I Don’t Care if El Sistema Doesn’t Fight Poverty


[To appreciate this post properly, put on some headphones and press play on the video first. Seriously. Do it.]

A major piece of research has just landed evaluating the (sometimes extravagant) social claims made on behalf El Sistema, Venezuela’s celebrated, controversial youth musical training system. The Interamerican Development Bank-led study has some bad news for El Sistema fans. Using cutting edge social research methodology, it found the program had no significant impact on 24 of the 26 social and behavioral measures.

While El Sistema did have a non-random positive impact on measures of self-control and aggressive behavior, particularly in boys, it had no measurable impact on school performance, self-esteem, risky driving and a host of other measures. Turns out that, for the most part, El Sistema doesn’t dramatically alter participants’ lives.

What if the main measurable impact of teaching kids to play amazing music is…for children to be able to play amazing music?

To which I say, emphatically: I. Couldn’t. Care. Less.

I fart in this paper’s general direction.

Here’s an idea, IDB. What if you stfu, put away the multivariate regressions, and listen?

“But I hate Dudamel that guy is a chavi…”


Turn off the lights. Turn up the volume. Close your eyes. And listen!

Here’s a crazy idea: what if the main measurable impact of teaching kids to play amazing music is…for children to be able to play amazing music? What if the purpose of art is art?

Yes, I know. I understand El Sistema brought this on itself. For years it’s been making claims about social impact, claims that aren’t backed up by facts.

It may be that in a society like ours, telling people that the point of music is music was always going to be a losing proposition. It may be that, politically, art had to be sold as a means to some end beyond art.

But then this — and not its hypothesized sympathy for the revolution — is El Sistema’s real moral failure. To go looking for a justification for art outside of art is always to do it violence.

Unnecessary violence, too.

Don’t buy it? Take the slider up to 13:26. The Stürmisch bewegt —the hair-raising, goosebump-inducing second movement— starts there. Listen to that!

No, no, for real: shut up and listen. It’s…astonishing. Or go up to the Adagietto on 48:18. Stop what you’re doing and give it the mindshare it deserves.

That is the reason El Sistema should exist.

So dear, catastrophically point-missing IDB-researchers, here’s the Randomized Controlled Trial I’d like to propose: go to Caucagüita, pick out 100 kids and randomly assign 50 of them to learn Mahler for ten years, while the other 50 play perinola or whatever. At the end of that period, ask each group to play you the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th and write us a paper on how each group got on.

Who’s up for it?

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  1. I think your are missing the point.
    The problem is not the artistic value of El Sistema, which might be self evident, but the problem is El Sistema as a public program. Sucking -for decades- humungous amounts of increasingly scarce public resources have to be justifiable from a social point of view. Is not Mahler Vs. Perinola. Is Mahler (for a few) Vs. Vaccines (for all, including the Mahler players).

    • C’mon, it’s Mahler vs. the next 17 rolexes Diego Salazar is going to buy…

      It’s Mahler vs. the next 50,000,000 tanks of free gas.

      El Sistema is the best value for money in Venezuela’s entire public sector, no joda.

        • JUSTAMENTE por UNA vez plata pública no es malgastada. Por una vez el fisco venezolano financia una vaina buena!!!!

          (Sorry, I’m worked up…)

          • I accept that El Sistema is guilty of a kind of fraud. It can deliver something of staggering value —art— but in a society where that thing isn’t valued.

            So it promised to deliver something else —social impact— that the society does value. And that was a fraudulent promise. So El Sistema spends public money on a fraudulent premise. This is wrong.

            But at this point, we’re in the position of George Bernard Shaw’s dinner companion — “haggling about the price.” The basic point — that art has no value — has already been conceded.

            This is way more wrong.

          • Um, did you guys read the paper? These are the estimated effects of *one extra semester* of El Sistema. Meaning, it is entirely possible that the difference between zero-El-Sistema and five-years-of-El-Sistema is … substantial. Moreover, effect sizes of 0.1 (overall) or 0.2 (for children of less-educated mothers) are not small! That’s huge. Especially for one friggin’ semester.

            That said, I agree with Quico that this is kind of beside the point. Reminds me of English departments trying to argue that we need to offer humanities majors because they make people better citizens, or something. No. We need English majors because some people love books!

          • @Dorothy: Very important point. If one consumes these economic regression analysis, never ever forget to read the letra chica thoroughly.

          • Dear Dorotea,
            0.1 of a SD is not huge. I agree with you that long-term effects may differ substantially, but I am more than sure that the experimental design took into account only variables that could show within the time frame. Believe me, the IDB was highly interested in showing results.

      • El Sistema has a larger budget than all the Ministry of Culture.

        Again, for someone who appreciates music this may be a worthwhile investment.

        For someone who appreciates F-1 (I certainly don’t) Maldonado may be a great investment.

        Your same line of thinking can be extended to nearly any discipline. You are a soccer fan, right? Would you rather have that go into soccer?

        Is not that I don’t like publicly funded cultural programs, but the question is why favor one over the other? Why do we focus on music and not theater or painting or something else?

