot-camp” values that his project champions – discipline, obedience, order – are viewed askance by many progressive educationalists today, who prefer creativity and critical thinking.”

    I wonder if he really asked some of the students who have had truly transformative experiences with the program. He obviously has some bone to pick with El Sistema, and did not list any of the existing statistics that show how successful the program has been. The core educational tenets of El Sistema are not tyrannical, but all about working together, being creative and listening to one another. Since when are discipline and creativity mutually exclusive?

    There have been instances of the program being used for propaganda, and that is indeed unfortunate. However, the effect the program has had on thousands of lives, mine included, cannot be underestimated just because some of the powers that be have appropriated the achievements of hard-working musicians for political gain and cultural legitimacy in the eyes of the world.

    • Mr. Abreu has understood how the system works:
      Praise the dictatorship, and you’ll get the funding.

      On the other hand, calling the system “tyrannical” per se is a bit of an hyperbole, because as long as I know, music instrument training is always a rigorous one that requires some serious amount of discipline.

      I’m more concerned about the corruption and abuse issues within the sugar-coated cover of the system.

  3. I thought the article better than what Sr. Toro describes; “anecdotes” may not be big data, but they can break down the shiny platitudes which eminate from the régime and its supporters. I agree that the IADB report promises more; bring it on.

  4. Corruption , preferential treatment, mismanagement, propaganda, inneficiency….. i think this writer just isn’t familiar with Venezuelan institutions. Is anyone on this board surprised at these accusations? iIt would be more surprising if those issues weren’t present.
    It is typical of any third world country governmement program to overspend because of the endemic corruption and incompetence Ultimately the mission of the program is a good one and I would rather see us waste our money on this than on the thousands of other government contracts that end up as dollar deposits in foreign banks.

    • Wasted money is that: Wasted money.
      It doesn’t matter why it was wasted, what matters is that the goal isn’t met due to a faulty method, in this case, a gigantic corruption cyst draining most of the money. It’s the same as with corruption in other areas.

  5. “Yes, it’s a model”, said one, “of absolute tyranny: a society where someone will always be telling you what to do…. It’ll be organised, of course, because you have someone with lots of power who tells you exactly what to do, and you keep your mouth shut, end of story.”

    El Sistema probably shares similarities with those Soviet programs they had in USSR – and still have in Cuba – to transform average children in virtuosi musicians, athletes and ballerinas in a couple of years by training them to exhaustion every single day. These virtuosi were then used to improve the country’s PR. Their goal was to make Western people say after their performances: “*Sigh* Look, a country with such incredible musicians, athletes and ballerinas can’t be that bad! How beautiful that was! I’m still crying. All Power to the Soviets!”

    El Sistema probably helps those Venezuelan children somehow, but let’s not be naive to the point of expecting ‘democracy’ from communists. I don’t doubt for a second that those children live under absolute tyranny and that they are treated are disposable. I would be surprised if it were the opposite.

  6. Venezuela (and Latin America) have uncessfully tried to copy the disciplinarian institutions (cf. Foucault) created in Europe and North America, having probably conducted them to economic and social development (as well as to total warfare, but it is another question). Our schools, prisons or barraks are only a parody, in this point of view, which explain in part our inability to apply the Enlightenment program in spite of formal support to it.

    El Sistema is probably the only disciplinarian institution working in Venezuela. Its origins are probably accidental, as massive litteracy was accidental after the Reformation, but it is the only institution forming hundred thousands of people able to follow complex instructions and rules, work together, etc. It is a necessary but perhaps not sufficient condition to development.

  7. Having just seen a great concert directed by another prodigious talent from El Sistema, my admiration continues, but I do wonder if part of its attraction is that it can be a ticket out. What opportunities exist for a talented violinist or clarinet player who decides to stay?

    It seems to me that the only kind of music listening that the regime really promotes and underwrites comes from certain areas of the north of Mexico, and is *not suitable for children*, but I could be wrong…

  8. I think the obvious. Really bad written.
    If it is a tyranny for kids because someone is screaming at them!?

    We are so worried about breaking the little brats spirit and mark them for life that we loose perspective when someone utters to them some harsh words in a non-speaking voice.

    Pathetic.

  9. Wait … I don’t understand. The article is an excerpt from a book – obviously the book will contain more meat in it. As for poorly written, I really don’t see that.

  10. I can’t understand how the editors of the Guardian left this hatchet job go to press. Reminds me of the style of “el retrato negativo”, a malicious journalistic column that used to be published in a Venezuela magazine in the 70’s.

  11. And then we wonder why we are seen as petty amargados who can’t hide their glee at failures of whatever the “well intentioned” government of the people attempts to do.

