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El Sistema, the massive Venezuelan youth orchestra program, has been hailed in some quarters as the next big idea in music education (if not...

El Sistema, the massive Venezuelan youth orchestra program, has been hailed in some quarters as the next big idea in music education (if not as the savior of classical music itself). Any who have found the press coverage of El Sistema suspiciously rosy, however, will find quite another account in Geoffrey Baker‘s engrossing and at times sharply critical book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (Oxford University Press, 2014). Baker takes an ethnographic approach to El Sistema, investigating the daily lives and experiences of students and teachers, while simultaneously drawing on recent research in music pedagogy to subject the structure and history of the program to an ideological critique.

El Sistema describes itself as an organization devoted to the “pedagogical, occupational, and ethical rescue” of children through orchestral music, dedicated to protecting and healing the most vulnerable ranks of Venezuelan society. To this, Baker raises troubling questions. Is it really the case that the average student in El Sistema comes from a precarious economic background? Supposing that musical training can foster social development, is the symphony orchestra, with its rigid hierarchies of command, really the best way to train model citizens? And in the long run, can Venezuela — or indeed, any country — provide long term employment for such a large cohort of professionally trained musicians?

Further Listening/Viewing/Reading:

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra here.

Lawrence Scripp’s interview with Luigi Mazzocchi: “The Need to Testify: A Venezuelan Musician’s Critique of El Sistema and his Call for Reform”
(Full version here)
(Shorter, journalistic version here) https://van-us.atavist.com/all-that-matters

Geoffrey Baker’s El Sistema blog here.

Special issue of Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education on El Sistema here.