        Is it valuable for a young man to know how to play music but then die at the hands of a thug? Or an infection? What happen to our sense of priorities?

        And even if we agree on our priorities, on music, is El Sistema accountable, is it efficient? Is it effective?

        • True. And even so… why favour one type of music over another? My problem with this is that El Sistema lied to us over the years saying “this is my USP”, when in fact that USP does not exist.

        • La comparación con Maldonado no aplica. La orquesta Simón Bolívar es número uno a nivel mundial, reconocida como una gran orquesta por la crema y nata de la música clásica internacional, mientras que Maldonado nunca llega a nada, es una verguenza y un dinero muy mal gastado.

        • Me gusta la F1 y puedo decir que Maldonado fue una mierda de inversión, un mal piloto desde el comienzo… el programa de música obviamente no es una prioridad, pero el gobierno, hace lo que le da la gana con los recursos, sobre todo si funcionan como propaganda política. El Sistema es maravilloso el unico problema que existe en el es el hecho de que el país está en la mierda y hay problemas mayores de los cuales ocuparse, el impacto social de la música es incalculable, solo personas ignorantes lo verían como un desperdicio de recursos, por algo la industria musical mueve millones de dólares anualmente. Negar el impacto social del sistema es negar que el reggaeton y las artistas pop han causado mayor promiscuidad y libertinaje en la población, cualquiera que haya asistido a un concierto le guste o no este tipo de música se sentirá conmovido . Tenemos un serio problema llamado “socialismo del siglo 21” una idea que se vendió como la solución mágica de la pobreza, a eso hay que sumarle una población ignorante, oportunista y corrupta. El problema no son las misiones, el sistema de orquestas, o la nacionalización de las empresas el problemas son los fines reales de todas esas instituciones e ideas: Lavar dinero, burocracia, control de las masas, malversación de los fondos, etc

      • Well, El Sistema was more “limpio” when it was created in “la cuarta” than it is today, you know that, right? So, if I am not getting you wrong, your point here is that “at least” there’s some money going to art (even if in the process there are more people making money for themselves), right?

        Bad news, with this panorama, in the future it is very possible that, i. e., just the kids whose parents are with “el proceso” will have the opportunity to be part of our wonderful Sistema. When something is not working right, you have to mend it, not “justificar” 🙁

        And don’t get me wrong, I have friends in El Sistema, and I know it IS marvelous for those kids, and it should be stay great and be a place free for all, but it is rotting, my friend, and you can’t tapar el sol con un dedo de Mahler…

  2. Esta es hatsune miku https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3kMS4S166U
    Esta cancion, Nyan Cat, en su version original, tiene alrededor de 200 millones de views. El otro dia vi a mi tia de 70 años viendo el video.
    Hatsune es un software que imita voces. Hatsune no le quita dinero a ningun estado, no hay que pagarle la educacion musical a la gente para que pueda usarla , y disfrutar de sus canciones cuesta 0 bolivares. Hatsune tampoco sirve como metodo de propaganda para ningun gobierno dictatorial.
    Nyan Cat ha llegado a mas personas en el planeta de los que todos las canciones de todos los musicos del sistema durante todos años desde su creacion juntos. Puede que a usted le guste mas cierto tipo de musica que la simplista cancion de puros nyan nyan nyan , pero esto tambien es arte.
    Arte que llega a la gente alrededor del mundo. Arte que no hay que pagar con sangre.
    Lo que quiero decir es que: malditos estatistas reeeeeeeeeeeee dejen de hacernos querer financiar las cosas que a ustedes les gustaaaan snobs de starbuuuckkkssssssssss

  3. I think you have come across the cruelty of Utilitarianism. If you see no material and possibly economic value then your existence is unwarranted.

    This reductionism is not limited to arts an humanities, but to life itself.

  4. Maybe you should drink some chamomile before writing. A good paper should always be based on facts and not on anyone’s opinion, the numbers are very clear, period. But that doesn’t mean that the IDB doesn’t appreciate his cultural contribution and as such he was invited to dictate the Catedra Enrique iglesias last month: http://fundamusical.org.ve/prensa/noticias/gustavo-dudamel-recibe-distincion-del-bid-al-ser-escogido-para-participar-en-la-4ta-catedra-enrique-v-iglesias/

    • Did you read the model? Did you take a look at its values. Do you understand what the model was trying to demonstrate through its variables? If so, I am eager to read your analysis.

  5. I fail to see Quico’s outrage about the research paper, which I briefly read. Indeed, the point of art is art just as the point of science is science (or at least basic science). As the paper makes clear, the issue is the premise of El Sistema also having social benefits that go beyond the art of music. Extraordinary statements require extraordinary evidence. This paper simply shows that the evidence for these claims is weak.

    I am also sure that in Quico’s thought experiment, the group trained in Perinola will also do better at that art than the group trained in music. Different strokes for different folks. ‘-)

  6. ““But I hate Dudamel that guy is a chavi…”
    SHUT UP!

    Turn off the lights. Turn up the volume. Close your eyes. And listen!”

    And I hear the noise of one of the regime’s showcases.

