Going beyond the usual, tired  polemics, Lawrence Scrips builds a deep dive into El Sistema around a series of in-depth interviews with Luigi Mazzocchi, one of El Sistema’s most successful alumns.

Mazzocchi, we learn, is “concertmaster of the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra and associate concertmaster of the Delaware Symphony, who studied for 15 years in El Sistema starting at age nine, and rose to become a member of its top orchestras and a soloist in Venezuela.”

El Sistema’s organization, however, was characterized by Mazzocchi as “controlled chaos”—an extreme unpredictability of working and payment schedules, which obliged many musicians in the program to abandon commitments outside of the orchestra and, in doing so, give up a considerable degree of control over their lives. Chaos was compounded by a culture of secrecy: ‘information was always a privilege of the few on top. So it was hard to prepare. It was hard to know what was going on.’ This combination was experienced, according to Mazzocchi, as a feeling of harassment or manipulation.

“It was not only decisions about repertoire, but who was playing and where the orchestra was going, or if somebody had been given a new position or whatever, it was always kind of secret. And many times, especially in Barquisimetoand the interior, we were told we were traveling, we were touring, and we didn’t know the dates.  It was either this month or the next month. And until the last minute, we didn’t know usually; then things didn’t work out.They would add rehearsals at any time. You had to be available. Usually we rehearsed at night and they would say, ‘Well, tomorrow, we have to be here at 2 p.m. and then do a double rehearsal.’ So you had to cancel everything else that you were doing. When it was a youth orchestra, it was actually a lot more extensive, a lot worse than that. If you had to prepare for an important concert, not even a tour, but an important concert that would mean getting more funds from a company or from the government, then it could [be] all day, it could last for a weekend. Sometimes, we had to miss school without warning to prepare for a concert, because that was the ultimate goal. It was always more important than anything else, which is something that had parents very concerned most of the time.”

23 COMMENTS

  1. Whenever the arts are supported by public funding there will be a dark and secretive underbelly to how the money is controlled and how the system is managed, that has nothing to do with art. It is a not a uniquely Venezuelan phenomenon.

  2. My first cousin plays in the orchestra that just played a few weeks ago in the Southbank Centre in London. He could never make firm plans to do something with me the next day because he was told he had to show up for rehearsal the next day even though he wasn’t playing in the next evening’s performance or on standby to take someone’s place. He also said plans for the next day are only put up in the lobby for all to see in the evening which makes it hard to plan. The pay is rubbish too and they all just about survive by selling their allotted dollars for travel expenses when they return home. No surprise there.

    • Well that’s strange, considering they all are given an itinerary of the different activities before the tour. Yes, it is hard to deal with the schedule specially if you’re touring an orchestra of over 120 musicians. Maybe next time you buy a ticket for your first cousin to go there and visit you properly. Or maybe, you could have asked him to hang out with you in the afternoon with he had been free. Fact.

      Source: You could imagine.

  3. Not to make light of the frustration, but that sounds like a typical experience working in almost any organization in Venezuela in recent years. Your life is not your own. Your schedule is unpredictable and chaotic. And it is not clear who is responsible for what.

  4. Canucklehead has it right , Venezuelans live in a culture where disorder reigns supreme , where people never learn to organize effectively , so , things get done, ( if they get done) almost by happenstance. We love spontaneity , being happy go lucky, not tying ourselves down to any thing demanding or strict, look at our sense of punctuality ,at the generally poor responsibility most people exhibit in their work and commitments, in meeting their parental obligations . Its not just the government , its most every thing . We have great tolerance for disorder even if afterwards we complain when things dont work like we would like them to. The system’s failures represent just one isolated sympton of a national malady !! To use a fancy term we are nomophobic , hate rules , find them intolerable , we always hanker for the stroke of luck , for the happy lottery win , for getting ahead by circunventing normal procedures or norms , by using our pana contacts or our honed wits or our superb gift for chicanery .!! Thats why we love picaros , vivos , merry scamps who game the system to bamboozle their neighbors and make a quick easy gain…..!!

    • I was about to say the same thing. In a chaotic culture were contempt for rules and procedures, planning, or organization, are commonplace, where connections count for more than competence, these allegations are not surprising whatsoever.

    • Bill, the other fairly typical response you see in the conductor example is that, once a Venezuelan is taken out of Venezuela, out of the “systema” more generally, the person more often than not thrives, which leads me to conclude that the problem is not in the character or capacities of the individual, but in a dysfunctional system. What the causes of that dysfunctional system are are probably deep and complex and may go back a long time– , but the situation has reached a kind of apotheosis under chavismo. Nobody is allowed to do what they are capable of doing. Nobody can perform to their abilities. It is almost a supreme law unto itself. It is demoralizing in every sense of the word.

      • Canucklehead ,

        I think you point to the reality of the unscripted law that prevails in Venezuela.

        For example you need some paperwork done so you line up at ‘la taquilla’. Hours go by. It moves so slowly. You started to queue before 8am, it is now 11… it moves so slow.

        Meantime, you observe the door to the employees area opens often. People sitting across the room enter escorted by one guy, other times another. You see that they leave 20 minutes later.

        Your line has advanced a little. You are standing.

        Finally, you see one of the guys coming back out. You ask the people en the queue “me cuida el puesto, por favor”. You engage the guy. He is skiddish. You explain that your situation in dramatic terms, “es que me estan esperando con este tramite para mi mama que es muy mayor”. You tell him that you understand the ‘extraordinary effort’ this will require from him. You will recognize it generously.

        Within an hour, you leave the office. You were able to sit the rest of the time. When you leave you see the line you had spent 3 hours on has moved just a little more.

        You think poor people.