    Sorry but your concerns for “transparency and efficiency” seem like very thinly veiled joy at the idea of a program that has been used as government propaganda being less-than-kosher. Why can’t we take good things for what they are?

    And if someone expects to become a great classical musician without the strictures of classical music training…well then they’re just idiots.

  12. I don’t like this post, Juan.

    I don’t like it because it looks like the moment anyone in the world raises a voice against anything that seems remotely connected to the goverment, it automatically has all the applauses, the acks and the publicity in media outlets such as this one, regardless of the substance of what is being said.

    In this case, we have the ONLY Venezuelan institution, besides the Miss Venezuela, that has resisted the battle of time and bad governments, that is now being criticized by opposition outlets precisely because it has resisted the battle of time and governments.

    Regardless of the propaganda machine that the regime uses, the fact remains that El Sistema is a great venezuelan accomplishment. In fact, it is the only real internationally recognized accomplishment and innovation that the country has been able to produce in my lifetime.

    Now, as for the content of the article…as mentioned above, anyone that has studied in a conservatory knows what it means to study music…..

    • “that is now being criticized by opposition outlets”

      This is grossly unfair. I have no basis to criticize El Sistema because I don’t know anything about it, other than what I get from the news. If you read my post, I mean *really* read it, you will see that all I do is paraphrase what the author is doing. In that regard, it is perfectly bloggable. I don’t know which “opposition outlet” is the one criticizing El Sistema (is it The Guardian?) but it certainly isn’t Caracas Chronicles. There isn’t a single piece of criticism in my post. Not one. I dare you to find one.

      Furthermore, your claim that “El Sistema is a great Venezuelan accomplishment” is an amazing statement full of hubris and lacking evidence. On what basis do you deem it a “great success”? Success in terms of what? How do you measure that? To what extent have we sacrificed public money to subsidize middle class kids learning to play music (which is what Baker claims) at the expense of, say, rural education? These are important questions that can’t be simply dismissed by broad, baseless statements like yours Bruni. You may be right, but you’re far from proving it.

      • Juan, if you “know nothing about it”, why are you posting this article without doing just a bit of research? You could have presented two opposing articles and let the people make up their minds, or at least have a healthy debate. You wouldn’t post an article this poorly researched and opinionated about an economic topic, so why post this just like that? This article is full of anger, resentment and envy. What has the author of this article created lately other than this piece of poorly written speculation?
        As a Venezuelan musician, I meet people everyday who have heard of El Sistema’s accomplishments and philosophies. They’re amazed and want to learn more about it. Venezuelan musicians are all over the world making music, and repairing the country’s tarnished reputation, myself included. We have musicians in the best orchestras in the world and some of them record for the most prestigious record labels in Classical music (Deutsche Gramophon). These are accomplishments that any Classical musician salivate over. Why undermine our hard-earned accomplishments to earn an easy political point?
        I’m sure that it would be worth looking into the finances and whether or not the money is being spent in the way they say it’s being spent. There are things that would indeed be important to talk about, such the increasingly propaganda-driven role that El Sistema is playing. I’m sure there is corruption at all levels of the thing, but like Quico say, let’s wait until we have the data. However, nothing good comes from an ignorant attack at one of the things that actually works in our country and should be a source of pride for all Venezuelans.

        • “Juan, if you “know nothing about it”, why are you posting this article without doing just a bit of research? You could have presented two opposing articles and let the people make up their minds, or at least have a healthy debate. You wouldn’t post an article this poorly researched and opinionated about an economic topic, so why post this just like that? ”

          I posted a link to the article by simply summarizing what Baker is saying, because I think it is relevant. That much should be clear from the post! It’s not my opinion, it’s his, and it’s worth debating. My job as a blogger is not to do in-depth research on every single subject that I write about – sometimes, we simply link to things other people are saying and say why they are relevant or important.

          People keep saying it’s “poorly” this and “poorly” that, and I’ve yet to see why anything that Baker claims is false… At any rate, I see people have made up their minds without even a bit of critical thinking. Unsurprising.

          • I think you clearly made up your mind without even a bit of critical thinking. It’s sad because you guys are usually not this irresponsible about the articles that you post. I’m disappointed that you were so quick to claim no responsibility for what you posted. I’m not saying that a critique of El Sistema should be outside of the realm of this blog, but there are better articles that do that, which I will send later.

        • Sorry, guy, but I have talked to recognised EU musicians and they met several people of El Sistema and learnt about it and said it was “nice”, but that was all.
          Venezuelan musicians all over the world? Just like there are lots of other Venezuelans all over the world – in high tech companies, MIT and other top universities and they are not musicians.
          Is el Sistema producing enough of what we really need? I doubt it.