    The system per se isn’t bad nor the money invested on it is necessarily wasted; it’s the use it’s been given, and because it’s used as a political tool to make the regime appear as competent on the international scene, then it turns it into a waste of money in the end.

    It’s the same as the case of Maldonado winning that cup in F1, lots of people were cheering and happy about it, forgetting (or simply skipping that fact) that Malchocado was just a showcase for the dictatorship, which made in turn the money invested a waste of resources.

  7. Well, gotta side with Quico on this. Instead of money ending in somebody’s Cayman account, we have a nice orchestra, some lovely classical music and a bunch of kids/teens heading to Europe to further their music careers. For us classical music lovers, sure it is money well spent.

    Funny thing is, there are no classical radio stations in Caracas. The last one, Radio Nacional Clásica, shut down six months ago. The Emisora Cultural de Caracas’s radio spectrum was taken away from them and given to a station that broadcasts… reggaeton 24/7 . So, if I wanted to hear El Sistema, I have to look it up in YouTube or in any of these internet radios.

    (BTW, I read a critique on Dudamel a while ago, saying that he was a “Mahler’s one-trick-pony”. Maybe that is what El Sistema is all about).

  8. On the other hand, the debate is kind of ridiculous.

    Abreu’s fraud was always transparent. It’s not as though if, in 1974, a research paper had established conclusively that intensive perinola instruction would outperform classical music in terms of social impact, Abreu would’ve wound up the orchestra and today we’d have El Sistema Nacional de Jugadores de Perinola. That the social impact stuff was window dressing was always kind of clear.

    Having made, his pact with the rhetorical devil, though Abreu has to live with the consequences. He sold us something amazing on demonstrably false premises. Its falsity has now been demonstrated. O brinca o se encarama.

    • Though really the debate is kind of ridiculous.

      Abreu’s fraud was always transparent. It’s not as though if, in 1974, a research paper had established conclusively that intensive perinola instruction would outperform classical music in terms of social impact, Abreu would’ve wound up the orchestra and today we’d have El Sistema Nacional de Jugadores de Perinola. That the social impact stuff was window dressing was always kind of clear.

      Having made his pact with the rhetorical devil, though, Abreu has to live with the consequences. He sold us something amazing on demonstrably false premises. Its falsity has now been demonstrated. O brinca o se encarama.

      • Or maybe it’s not quite like that. Maybe the value of El Sistema’s Art to society is X. But people are philistines, so society values it at Y (where X > Y.)

        Maybe Abreu figured out that society values the hypothetical social impact of El Sistema at X-Y. So that he could make the shortfall in social investment on El Sistema owing to philistinism by promising Social Impact worth X-Y — even knowing this was a false promise. By making the promise, he can make the Society willing to spend spend X on el systema (Y (for El Sistema) + (X-Y) for the false promise of social impact).

        I’m sure this is how Abreu justifies it to himself.

        I’m not 100% sure I disagree…

    • Can you, model at hand, educate me about your assertions which seems to be based on the paper referred by the author of this article?

  9. It is important to read the full paper. The authors expose some important limitations:
    First, they say that the outcome variables are measured by self reports and Guardian reports. Thisey do no took into account the perception of other actors, like the directors. Other important actor involved in El Sistema could have perceive changes that their guardians or themselves could not.
    Second, they say that the researchers worked with a very small group of music centres, so the results are not representative of the whole “Sistema”.
    Third, there was a number of participants that abandoned el Sistema during the research. The authors remark the importance of period of involvement with el Sistema as a variable that could affect the results.
    Also, I noticed some adtional things:
    -None of the scales have been validated in the Venezuelan context. How do the authors know they actually work? They do not explain if they did the necessary adaptations to use a scale not validated in a specific country.
    -When they interpret the results they talk in a positive way about El Sistema (they don’t say it doesn’t work). The authors say that the effects of being part of El Sistema may be perceived in the long run rather than in short term.

  10. Quico I agree that we should not have to defend investment in the arts (or humanities for that matter) in terms of its utility but I guess the response might be that we have to, because that is what politicians need to defend these investments (whether they be the corrupt blood suckers running Venezuela, or something more legitimate).

    What I think you are railing at is the paucity of our general understanding of the arts, and public discourse around the arts: i.e. if it doesn’t teach us to make widgets, its a waste of time and money…

    That general lack of understanding has become so universal, the argument you are making – a serious argument- seems like a throwback to a lost civilization. One where poets, musicians, dancers, playwrights, actors, artists of all stripes, earn a living. Instead, they drive taxi. Instead, they work at a photocopy shop. Instead, they teach well to do middle schoolers whose parents hope it will help them do better at math….

    Having said all of that, one other comment, at the risk of sounding petty. Why it is always Mahler? Does it always have to be Mahler? I guess after years of revering Dudamel and this orchestra, diligently separating the politics from the art, just focusing on the music and the momentous experience I had hearing this ensemble live, I too am getting weary.

    I know if I listen, you’ll have me. That feeling the first time I saw them will come flooding back. But for now I can’t, and for lack of a better argument, it is because I’m getting weary. I’m getting weary of Mahler.

