What Matters in Criticizing Venezuela’s El Sistema?

March 9, 2012 • The Globalist Notebook • Views: 1241

by Sarah Swong:

Two weeks ago in Caracas, Venezuela, the Los Angeles Philharmonic was sitting in the audience instead of on stage. The American musicians watched brass bands, choruses, and orchestras of Venezuelan youth blasting horns and sawing at strings at the Teresa Carreño Theater.

The professional orchestra had just taught the children in master classes to support Venezuela’s anti-poverty music program, “El Sistema.” Since 1975, El Sistema has placed millions of underprivileged Venezuelan youth in orchestras and other ensembles in an effort to fight poverty with musical training. As early as age 2 or 3, children attend their local El Sistema center up to six days a week, four hours a day, all for free. The 280-center program serves 370,000 students in around 500 musical ensembles across Venezuela.

The Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, pictured above, is the result of El Sistema. Here, they play at a concert in Athens, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. (Courtesy gichristof)

After witnessing young people fall into poverty’s traps of drug abuse and crime, musician, conductor, and politician José Antonio Abreu founded El Sistema in 1975 to give children the opportunity to learn music through a balance of disciplined hard work and the harmony of group music-making. The spirit of solidarity and friendship instills self-esteem and the ethical and aesthetic values of music. The primary goal of El Sistema is to inspire in children a better vision of themselves and to empower them to change their own lives. “Art in Latin America is no longer a monopoly of elites… it has become a social right, a right for all the people,” Abreu said in a TED talk in 2009.

Classical music educators, administrators, and musicians have celebrated and reproduced the movement around the world, including the United States and United Kingdom. Some alumni have become professional musicians. Most prominently, former El Sistema student Gustavo Dudamel now serves as musical director of the L.A. Philharmonic and El Sistema and will have collaborated on 24 classical recordings by 2015.

But the heavily government-financed program has faced controversy due to its affiliation with the populist president Hugo Chávez. El Sistema has received almost full financial support of its operating costs from Chávez’s government. Two years ago, the president’s office took control of overseeing El Sistema, which had been previously managed by several ministries. In recent months, Chávez has more explicitly aligned the program with his own subsidy and service campaign for the poor. Critics see Chávez’s moves as attempts to consolidate power, take credit for El Sistema, and cover up his human rights violations.

Abreu and Dudamel have also been too sympathetic to the president, some say, since they have refused to express their political views. Abreu asserts only that children have a constitutional right to music, while Dudamel discourages politicization of the program. “We are giving an education to our children,” Dudamel says firmly.

The feverish love for El Sistema borders on the religiously fanatic, argues New York Times classical music reporter Daniel J. Watkin. He observes that José Antonio Abreu leads El Sistema as if his “social mission of art” were a religion. Venezuelans truly believe in his credo and celebrate Abreu as their musical Jesus. The unmarried 72-year old leader, Watkin notes, considers himself a devout Catholic, a “servant” of God. Dudamel mirrors his charisma. The cult of Abreu and Dudamel, however, raise questions about the sustainability of the model. To what extent does El Sistema depend on its charismatic leaders? And what systemic problems is their popularity hiding? “When there are saints, there’s no room for dissidents,” one anonymous affiliate says to Watkins ominously.

Some also note that El Sistema is not unique. Many advocates emphasize the uniqueness of El Sistema’s group-based musical learning, but Tom Service from The Guardian points out that Britain has fostered such collegial music education since 1950. The Kodály method in Hungary and the Suzuki method in Japan have also predated El Sistema in using music for social change.

But the criticism misses the point. El Sistema has produced results. It has jump-started the careers of world-class musicians and has inspired a national love for music that has transformed Venezuela’s social attitudes. Quantitative surveys show that children show decreased cases of depression and damaged self-esteem, and increased positivity about their environment and self-esteem. Though not unique in its principles, El Sistema stands out for its magnitude and impact.

If the survival of the program requires conciliation with an undeserving socialist president, so be it — everyone know the true forces behind El Sistema. It is curious that Abreu and Dudamel so insistently divorce politics and art, given El Sistema’s dependence on the government and Abreu’s past political life as Minister of Culture and Congressional Deputy, but remains beside the point. Most likely they hesitate to engage in volatile politics in favor of stability for their program. In any case, the world needs more Abreus and Dudamels: more leaders who know how to cultivate the power of the arts for social change.