          If at all, we need an El Sistema fo POOR children to learn mathematics, to learn how to use logic, how to write.

          In 1998 Venezuela took part for the last time on an international test to assess the average maths and language skills of children. It was a test UNESCO organised for Latin American countries.

          Venezuelan children – the average – came below average for writing and they were the very worst – by far – in mathematics, well under Bolivia.

          Can you imagine that?

          There are other priorities and they should be for the children above all in the average cities of Venezuela, cities like El Tigre, Charallave, Quíbor, Tocuyo, Barinas, Maturín (cities with more than 100000 inhabitants and less than one million, where more than half the population lives)…and then the rest.

      • <>

        Big words “hubris” and “lacking evidence”.
        What is amazing is that you put such high demands on commenters of your blog, yet the article you bring to the forefront is full of hubris and lack of evidence. Ah! but the evidence is supposed to be in a book, the article does not need to provide it, yet Bruni needs to prove it right now.

        The success of El Sistema is evident by the international fame and connotation it has garnered which is the result of the performances of the musicians it has produced. Do we need to prove this?

        • “The success of El Sistema is evident by the international fame and connotation it has garnered which is the result of the performances of the musicians it has produced. Do we need to prove this?”

          Yes! Of course we do. Fame at what cost?! Again: hubris and lack of evidence.

          • You should put that standard on the articles you reference, because this one is lacking precisely on evidence and is full of hubris.

          • Hear hear!

            I love it when JCN starts twisting into awkward positions after being criticised for the content of his posts. Now we’re expected to believe that there is no reason for this post except for airing the views of the book’s author, even if JCN doesn’t necessarily share them, for the sake of debate. Cuentame una de vaqueros…

      • Juan, when I am referring to “opposition outlets” I am referring to us, to all of us that have blogs, twitters and facebooks that are against the government. I do believe there are propaganda campaigns, on both sides of the political spectrum. I do believe it because I have observed the media, in particular the social media and I see when some news, sometimes from an anonymous twitter, becomes a “reality”. It happened that just a few days before this post, a colleague mentioned that in his wife’s musical group there was a musician from El Sistema. He said that he came from Caracas slums and that El Sistema changed his life. By pure chance, I got the The Guardian article in my mail the next day, then in my facebook, then in my twitter, then in Caracas Chronicles….so it is clear to me that someone is releasing a negative image of El Sistema on purpose, because he/she knows that whatever is said will be repeated at infinitum by our “opposition outlets”.

        Do I have studies about the impact of El Sistema? No, because unfortunately, Venezuela is not a serious country and that kind of studies are not performed. My positive view of El Sistema is because it is an accomplishment, in any way you see.

        I studied music for many years. It was tremendously difficult first to find an instrument, then paying for classes from a good professor, then getting driven all over the city to take the classes, and then trying to get into a conservatory…and I was middle class…just imagine a kid from a rancho..Giving that opportunity to thousands of kids over the years, regardless of their economic/social status is per-se an accomplishment.

        Finally, let me repeat what I wrote to a chavista that was once praising the virtues of El Sistema as it was something that just happened during Chávez time:

        “Tienes razón, es un logro magnífico, pero fue gracias a la visión que tuvo el gobierno de Venezuela de hace más de treinta años, que el Sistema fue creado. Agradécele a Carlos Andrés Pérez”.

  13. “And if someone expects to become a great classical musician without the strictures of classical music training…well then they’re just idiots.”

    I definitely agree with you. But do the “strictures of classical music” involve children being beaten?
    Can they just “give up” of the program without any major problem/retaliation/persecution ahead? Do they have to send their payments to someone else (as the Cuban doctors do)? Do they actually choose to be part of the program, or are just picked up by some random bureaucrat (as it happens in Cuba)?

    That’s what I would like to hear from Baker. Because Chavistas are not known for respecting, well, you know, somehting called basic human rights. “Oh, but the Chavistas did not create El Sistema! It goes back to 1560.” Fine, but since the Chavistas have defaced PDVSA and 100% of the institutions in Venezuela, what would have prevented them from defacing El Sistema too?

    • Sorry but these things you are blabbering about are relevant why? Can’t believe you made me second guess myself and re-read that POS article on The Guardian -_-

      Why should we care about your dantesque (and most likely delusional) vision of beatings, abductions, coercion and musical slavery? And no, “because it happened in the Soviet block” is NOT a reason.

    • WTF.