    • What I think you are railing at is the paucity of our general understanding of the arts…

      Honestly what drove the post is that I played that video this morning and shit my pants. It’s such an amazing performance. I’m just trying to get people to listen to it!

      I don’t really see why Dudamel should be pilloried for having mastered this one composer. Better to kill with Mahler than to be sort of meh with seven different composers.

      • No es una buena interpretación. No ha recibido buenas críticas. Sólo su interpretación de la cuarta sinfonía con la filarmónica de los ángeles ha sido considerada sobresaliente.

  11. El Sistema per se is not a bad thing. And is not surprising that anything done with dedication and care will turn up positive fruits. But El Sistema has become for Venezuela what sports (and allegedly medicine) was to Cuba and the other Soviet nations: a propaganda front.
    In that sense it is not worth Dudamel stupidly sacrificing himself in its altar.

    Ceteris Paribus, it is better to keep El Sistema alive than abandon it.
    But if the threat of finishing Abreu’s creation is how they blackmail Dudamel to serve in that propaganda front, I say let Abreu do it alone.

    By using them, the chavista government has blackened both El Sistema and Dudamel’s image and made them the subject of many Venezuelans’ contempt.
    Dudamel’s refusal to speak truth to what happens in Venezuela is shameful.
    Sometimes a good death (El Sistema’s not Dudamel) is better than a shameful life.

  12. Taking into account the $500 million in loans from development banks (which will have to be paid back, of course) plus government funding, El Sistema has spent well over a billion dollars in the last decade. That’s a lot to pay for a nice bit of Mahler.

  13. You say: “Abreu’s fraud was always transparent.” “That the social impact stuff was window dressing was always kind of clear.” It may have been clear to you. It’s clear to some people in Venezuela, though not to others. But the rest of the world believed him, big time. Which is why they’re copying it everywhere, thinking that it actually works in Venezuela because… Abreu said it worked.

    • But the rest of the world believed him, big time.

      OK, this is clearly right…ugh…I hate it when commenters make me think!

    • I don’t think El Sistema has been copied everywhere. No country has budgeted and spent the large resources -as percentage of GDP- as the Venezuela Chavista has. At best, some countries have experimented with some youth orchestras and subsidized music teaching programs for youngsters. To be sure, no government has financed youth orchestras for PR and promotional campaigns abroad apart from the traditional cultural interchanges organized by the Cultural Attaches of embassies. The rest of the world believed in the positive aspects of Abreu’s project, rewarded him for that but we have never seen explicit approval of his concubinage with the chavistas. I am very happy to have found out that Quico agrees with my long standing appreciation of the El Sistema saga.

  14. Conceded that art need not have measurable economic utility. When I decide to buy a movie ticket, an entertaining novel, a meal in a fine restaurant, or painting to decorate my house, I do not try to justify their “utility” to myself. Nevertheless, any publicly funded program must have some sort of accountability for how well the public’s money is being spent. And, there must be some sense of balance about how much of the country’s GDP can be spent on art vs. other competing needs. If I bought that beautiful and expensive painting for my house and then didn’t have the funds to pay my electricity bill, you might question my priorities and the wisdom of my decision.

    So, I am finding your unconditional support for “El Systema” to be a bit over the top. Support for public spending of any stripe should always be conditional.

  15. Whether you like it or not, El Sistema is one of the extremely few things Venezuela is known for that has nothing to do with extreme violence or Beauty contests. I personally know several guys who would have probably ended smoking crack or being shot in some Caracas barrio hadn’t they been part of El Sistema. We can (and have to) complain about any form of corruption, yes. But denying that this particular initiative has been extremely succesful, is just being part of the hate game chavismo has been trying so hard to impose in the venezuelan collective for the last 18 years.

  16. What bothers me about these arguments is that it leads to blank checks. Also to things that are subjective.

    Why would the state should have these preferences? Shouldn’t these be up to the people?

    Same goes when nitpicking certain economic sectors.

  17. El Mahler de Dudamel es muy sospechoso. Yo creo en su talento, y creo que su reputación es merecida. Pero su interpretación de Mahler es terrible, de verdad, sólo se salva su grabación de la cuarta sinfonía con la filarmónica de sus ángeles. Yo hubiera escogido otro ejemplo para mostrar de lo que es capaz, pero entiendo que no eres músico y se te pasan esas sutilezas. Aunque el concierto del año nuevo tampoco me pareció sobresaliente, al menos sobrevivió, lo cual es bastante, y con el país como está, creo que es mejor no criticarlo mucho, porque a pesar de todo es un ejemplo de excelencia.

    • Bueno Dudamel es un rock star, es joven, el pelo, Mozart in The Jungle…y que parte del la marca de Dudamel es ser producto e impulsor del Sistema que “salva niñitos pobres” Eso se lle tan cool en el primer mundo…

  18. To amplify my point above, and continue my conversation with myself (you started it), I think you’ve put your finger on it when you talk about the transparency of the fraud. Clued-up Venezuelans knew that talking about social inclusion and so on was what you had to do if you wanted to continue with a large-scale classical music project under a populist president who didn’t like classical music. These Venezuelans understood the local language, if you like.