        The point of this story is that this are the rules of the place, and the sooner you understand them the better it will be for you. Unfair, unequal, cruel, la ley de la selva.

      • In a culture of disorder you can only get ahead by adapting to that disorder , by making it part of your outlook and behaviour , Not saying that our nomophobia is genetic , its cultural and historical …so if it doesnt become too ingrained you can scape its influence. Also there are people in Venezuela , including families and some organizations which are not nomophobic , who stand in opposition to it and who when transpanted to another cultural milieu thrive and prosper …….there are some nomophilic milieus which allow a person to grow and rise to their full potential . I fear however that this type of person represents a minority of Venezuelans. Contrast it however with cultures like those which dominate life in places like Japan and Germany or even Singapore , Your surroundings can make you flourish same way they can bring you down.!!

  5. Having children and reading this I immediately thought of ‘helicopter parents’, I guess the non-government, family sponsored exploitation of children to insure their success in this, oh so competitive world.

    Not to deny that the world is competitive, not to deny of the sacrifice superstars in sports and arts endure to achieve those heights. But many middle class parents seem to enslave themselves to shoehorn their perfectly good and average kid into these aspirations, in the process living such neurotic lives and stealing a childhood.

    So to the state and to the parents, backoff!, let kids be kids!

  6. Luigi Mazzocchi’s testimony on El Sistema validates what pianist Gabriela Montero has denounced for years: Gustavo Dudamel pretends to be an apolitical figure, while representing an organization that is in bed with the regime that is destroying Venezuela.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153466717381902

    While it would be unfair to blame the country’s problems on the famous conductor, his silence and his willingness to appear on pro-government events make him, at the very least, complicit in the destruction of Venezuela.

  7. All I can say is I was part of El Sistema, and I graduated with a 19 point average. Did I have to miss some classes because we had some big concerts to prep? sure! But ask anyone doing anything at a competitive level if they ever had to do such thing? I missed a lot of classes preparing for international chemistry Olympiads too. The point is, when you have to give 100% of your time for something you like there won’t be much time for other stuff. You could write a book about all the things that are wrong with El Sistema, but to be honest you can do that with any single successful program in any country of the world. The fact that El Sistema was born in Venezuela and is probably our only current export is a matter of pride and I believe attacking it is not necessarily the most efficient way of improving it.

    • Cesar
      Were you also told who to vote for?

      “Back when I was in El Sistema, I felt like it was my duty to vote, perhaps, for the person they’re telling me that I should vote [for]. But, now that Venezuela is becoming a totalitarian government, kids in the orchestras are prohibited from going to any demonstrations. If they go, they could be kicked out of the orchestra”

  8. Here we go again…we Venezuelans have had a single international success, something nobody else had done before, something in which we have excelled and that has improved the lives of thousand of children. Something to be exported other than oil. Now, for political reasons, it has to be belittle and undermined.

    Studying music is a very tough task and so is doing anything competitive in life (sports, ballet dancer, engineering, writer, etc etc.) and yes, venezuelan life is caotic and it is usually exagerated: in Venezuela nothing works, there are no rules, but when something works, then it must be like a boot camp.

    • I guess we could point something else as a “sucess for venezuelans” that’s not a tool for a political facade.

      chavizmo itself touched and warped the purpose of the system to turn it into a part of its “Everything inside Venezuela is peachy!” mask.

      The only thing that dudamel has done about his political allegiance has been claiming that “he is beyond politics”, which is the default excuse most rabid or “useful” chaviztas use to try to hide what they are.

      Take for example mr. limardo the left-handed fencer: He got known widely because he had this little trouble called cadivi, problem he dealt with by getting sponsorship from the effin’ BBVA Banco Provincial, aka “that huge-ass bank the corpse threatened to confiscate in a cadena and jvr tried to ruin with a financial run”; that made limardo basically another “hero” for anti-chavizmo everywhere, a living testimony of how the very government blocked even the athletes’ careers with their stupid monopoly. Fast forward towards 6D elections, and you would find his name, in pusv’s ballot.

      PS: It’s almost impossible to read this page from a cantv connection, folks.

  9. Isn’t this a normal thing with Public-funded programs? Also, why the system is so restrictive with its artistic focus, sure i like Classical Music like everybody else (Khorsakov and Mozart are my favorites) but this reduce the social “benefit” of this “public service” that everybody pays, if you could add some Acting (But that will be bad been public and in danger of been politized) or some modern music trends, you could really get to the “low-Income” or whaterver word you like to use to define it.

  10. The interesting question is this.

    Sistema may resemble chavismo in its internal disorders, unpredictability, and arbitrary actions of directors and managers. But unlike chavismo, Sistema is successful – it produces talented, well-trained orchestras, soloists, and conductors.

    Why and how is Sistema successful despite its organizational defects?

    Another question might be: how has Sistema’s internal operation changed over the years? It was founded in 1975, long before Chavismo.

  11. OK, decir “the interior” muestra que lo escribió alguien de Caracas. 1. Venezuela no se divide entre Caracas y “el interior” (cosa que nada más dicen los caraque*os)
    2. “The interior” no es correcto inglés, por ende alguien que solo hable ese idioma no lo entendería. Pueden decir, “the rest of the country except Caracas”, o “other cities”… o lo que sea menos eso

  12. I read the quote highlighted in this post and thought to myself “well, this isn’t that bad, they just overwork children to achieve high standards”, but then I read the source article and I was appalled.

    The problem is not how hard they work the problem is that: a) they ignore sexual predator behaviour by teachers, b) they are not apolitical, they will support the government to make sure they get financial support and c) they “lie” about this being a program for under-privilege children to get them out of poverty.

    It’s all there in the Lawrence Scrips article and I’m quite concerned about it all.

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