      Never in my life have I heard of El Sistema harassing “drop outs” or anything like that. My guess is, if someone doesn’t keep up with the practice schedule, or loses interest they just stop being a part of it. Naturally, that means forfeiting any benefit they may get from it, like opportunities to play music abroad, admittance to college on “cultural” grounds, perhaps even an stipend.

      But the same can be said of the kids who join the Municipal/Regional/National sport teams (football, baseball, track, swimming, etc).

    • There is no payment involved with El Sistema. That’s the whole point, it allows for access to instruments, musical instruction and ensemble participation from people all over the country. If you don’t want to play anymore, you simply return your instrument and go your way. However, many people find that once they start, they don’t necessarily want to stop participating in the music-making and the community. There is definitely no beatings going on, I don’t know where you’re getting your information from…

    • Are you talking about Gabriela Montero, the poor girl from functional iliterate parents who live in Calabozo or Guanare or Gabriela Montero, the girl from wealthy and highly educated parents (one from USA, which means very likely not a poor expat).

      I admire Gabriela Montero as a musician but that doesn’t say anything about the priorities of Venezuela.

      Already in 1800 Alexander von Humboldt wrote the music scene in the Capitanía de Venezuela was highly developed and there was a huge interest from everyone…but that Venezuela was lagging behind in the sciences even for the standards of the backward Spanies colonies. He said even the Nueva Granada was a beacon of science compared to Venezuela.

  14. One of the problems of El Sistema is that when these kids grow up, where are they going to work ? In Caracas there used to be 4 (adult) Orchestras: Orquesta Sinfonica Venezuela, Orquesta Gran Masrical de Ayacucho, Orquesta Sinfonica Municipal de Caracas and Orquesta Filarmonica Nacional de Venezuela (a split form Orquesta Sinfonica Venezuela in the 80´s), all state sponsored. Outside of Caracas, orchestras are not many, some states like Lara have one.

  15. Cuando Maduro caiga, que espero será pronto, espero que los venezolanos seamos capaces de mantener la única cosa que funciona en Venezuela, el sistema, y no destrozarla por dejarse utilizar por el régimen.

  16. People who prize engaging in or promoting artistic or other like activities in a country where the State is omnipresent and looms large as the sole provider of funding for those activities are forced to come to some kind of accomodation with it to survive .That sometimes comes at the price of allowing the State to make propaganda from its sponsorship of artistic and other like activities. I dont think that such accommodations even if discomfiting represent any crime . Just the price which people are FORCED to pay to keep something worthwhile going . If people can scape that pressure its laudable that they do so , but not every one has the chance.

    Regarding the other two criticism . that the system is authoritarian , I would point out that all efforts at excellence are in a sense authoritarian in that they require rigour and discipline to develop. From people I know that have worked in the System Ive never heard them complain that such ‘authoritarian’ feature of the systems operation stymies their sense of artistic freedom ..

    One thing I suspect is probably true is that most musicians who reach the top levels of the System are people who come from some kind of middle class background because conditions make it easier for them to dedicate themselves to what their artistry demands , However Im also quite sure that without the system there are a lot of musicians from more modest backgrounds that would have found their participation in music creating activities very close to impossible , even if they dont represent a mayority there are enough of them to appreciate what the system is doing .

  17. El Sistema is not a Chavista invention because otherwise it would be mediocre. El Sistema was there before Chavismo and it probably continues to exist despite Chavismo, and not thanks to it. Because it doesn’t matter how many millions Chavismo pours into El Sistema, it could not function solely as a Chavista machine, not for long anyway, because it would quikly become terminally infected with mediocrity. So there must be some talent, some superior interest that cares about it and believes in doing it right DESPITE Chavismo. I don’t know, maybe that’s Abreu, or Dudamel, or some unsung hero. Who knows? I just think it’s a tragedy that Chavismo is milking El Sistema for all the PR benefits it can produce, that’s all.

  18. I don’t think Juan is saying that Baker is right. I think Juan would even be sad to know for a fact that it was true.

    El Sistema seems to be a cultural symbol that criticizing it offends. Hurts. Burns. Right? The one thing we have to be proud of, this Guardian dude, is trying to take that away from us. It sucks.

    But the thing is that it may be true. Why couldn’t it be?

    Yes. Baker may be bias. What he calls tyrannical may be actually discipline. No one can excel without it. Discipline is deemed sometimes as the opposite of creativeness but it is not. Or at least I have found that to not be true.

    We shall read the book, as painful as it may be, and we may contest it with appropriate arguments.

    I thought the article to be interesting. A version not told before and maybe one that needed to be told.