    But then came the overseas expansion, and with it the key point was lost in translation. And now we have a global El Sistema brand that operates in dozens of countries, led (by and large) by well-meaning people who thought that all the social talk was true and weren’t too concerned that El Sistema was long on talk (about itself) and short on evidence. What the IDB report hints at is not just the careless spending of Venezuela’s oil money – there are plenty of better examples of that – but also the creation of a global myth, and that’s a much bigger story.

  19. Creo que el experimento que cita el estudio es muy breve, quizás tocar un instrumento por varios años puede afectar otros resultados como la deserción escolar, entre otras que quizás sí podrían tener un impacto positivo sobre la situación socioeconómica futura de esos jóvenes. Tendría que hacerse un largo y costoso estudio tipo panel para inmtentar probar eso. Más allá de las mediciones del impacto, la pregunta crucial es si “El Sistema” de verdad atiende a los más pobres. Allí tampoco hay mayor evidencia estadística, más allá de los documentales propagandísticos que se han realizado. Hay, sin embargo, varias tesis en Sociología (UCAB) que han estudiado el tema. Resalta en las entrevistas que las familias más pobres no suelen permanecer en “El sistema” por los costos (aunque el instrumento y las clases sean gratis, hay que trasladarse, mantener el instrumento, etc.). Aquí les dejo el link de una tesis en la que fui jurado http://biblioteca2.ucab.edu.ve/anexos/biblioteca/marc/texto/AAS7348.pdf

    • Gracias por compartir esta tesis – se ve muy interesante. Sí hay información sobre la pobreza en el reporte del BID y demuestra que entre los 3000 niños seleccionados al azar en 15 núcleos en 5 estados, el nivel de pobreza era tres veces más bajo que en la sociedad en general. Esto coincide con lo que Ud. dice de la tesis (y lo que encontré en mis propias investigaciones). Probablemente estudiar por muchos años va a producir beneficios más notables – aunque podría traer costos también – pero ¿quienes son los que se quedan por muchos años? Si en general son jóvenes menos pobres, de familias disciplinadas, el efecto sobre la sociedad venezolana más amplia va a ser mucho menor de lo que siempre se ha afirmado.

      • Qué bueno que el documento sea de interés! Los estudiantes de pregrado hacen un enorme esfuerzo en esas investigaciones y muchas veces eso queda en la biblioteca, llevando polvo. Afortunadamente, muchas empiezan a estar disponibles a texto completo en la web. Puedes buscar en la biblioteca de la UCAB, hay al menos una tesis más en sociología sobre “El Sistema”. Saludos!

  20. A very disappointing post.

    El Sistema is not really that revolutionary. Already Humboldt mentioned the way music – pasion for music playing and playing what was back then “refined” music (i.e. classical music now) was something quite widespread across all classes.

    Please, give us El Sistema for mathematics and engineering. That is what we so badly need and have been in need of that for centuries.

    • There was a sistema for mathematics, engineering and scientists, they were called CONICIT and Fundayacucho. My father did a PhD in Chemistry thanks to these and then went on to work for the R&D arm of the old PDVSA – developped several patents whilst there too. Chavez abolished this.

  21. can you imagine the endless row of crying faces on tv of children that would no longer be able to play their favorite instrument? terrible publicity for Capripoldoallup’s future regime

  22. On a rough, subjective basis, judging the “utility’ of Revolutionary spending over the past 17 years by area:: real incomes-negative; standard of living-negative; reduction of poverty-negative; health care-negative; crime reduction-negative; education-negative; infrastructure-negative; defense-negative; El Sistema-positive. Even if the $1bill. spent on El Sistema, 1/10 of 1% of $1triil. total spending in the 17 years, would have been spent in any other area of Govt. spending, the marginal utility of such extra spending would only have been-negative.

  23. Off topic: Now that Oscar López Rivera is about to be released, will Maduro fulfill his promise to release Leopoldo López?

  24. There are thousands of young people in the orchestras run by El Sistema , the music which so delights Francisco is that produced by one orquestra n particular ,composed of the best of the best , many probably from middle class backgrounds so maybe the musical pleasures that this orchestra gives us is not typical of that which we could enjoy from music played by other more average Sistema orchestras…..!!

    This weakens a bit Franciscos argument to justify the sistema , the thing is that even if the average Sistema orchestra didnt play such good music I believe its still justified because of the joy and dignity it brings to thousands of its players and their relatives , .

    My dad used to say that a man in full needed four things , a trade or occupation , command of a foreign language, the ability to play a musical instrument and the practice of some sport…….musical education is an important part of a persons full human development , so the sistema is without doubt a step in the right direction and one which the State should support ……

    Without reading the report there is one thing which I think ought to have been achieved by having young men become participants in the Sistema on an ongoing basis , more self control , more discipline , greater capacity for team work , a greater respect for authority, formative character qualities that in the long run improve peoples chances of building for themselves a better life ……!!

    These are qualtities which are sorely lacking in our barrios and which are needed to make our people more competent at coping with the demands of a modern civilized society ….!!

    I can find no fault in this or any other government for supporting this kind of initiative , maybe there is room for improvement but the effort is well worth our support and at times ( as Francisco attests) our admiration!!