Sarah Swong ’15 is in Pierson College. She is a Globalist Notebook beat blogger on topics of international art and politics. Contact her at sarah.swong@yale.edu.

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2 Responses to What Matters in Criticizing Venezuela’s El Sistema?

  1. Jim Mullen says:

    It would be interesting to see this social justice initiative make use of modern, efficient, effective tools and strategies.

    Kodaly is a completely accessible group method that wasn’t developed for the ‘poorest of the poor’, but for entire communities to learn the language of music, without singling out the ‘poorest’.

    Kodaly doesn’t develop much instrumental skill beyond basic singing, but it does succeed with a lot of key components of learning the language of music. Kodaly strategies have been widely taught at North American universities for decades.

    A more modern strategy like MusIQ Lab allows classroom teachers to continue making good use of Kodaly strategies, but also adds significant instrumental skill development. The interactive software component gets absolutely every kid engaged and having fun, and it’s very accessible for a school. This new approach makes use of quality software tools unavailable before 2005.

    Please note it’s a teacher led class, and the interactive software is used as a tool, for a portion of the class, and for practice between classes. The interactive software does not replace Kodaly, but is focused on a specific set of learning objectives that are more readily accomplished with that tool. So, it earns it’s time in the class (about 1/3 of the class).

    Adding the interactive instrumental component, with animated Beethoven, Bach, Villa Lobos characters, achieves a remarkable new level of student interest, and the reliable instrumental development allows all students to reach a level where they’re creating music they enjoy.

    Besides that the process of learning to read music fluently and perform on the instrument has a serious impact on overall academic achievement.

    The question I have for El Sistema proponents is whether to continue to support an ‘orchestra only’ model for those selected as the poorest children, or whether to adopt something that can reach all children for less initial and ongoing investment, like MusIQ Lab, and MusIQ Connect.

    MusIQ Lab has a group component in every class, uses keyboards (from 5 years of age), has students fluently reading and performing and improvising years earlier, and is self sustaining at almost any school.

    Students in their fourth year or later are more developed physically, and can join bands and orchestras and quickly learn to perform any instrument. MusIQ Lab is a comprehensive specialists led program, music theory is provided in good balance so that the complete musician is developed.

    MusIQ Connect involves all children, and I would suggest this could be better than selecting only the poorest children from a school. What about the other 50-70% of the American school (middle class) that also can’t afford music lessons?

    The Adventus MusIQ approach integrates quality interactive software learning tools into almost any comprehensive curriculum for reliable results. A new program can be established within weeks.

    Where there is no music program, the MusIQ Connect model brings in community funds as a built in annual fund raiser. The program is supported by someone locally who ensures the teachers participate in ongoing training.

    This means most existing music specialists could succeed with adding MusIQ Connect and the instrumental skill development it brings, and they can accomplish this with minimal training and minimal capital start-up costs, and minimal ongoing costs..

    The self-sustaining characteristic of MusIQ Connect allow it to reach many more children, the middle class would also be allowed a music education (where most can’t manage it today) and we don’t require vast amounts of capital to achieve the objective of every child in the school participating every year.

    Maybe El Sistema proponents, whose goals and achievements are beyond doubt, could integrate this new approach. The result of their commitment would be magnitudes greater, and they’d reach their goals more quickly.

    http://www.musiqlab.com, http://www.musiqconnect.com

  2. Sarah,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and informed article. I agree completely that El Sistema is above and beyond any particular political configuration in Venezuela. Abreu and Dudamel are both wise in their refusal to be pulled into a politically charged debate. In researching my recently published book “Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music,” I had the good fortune of talking at length with Maestro Abreu about how the Sstema’s evolution was supported over the years by seven consecutive governments of varying political persuasions. The Maestro’s vision is resolutely humanist, in the widest sense; that is why the example of the Sistema is so inspiring to musicians, educators and civic-minded people throughout the world.

    Tricia Tunstall (Class of ’74, Pierson College!)