    But I agree with Juan, given the variety of issues that Venezuela has, is funding a music program for middle class kids in urban areas a priority? If I was creating public policies, I would think it wouldn’t.

    I always wonder, why isn’t El Sistema integrated with the public school system?

    • That’s the thing, it’s not just a program for the middle class. The author of the article just says that without citing any data. I know a lot of effort is being put into bringing the program to people of all socio-economic status. There is a system in place within the program for targeting remote areas and making sure that they’re getting the attention. It’s not always perfect and they can’t get the best teachers to every nook and cranny in the country but they do have nucleus scattered throughout the country. They recently played a concert in a barrio in Petare, on an old basketball court. The audience were the people in the ranchos above. Many of the kids participating in that concert came from that barrio. Some of them are now able to support their families through the incomes from the orchestras. In El Sistema, if you work hard, it can serve as a vehicle for social mobility. Look at Edicson Ruiz, when he entered the Berlin Philharmonic at 17, he was then the youngest ever musician to join what many people consider to be the best orchestra in the world. He was also the only Latin American. Edicson comes from San Agustin, as you all know, not exactly a bastion of middle class wealth. Just because Baker states so in his article doesn’t immediately mean that this is so. The burden of proof is on him to back these claims.

      That being said, am I saying that all of the money that has come into the program has been spent and distributed perfectly, no, I’m not. I don’t have that information, but most importantly, neither does Baker.

      With regards to his claims about El Sistema being a program of social control through imposing European music, Baker obviously didn’t research the many programs that exist that focus on traditional Venezuelan music ensembles, as well as rock, jazz and other styles.

      I leave you all with this, so that you may witness the “tyrannical” methods that these children work under:

      • What’s the socioeconomic status of the kids in the video? Without that, we can’t assess the program, no matter how well they play.

        • I wasn’t linking to this video to show their socio-economic status. Although, as you can see, there is footage from the Nucleo La Rinconada, which just so happens to be the nucleo where I started playing music. This is a nuclei located at the foothills of the cerro near Coche. Many of these kids come from the barrio. They are not middle class. Did you read the rest of my comment about the other efforts being put in place, or the concert in Petare, or the many nucleus that exist in the hearts of these at-risk neighborhoods?

          • Look, nobody doubts El Sistema has provided for some heart-warming video. Yet we have to move away from the idea that a program’s effectiveness should be measured by the quality of their Schubert, or the great videos that come out of it. And we can’t assume that just because some poor kids benefit from the program, that characterizes the entire thing.

            Has it done good? Undoubtedly. Is it an effective use of our resources? I don’t know.

            And one last thing about Baker – we don’t know how well sourced his research is. We do know that he wrote a provocative essay, and a book, and he has apparently been researching the issue. In that regards, it is another piece of the puzzle, one that we shouldn’t simply dismiss just because he reaches a conclusion we do not like.

          • I’m not speaking at all about the economics of it. Like I said, I do think that the money and resources should be looked at carefully. I feel that instead of focusing his argument on the appropriation of money and resources, Baker has instead focused on discrediting the whole endeavor and its philosophies. And that’s what I take issue with. It’s not about not criticizing the program, but when you do so with such a poorly reasoned argument, the conversation doesn’t move forward. If his article had had relevant figures and data that actual proves any of what he claims, we’d be having a very different conversation.

          • “And that’s what I take issue with. It’s not about not criticizing the program, but when you do so with such a poorly reasoned argument, the conversation doesn’t move forward. If his article had had relevant figures and data that actual proves any of what he claims, we’d be having a very different conversation.”

            Geoff Baker is a PhD with ties to Oxford University and the University of London who had spent time living in Venezuela in order to collect information on El Sistema to base his book on.

            Do you honestly think that someone like him would have gone that far just to tell his readers bold-faced lies? In other words, do you think that someone with Bakers’ resumé would mar his reputation by writing a book full of unfounded evidence just to make people like you angry? WOW!!!!!!!!! That’s what doctors call ‘victim mentality’, don’t they?

            And you are obviously putting the cart before the horse by thinking that Baker’s should have included all his research in a Guardian’s article. FYI, The Guardian is not The Economist or the The Financial Times, don’t expect to find a 14-page report on themes like Chinese infrastructure, African countries’ education or El Sistema there.

      • I very much agree with the efforts. I am not saying that it is not true. But skepticism is healthy. Scrutiny is healthy.

        Do we know for example, what’s the cost per musician? I know for a fact that El Sistema receives more funds than the whole ministry of culture.