    • Bill, thank you for your defense of state support for the arts. For a moment I was thinking the consensus was that musical education was indistinguishable from Formula 1 racing. Venezuela can afford to fund musical education, as well as other priorities, like health care, and it should.

    • “a man in full”

      An interesting phrase. It was used by Tom Wolfe as the title of one of his novels. It conveys an extraordinary range of attributes.

      Bill, since your father used to say it, please tell me what is the Spanish version or translation. Thanks!

  25. Dijo de nuestra Venezuela Ana Akhmatova…

    Miel silvestre huele a la libertad
    El polvo – de la luz del sol
    La boca de una niña, como un violeta
    Pero el oro … huele a nada.

  26. Finally some common sense Francisco…Nice one.

    I had the pleasure to see the orchestra perform this live so I couldn’t agree more. It is among the only things that do work in the country.

    Those people who think that this is a choice between el sistema and more medicines or more food imports are brain dead. No point trying to talk to them. They lost it and they probably did a long time ago.

  27. Beauty will save the world, we all know that since time immemorial, but I wonder how you can learn to play an instrument at the highest level without eating well, or sick; thus, I doubt that other virtuosi as Dudamel will be forged in the next years.

    El Sistema’s concept is good, but not a top-priority when you can’t find food and medicine, and to the ones who say that one thing have nothing to do with other, try to learn to play an instrument with a hungry stomach and an untreated disease due to lack of medicine, then tell us how you did, I bet that you will throw your fucking musical instrument on the first person that ask you to play anything to “awe their senses” in such scenario.

  28. I love this post, it has two my favorite discussion topics, science reporting on the media and El Sistema.

    I don’t feel like we are reading the same paper though,
    “The findings suggest that exposure to El Sistema might serve an important role as a preventive strategy to promote positive outcomes among disadvantaged children. The subgroup results are especially relevant given research showing that, relative to their female and higher-income peers, male youth are at increased risk for poor developmental outcomes when exposed to disadvantaged or high-violence contexts (Anderson 2008; Moffitt et al. 2011). That El Sistema is particularly effective for vulnerable males is promising, especially as many interventions have been found to be relatively less effective for this group or even to impose adverse effects”
    There is your effect! It might not be just the music as you said, but THAT MUSIC is worth every penny!

    I have my own times when I find it difficult to support El Sistema, especially when I saw the video of Carolina Cestari talking about how musicians should limit themselves to play and “be quiet” in the name of the revolution etc etc etc, but you can’t deny that El Sistema is probably the only little money well spent in Venezuela. I don’t see people complaining about players from la Vinotinto not speaking out against the government, yet they serve the same “circus” purpose, a less musical and less entertaining to me. Demonizing Dudamel for not speaking out against the government is hypocritical to say the least, why should musicians be held at a different moral standard than Tomás Rincon? Why are Maldonado and Dudamel the only ones paying for los platos rotos? Is it because less people like classical music and formula 1 than football? I know that it all comes down to priorities, the urgent rarely leaves time for the important, because YES culture is important!, Art is important!. Calculating how many houses can be built with the prize of a violin is beyond the point of El Sistema, because you need education to be able to change the overall rancho mentality that has left us deep down socially, morally and economically. Education that El Sistema does provide, by teaching their members the value of hard work and self determination to achieve something. It is not a strike of luck that makes those kids play Mahler, Mozart or Beethoven, it is not that they were born into a rich family, it is the freakishly long hours of practice and attending double school every day of the week! Of course the system isn’t perfect, there is huge room for improvement but to all the haters, please back off, go find something ridiculously more obvious to protest and enjoy a free Mahler concert courtesy of the petrodollars.

  29. There are good systems all around that are private financed and have the same impact (sometimes bigger) that “El sistema” just because it provides some flexibility in where to play, what to play and else.

    If there is a thing to finance I prefer an approach in Japan that is the Idea of School clubs where people can develope musical abilities ( but are not limited to this aspect, because there people can develope their own interest in other forms of art)

  30. Reading the IDB report I noticed that the book on El Sistema written by Geoffrey Baker, probably the most complete and well researched of all evaluations of this program, does not appear among the references. The authors did not read it or were they obeying orders?
    The problem with El Sistema is not as simple as QuicoToro makes it appear: For him Mahler justifies all. Although I have been listening to Mahler for the last 75 years I could not claim that the El Sistema/Dudamel rendition of Mahler’s fifth symphony is the best or the worst. I liked it, but I also like other versions.
    This is not the issue. The issue is that there is a profound asymmetry between the dwindling money going to El Sistema, the real nationwide program for the children and the abundant money going to the orchestra and its travels, to the showcase of the program. The issue is also that, as the critics in New York have already pointed out, the orchestra is less and less the youth orchestra of yesterday and more and more a professional orchestra of adults, not a particularly competent one, as far as professional orchestras go. When measuring this two characteristics against the billion dollars already spent in the El Sistema ( a considerable portion coming from loans from IDB), there are valid reasons to question the efficiency of the investment.
    This is a real issue that does not go away no matter how many times we listen to Mahler.

  31. Dr Coronel makes an excelent point , even if the sistema is a good thing for the kids and people who participate in it and as a concept something thats worth supporting , the money spent on its support may not have been wisely spent in terms of measuring money spent vs the outcome obtained thru that expenditure , maybe it was possible to get a bigger bang for the buck ……but that doesnt mean that what the sistema represents as an organized effort to improve peoples life and moreover give under priviledged kids a chance to develop work and life habits which can help make them develop into better more socially competent persons isnt worthy of public patronage . We may complain about how the resources have been managed if we believe they coud have been managed better but not about what the sistema has been trying to achieve……!!

    I think of el sistema as a way of getting kids and their parents involved in an effort that can help kids develop as better persons because learning to play an instrument methodically in a orchestra setting teaches people good character traits and work habits(discipline , self control , dedication , team work) , which we do need to develop as a country …it can also be done by promoting the practice of sports in organized club setting and through other similar type efforts which dont involve music . Im not sure the report denies the usefulness of this kind of effort even if its results dont match the boosted propaganda hype that has accompanied the effort ….!!

    • Bill, this is the main criticism to El Sistema.
      It is the disproportionate allocation of resources to El Sistema compared to other more basic necessities.
      It is all about priorities and the criticism should not be viewed as an attack to public funding for the arts or against music education in general but as a matter of responsible spending of public money.
      Is not by coincidence that Venezuela stand out and alone here with this rather eccentric experiment, given its economic mess and distorted policies which allows it.
      Many other countries would simply reject such program simply on financial grounds because doesn’t make sense. There are other priorities.

  32. Some of the commentary on here is great, some of it very poor. A lot of it is based on received wisdom (ask yourself, where does that received wisdom come from?) rather than research. Some people haven’t read the study; others have but haven’t thought about it very hard.

    This is a study by the IDB – the same institution that has poured $160 million into El Sistema. So it’s looking for good news to bolster its actions over the last 18 years. There is a little bit of good news, and they make a big deal of it. But there’s a lot more bad news, though it’s buried more in the depths of the report. The latter includes:

    1. El Sistema children are three times less likely to be poor than all 6 to 14 year-olds

    2. Significant positive effects were noted in only 2 out of 26 variables measured

    3. No positive effects, and some negative ones, were noted among girls

    4. Nearly half of the children admitted to the program failed to complete a full year

    And even the good news needs qualifying, given the application process for El Sistema.

    Trust me, if this was really good news, we’d have heard a lot about it between its publication in November and now.

    Read more here: http://tocarypensar.com/blog/idb-study-sheds-doubt-on-el-sistemas-claims-of-social-inclusion-and-transformation

  33. The Taj Mahal was built by a reckless mogul who almost bankrupted his kingdom to build it.

    The resources spent in Gothic Cathedrals could arguably been spent in combating the squalor in which so many of its ‘customers’ lived in.

    Some argue that the technological development required to send a man to the moon was the main reason for the technology boom of our time, I personally think the technology would have been developed even without the space race. The man on the moon was a project of vanity.

    So there is utilitarian arguments would quash each one of the above mentioned projects, and the world would be less for it.

  34. El Sistema hay que desmiticarlo, creo. En primer lugar, no es tan incluyente como parece. En líneas generales, es muy conservador en sus prácticas. Sus métodos son totalmente convencionales, ortodoxos. El que busque en el Sistema algo especial en su filosofía, en su manera de enseñar, no va a encontrar nada especial, sólo una serie de conservatorios y escuelas que operan como los conservatorios y escuelas de otros países, con los mismos criterios profesionales. No lo critico, porque estoy a favor de la meritocracia, sólo digo que es así. Por cada prodigio,hay muchísima gente promedio rechazada. Sí, rechazada como Hitler en la escuela de bellas artes. Se ha exagerado un poco el impacto social que tiene. La música produce muchos beneficios a las personas, pero sacarlas de la pobreza no es necesariamente uno de ellos. Los más talentosos y disciplinados generalmente se van a la Simón Bolívar o al exterior, luego la gran mayoría se queda donde está y ya. También hay que decir que Dudamel no es el único director talentoso que tenemos; simplemente fue el escogido. Por otro lado, el hecho de que nos sintamos parte de la gran cultura, de que podamos acceder a esa esfera, es algo importante, especialmente cuando nuestra autoestima como nación ha sido tan golpeada. Hay otro tema. El Sistema quizás era más eficiente antes, cuando tenía un presupuesto menor. En realidad, la generación del sistema que tanto valoramos actualmente es la que se formó, digamos, antes de Chávez o al principio de su gobierno. Habría que ver si la próxima generación sale tan buena como ésta. Probablemente sí, pero creo que es un factor a ser tomado en cuenta en el análisis. E insisto. De verdad, el Mahler de Dudamel: terrible.

  35. There is a cruel phrase by Schoenberg : If its for the masses it isn’t art , and if its art it isn’t for the masses…I always believed that Venezuelans love of music was exceptional , even at the popular level , and that Venezuelan vernacular music is among the most beautiful ever composed , Im a big fan , maybe Schoenberg was right and my assumptions about ordinary Venezuelans love of music was wrong. It is said that the study shows that most of those that join the orchestras are not really poor but middle class and that at least half of those who do join it abandon it in the first six months which is disappointing !!