        Also, I am particularly sensitive to the brain-drain problem because I think *it is* the biggest problem we will face in the near future so when I read this:

        ” In El Sistema, if you work hard, it can serve as a vehicle for social mobility. Look at Edicson Ruiz, when he entered the Berlin Philharmonic at 17, he was then the youngest ever musician to join what many people consider to be the best orchestra in the world.”

        It hurts. The last thing we need is a publicly funded program that leads to talented Venezuelans to go overseas. I think it is great for Edicson to be a world class musician. But he has a duty with his country, because this country has failed a lot of people but not him. He is in debt. What is El Sistema, the musicians like Edicson, and others doing to make the Caracas Orchestra (and not the Berlin) something that make Berliners come here and not the other way around?

        • Couldn’t agree more with you! But for many musicians for whom emigrating is not a real possibility, participating in El Sistema provides them with a means to make a decent living and for opportunities to grow as human beings and members of society.

          • What about becoming electrician? Mechanic? Something else? The Germans say: “We cannot survive by cutting each other’s hair”. Even in a country with hardly any industrial production, technical people are more likely to find a job than the average El Sistema alumnus.

          • Many El Sistema alumnus go on to do other things in life. Many of them get jobs outside of music, some go to college. Some of these people would not have had the opportunity or the skills to go after these opportunities had it not been for the community of the program.

          • Participating in the system teaches discipline, specially self discipline and with it self control , it teaches team work , it teaches working with others, each in its own slot, it teaches dedication , it teaches order, it teaches the worth of excellence , all behavioural traits that are essential to the development of any truly productive economy , it teaches self respect (if you slouch then you dont cut the grade) , it teaches humility because there are always other that can be better than you. It brings parents and children together , parents feel proud of what their children accomplish and are involved in helping them reach excellence , its more than just music . but also it fosters love of music , of making music , o appreciating music , something that enriches ones life even of you dont become a soloist or a great public performer . this in a culture that normally is the antithesis of all those values. Even if it benefits middle class people as much as humbler class people thats no drawback because by bringing people from different origins together to share in a common endevour that makes for the best of all who join. How can any body criticize that??

          • “Some of these people would not have had the opportunity or the skills to go after these opportunities had it not been for the community of the program.”

            You bet? You bet? Just throw a third of the money spent on it to a programme to get POOR children trained in technical matters and we will get many more doing things that we are lacking more.

            As I mentioned earlier, the Venezuelan propensity for playing music of every kind is nothing new to El Sistema. Even accounts from two centuries ago back up that.

            But we do not have people who create things you can touch.

  19. Here is why I think this article is poorly written. I’ve decided to write a paragraph-by-paragraph rebuttal:

    “Likened overseas to Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, founder José Antonio Abreu was compared in the Venezuelan press to Machiavelli, and had picked up the moniker “the Philanthropic Ogre”.”

    This is getting off to a bad start. If you want your audience to believe what you are saying, do not begin your argument with an “Ad Hominem” attack. Someone, somewhere called Abreu “the Philanthropic Ogre,” what does that prove? I’m sure Gandhi, Mandela and Mother Teresa were called much worse than that.

    “A former politician, he clearly had ambitions beyond the musical realm.”

    First of all, how does Mr. Baker know this? So what if Mr. Abreu had political ambitions? Does that undermine the work of 40 years to create El Sistema? Is it possible that maybe because of said political ability he was able to navigate the political waters in Venezuela and get the support he needed to keep his program afloat?

    “As a conductor, Abreu epitomised the autocratic maestro. He placed discipline above all else, and behind the vibrant show, El Sistema’s leading ensemble became known privately as the Venezuelan Slave Orchestra. Yet with its top performers paid handsomely, the Sistema slogan “tocar y luchar (to play and to struggle)” became “to play and get paid”.”

    Again, where is the evidence? Has Mr. Baker worked under Abreu as a musician? I have, and I can attest to his solid understanding of the music and his tireless, meticulous and exacting working methods. Yes, he’s famous for only sleeping a few hours a night and working his orchestras for several hours at a time. Go ask any of the members of those orchestras if they didn’t feel that they learned a lot from those sessions. Also, his demeanor was never autocratic, he was always encouraging and positive. He leads by example, and when the kids see that he’s been working just as hard as the orchestra has, they keep working on improving the music.

    “Seen overseas as a beacon of social justice, at home the program was characterised variously as a cult and a corporation. There were numerous allegations of irregularities around its financial affairs, and I also heard claims of sexual abuse and relationships between teachers and students, presaging stories that subsequently emerged from specialist music schools in the UK.”

    And what program that serves half a million people in a country spread out over many miles hasn’t been compared to a corporation?

    Unfortunately, the reality of the world is that claims of sexual abuse and relationships between teachers and students are found virtually everywhere. Why judge the merits of a whole program on the sins and indiscretions of a few? This is not really getting to the substance of anything and continues to set up an Ad Hominem attack, this time aimed at the teachers and people working for El Sistema, rather than criticizing the merits and goals of the program on their own.

    “I found many Sistema musicians unconvinced by claims that the project was aimed at Venezuela’s most vulnerable children. Pointing to a lack of mechanisms for consistently targeting this demographic, they suggested that most musicians came from the middle levels of society. They doubted that many children from truly deprived families would remain long in such a demanding program.”

    Mr. Baker “found many Venezuelans unconvinced by claims that the project was aimed at Venezuela’s most vulnerable children.” What exactly qualifies these people to speak about this? Perhaps if he provided some sources, or names we might be able to better judge his claims. I know a lot of effort is being put into bringing the program to people of all socio-economic status. There is a system in place within the program for targeting remote areas and making sure that they’re getting the attention. It’s not always perfect and they can’t get the best teachers to every nook and cranny in the country but they do have “nucleos” scattered throughout the country. They recently played a concert in a barrio in Petare, on an old basketball court. The audience were the people in the ranchos above. Many of the kids participating in that concert came from that barrio. Some of them are now able to support their families through the incomes from the orchestras. In El Sistema, if you work hard, it can serve as a vehicle for social mobility. Look at Edicson Ruiz, when he entered the Berlin Philharmonic at 17, he was then the youngest ever musician to join what many people consider to be the best orchestra in the world. He was also the only Latin American. Edicson comes from San Agustin, as you all know, not exactly a bastion of middle class wealth. Just because Mr. Baker states so in his article doesn’t immediately mean that this is so. The burden of proof is on him to back these claims.

    “Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema’s superstar conductor, describes the orchestra as “a beautiful model for a society”. Ordinary musicians were more sceptical, however, seeing it instead as the world in miniature, with its problems intact or even intensified. “Yes, it’s a model”, said one, “of absolute tyranny: a society where someone will always be telling you what to do…. It’ll be organised, of course, because you have someone with lots of power who tells you exactly what to do, and you keep your mouth shut, end of story.””

    Again, who is saying this? You can get anyone on the street to say just about anything. In reality the orchestras of El Sistema are far kinder than “the real world”. Yes, there is a conductor who usually tells the orchestra what to do, and how to do it. But the real leaders guide the orchestras to their vision. The real beauty of the orchestra as a social model is that everyone contributes to the whole. I know for a fact, because I played in these orchestras for years, that the sense of ownership that we feel over the musical product is amazing, because we built it together. Besides, does Mr. Baker ignore that most people have bosses and authority figures who do tell them what to do most of the time? Does the fact that the orchestra is a hierarchical system disqualify it as a valid model for social progress and betterment? Is our own society not hierarchical?

    “Contrary to popular belief, El Sistema did not begin life as a social program, and the social benefits subsequently attributed to it, such as inclusion and teamwork, while music to the ears of funders, are harder to detect than authoritarianism and competition. Indeed, claims of miraculous social transformation have yet to be verified by any rigorous evaluation, despite 40 years of state funding and more than $500m in development bank loans. Declarations of its success are founded instead on centuries-old beliefs about the uplifting power of high art and a rather more modern PR operation.”

    How does Mr. Baker know that the program did not begin as a social one? And why does that matter? Does the fact that it might have begun as a musical endeavor invalidate all of the social and cultural gains?

    With regards to miraculous transformations, Mr. Baker could have interviewed any of the literally thousands of children who escaped a life of violence and poverty by becoming involved in a nucleo. You can look at this article, this other article, or this program, or this other program for proof that there is a large network of resources for people to come together to make music and grow as human beings as a result.

    I understand that verifying the large-scale impact of El Sistema would be a difficult and imposing task. I’d certainly be interested in seeing the results of such an evaluation, but we can’t deny the anecdotal evidence to support the very real impact that the program has had on many lives. Anyway, Mr. Baker has shown that he is not above using anecdotal evidence to back up his claims.

    “Widely portrayed as a revolutionary social project, El Sistema in fact echoes well-worn and in some cases distinctly tarnished thinking about music education and social development. It’s a traditional “drills and skills” program: hierarchical, teacher-centred, focused on repetitive learning and performance. It has clear antecedents in 19th-century Europe, where music education was promoted among the masses as part of a drive for moral improvement and higher profits; it was seen as a way of keeping the workers out of taverns, increasing their productivity and decreasing their revolutionary potential. Its roots go back further still to the Spanish conquest of the Americas, when missionaries used education in European music as a means of converting and ‘civilising’ the indigenous population. These precursors were programs of social control, not emancipation.”