    I still believe that learning to play an instrument and being part of an orchestra is a character forming experience , specially strengthening those character or behavioural traits that are so lacking among our poor , the discipline , the self control, the capacity to work in a team , also because one of the worst scourges of poverty is the way it robs its people of a sustainable sense of self worth , of inner dignity , because of ones efforts and achievements , and playing an instrument as part of an orchestra and learning to interpret and appreciate the most beautiful music is something that can help give poverty stricken people a sense of accomplishment , of personal pride …… !!

    The same sense of self worth (in a Macho sense) can be attained by forming part of a criminal band , or by using a gun to rob and kill people ……, this is one way many young men in our barrios find a way to prop up their sense of inner dignity …..with consequences for society we all lament. Barrio girls find their dignity differently , by pairing up with a macho delinquent who ´represents them’ or by having a baby and becoming a mother ……time and again……..

    Of course these formative character traits require a minimum capacity to develop them , a basic steadfastness and constancy that maybe most of our underpriviledged children never begin to have….!!
    These life changing character traits aren’t developed in six months or in a year , they usually take longer than that , so if most of those joining the sistema desert it within the first 6 months , then its benefits do not help them , it might help however those that stick with it for a longer period in a way that deserves encouragement and public support ….!!

    If a project doesn’t work as advertised doesn’t mean it cant if managed with better criteria and methods.

    Again my point is not about el sistema as such , only about the need of finding ways to attract young people, specially from poor backgrounds to participate in activities which can encourage them to develop into better more able and productive human beings while giving them and their parents a sense of personal accomplishment that brings dignity to their lives….

  36. Según unas brillantes ideas expuestas en este conversatorio da lo mismo una escuela de ballet o una de perreo…es solo cuestión de gustos…

  37. From the sociology thesis at the UCAB mentioned above:

    Observación 10: todas las madres coinciden en que una familia pobre no se puede
    mantener en El Sistema, que todos los niños que están estudiando ahí es porque de alguna
    manera tienen recursos económicos mínimos para mantenerse.

    Todas coincidieron en que en El Sistema no hay gente pobre porque no podría
    mantener el ritmo de la rutina de gasto que eso genera, y que por el contrarios quienes
    hacen vida ahí es porque tienen un mínimo de recursos económicos que les permite costear
    traslados, comidas, arreglos de instrumento, reparaciones, uniformes, etc. Una de las
    madres sostuvo que sus gastos se incrementan porque su hijo toca instrumento de viento y
    en períodos de tiempo regulares debe comprar los filtros de la boquilla los cuales son
    “medianamente” costosos y eso debe salir de su bolsillo. Todas coinciden en que estudiar
    música es caro.

    “Porque esos niños no pueden, no pueden, ¿cómo va a poder? Ya como
    vamos hablando, si rompes la cuerda de un violín… si el sistema te diera
    el violín, pero al violín hay que comprarle la cuerda, hay que comprarle
    arco, eso corre por cuenta nuestra, pero una gente de bajos recursos como
    hace. (…) digamos que hay una familia de 5 muchachos que no pueden,
    aja, como hacen para las cañas del oboe que cuesta 80 bolívares cada caña
    te dura 1 semana, luego la semana que viene necesitas una caña nueva,
    entonces, 8 por 4 semanas= 320.”

    Algunas de las mamás sostienen que los gastos en mantenimiento y arreglo del
    instrumento, piezas del instrumento, transporte, uniformes, etc. corren por cuenta de la
    familia, una de ellas lo manifestó de forma muy sencilla: “si se te rompe una cuerda en
    algún concierto, ¿quién sale corriendo? La mamá.”. Siendo esto así, las madres coinciden
    en que muchos niños desertan en el camino porque sus familias no tienen los recursos para
    mantenerlo aquí.

    “Muchos niños no continúan aquí por eso, porque de verdad esto es un
    sacrificio, tienes que tener unos padres que te ayuden. Porque no
    solamente es pagar el pasaje y venirte, que es bastante, porque por lo
    menos yo gasto en mi solamente 30bsf diarios, comprando a la niña
    tiquetes estudiantiles y Metrobús. Los instrumentos, aquí no dan
    instrumentos, todo se lo tienes que comprar tú, las cuerdas, las cañas, todo
    eso. Mira, tienes que venir con un uniforme a los conciertos entonces,
    tienes que comprarle el uniforme.”

    Otra madre comentó que El Sistema debería recibir más apoyo de los entes
    gubernamentales, especialmente en el aspecto económico. De esta forma El Sistema podría
    cubrir otros gastos y aligerar los costos que tiene para la familia mantener un hijo
    estudiando música.

    “Yo pienso que El Sistema, porque el Gobierno habla mucho de que El
    Sistema, pero que pasa, ellos deberían venir, y se puede, porque tenemos
    dinero, aquí en este país hay, pero deberían inyectarle más recursos a
    estos, de manera que de verdad los niños de bajo recursos pudieran.”


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