    Arts education has always been promoted as a part of a “drive for moral improvement and higher profits.” What exactly is wrong with that? What other, or better tools would Mr. Baker suggest we use for these goals? However, I do not see how it makes sense for Mr. Baker to equate using the arts as a means for “moral improvement” with El Sistema being a “[program] of social control.” First of all, El Sistema is a voluntary program, and no one is forcing anyone to join, so that they may be controlled. Also, I feel that there is a bit of a hidden claim here that speaks to El Sistema relying heavily on European music to teach the children. And while the majority of the music played and presented by the program is of European origins, there are plenty of efforts in place to make sure that there is a strong component of it that focuses on other styles, primarily Venezuelan traditional music. The children are being exposed to some of the greatest masterpieces of humanity. Is there something wrong with using Beethoven to help children find the subtler, deeper aspects of the human soul?

    “Far from a revolutionary, Abreu is a man of conservative political and religious convictions. The “boot-camp” values that his project champions – discipline, obedience, order – are viewed askance by many progressive educationalists today, who prefer creativity and critical thinking. It’s ironic, then, that El Sistema has been championed internationally by the liberal cultural establishment.”

    We are back at the Ad Hominem attacks. Does Mr. Baker know for a fact what Mr. Abreu’s political or religious convictions are? And even if he knew, why would those matter? Can’t a deeply religious, and conservative man not create a program that is progressive and contributes meaningfully towards the betterment of society? I feel that the proof of the success of the program should be “in the pudding,” and not in the attitudes or leanings of their creators. Should we ignore the complete writings of Pablo Neruda because he was a strong communist?

    Also, I feel Mr. Baker is setting up a false dichotomy here: creativity and discipline are not mutually exclusive. Any kind of creative endeavor will necessitate a good amount of discipline, rigor and order. Are these values of hard-work and perseverance to be jettisoned in favor of creativity and critical thinking? You can’t have one without the other.

    “El Sistema, rather than being “the future of music”, as Simon Rattle believes, is a throwback to the past, raising serious questions about much-heralded efforts to transplant it to the UK. As one Venezuelan musician told me, “if they want to copy El Sistema in Scotland, they need to shout at the kids and tell them they’re useless”.”

    This is frankly insulting to the teachers of El Sistema. I cannot speak for every teacher and administrator within the program, but I doubt that everyone is always yelling at the kids. This was certainly not my experience of it growing up and going through the program. Are there people who lose tempers and yell? Of course, but these things happen occasionally when working with children. These misconducts in the part of the teachers, conductors and administrators should be dealt with accordingly and are not to be excused. But, again the actions of a few should not speak for the efforts of literally hundreds of hard-working teachers who try their best to work with these children, often in less than ideal situations.

    • Thank you for taking the time to write that!

      In one point I agree with JCN and Rodrigo: El Sistema should be open to scrutiny and we as Venezuelans should not shield it from such scrutiny by giving it some sort of ethereal immunity. And yes, if public resources are being used, that scrutiny should include the benefits of using such public resources on this program rather than others (with the caveat that on a pure ROI perspective, the effect of cultural programs are usually more difficult to quantify, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist or are not worth the investment).

      What I took issue with was how JCN chose this, (at least to me) very vindictive and spiteful article, filled with unsubstantiated claims and ad hominem attacks to get the debate started. I know it’s made up from excerpts of the book and it doesn’t represent the whole story but boy…if the trailer is like this I don’t want to imagine the tone of the feature film!

      • That was exactly my problem with the whole debate. I said it a few times in my comments that I believe that El Sistema should not be immune from criticism or scrutiny, but this article wasn’t it.

  20. El Sistema está lleno de fallas, algunas demasiado feas. Lamentablemente, hasta que dentro del mismo no haya una revuelta, nadie se dará cuenta.

    Y tal revuelta no pasará, a nadie le gustaría dejar de vivir de la música en este país, y menos cuando el sr. Abreu, con par de llamadas, destruye a quien quiera worldwide.

    Y desde afuera no se puede hacer nada. El Sistema es uno de los santos más intumbables dentro del santoral veneco. Métete con los políticos, métete con los dioses, métete con quien quieras… Pero ni se te ocurra tocar a Convit, a José Gregorio o al Sistema. Podrías mandar la reputación de quién quieras al subsuelo en cuestión de segundos.

    Cosas que pasan en un país donde hay tanta gente tan ávida de hacerse con un poco del orgullo por el logro ajeno.

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