Mr Baker, El Sistema and the elephant’s tail

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3-year-olds take their first music lessons in a nucleo in Guarenas, 20 miles East of Caracas. Photo: Reynaldo Trombetta (January 2013)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sistema England or the programmes it supports.

Those of us that have witnessed how music can light up passion and self-confidence in a child sometimes find it difficult to qualify, quantify and explain this phenomenon. We know it works, yes… we just sometimes don’t have the tools or the expertise to explain it to other people. That’s why it is so important to welcome academics and researchers into the Sistema movement. We need to gather measurable evidence that this work is worth supporting. And that is why initially I was excited to learn that Geoff Baker was studying El Sistema. In four decades, the Venezuelans have not produced a solid-enough body of evidence of the programme’s impact, so I thought that an academic from the University of London could do that. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The multiple instances of unsubstantiated allegations, hearsay, gossip and cultural misunderstandings in Baker’s book seriously compromise its integrity as a piece of relevant academic research. Instead of offering constructive criticism and ways forward to improve El Sistema, the author seems convinced that the only option is to dismantle the nucleos, orchestras and choirs, and send all the kids home.

Mr Baker appears to collect every single observation, accusation or rumour that could cast a shadow on El Sistema, while discarding anything that could be considered positive. The best example of this is how he quotes Chefi Borzacchini’s The Miracle of Music dozens upon dozens of times, mostly to criticise that book for its lack of quantitative research on El Sistema… but then, when Baker discusses the demographics of the programme, he conveniently ignores the 2007 survey cited by Borzacchini, that found that among 180 families from 15 nucleos in Caracas, Bolivar, Lara, Merida, Miranda, Tachira, Sucre and Zulia, 11% were middle class, 36% lived in poverty and 53% lived in extreme poverty.

Instead of presenting socio-demographic data, Baker recalls seeing Sistema kids with BlackBerry phones and Facebook accounts, suggesting that this is proof enough that they are middle-class. The truth is that in almost any rancho (shack) in the Venezuelan barrios (slums), you will find smartphones, computers and high-definition TVs, but none of that means that the people living there are even close to being middle-class. Understandably, Baker didn’t have the resources to conduct a survey in a statistically-significant number of nucleos across the country. So what did he do? He asked around in the one nucleo where he spent a substantial amount of time in, and maybe in a handful of other nucleos that he appears to have visited. Did he speak to people that had conducted surveys throughout El Sistema? Apparently not. He mostly spoke to teachers in those few nucleos, whose perception of the overall reach and diversity of El Sistema was based on their own limited local experience.

If Baker had visited the Los Chorros nucleo, which engages with 1,000 children and young people most of whom are brought in buses from Petare (one of the largest slums in Latin America), or if he had been to the “12 de Marzo” school in the village of El Soroco, where many of the kids worked classifying waste in a rubbish landfill, he would have had a different perception. Which of these nucleos is more representative of El Sistema? That’s up for debate, but until someone presents a survey that contradicts the one quoted by Borzacchini, I have no reason to believe Baker’s assertions that El Sistema works with mostly middle-class kids.

To an informed reader, the flaws in Baker’s research are evident. For example, he mentions El Sistema’s programme in prisons, which aims to humanise Venezuela’s penitentiaries. Baker ironizes that soon after a 2011 concert by inmates, and again in the next two years, there were outbreaks of violence in several prisons, so this should be proof that the programme has been unsuccessful, right? What he fails to mention is that none of the prisons that had these riots (El Rodeo in 2011, Yare in 2012 and Uribana in 2013) were part of El Sistema’s programme. Actually, Venezuelan NGOs that have been fiercely critical of the government’s management of penitentiaries, have described El Sistema’s prison programme as “excellent work” and have called for it to be expended as it only reaches 2.5% of inmates. But Baker did not speak to these NGOs. He also did not speak to any of the men and women that took part in the programme. He just saw an opportunity to attack El Sistema and he took it.

There are a good number of people with whom, it seems, Baker did not speak. The list would include the children in the programme and, most importantly, their parents, who could have explained why they queue outside nucleos, desperate to enrol their kids. Maybe Baker would have learnt something about the realities of growing up in a barrio, and what life without El Sistema would be like. It seems he also didn’t speak to any of the participants in the programmes for children with special needs or terminal illnesses, or with their families, who probably would have had something to say over whether music is improving the lives of their kids.

Clearly convinced that El Sistema is subjecting Venezuelans to cultural imperialism through classical music, Baker probably didn’t speak to any of the people involved in the programmes that focus on folk music, salsa, jazz, rock or other genres. Apparently, he also didn’t speak to anyone willing to explain to him that in Venezuela we believe that our cultural identity is composed of three threads: Amerindian, African and European; so no, we don’t see Western classical music as an imposition from the evil white man because that white man assimilated into our society centuries ago [that’s why on the stage of the Teresa Carreño Theatre, the most important arts venue in the country, you are as likely to see an orchestra playing a Mozart concerto or a Tchaikovsky ballet, as a concert of llanera folk music, a descarga of Afro-Venezuelan drumming or even a group of shamans from our indigenous peoples sharing their sacred songs, including one that uses a violin-like instrument called sekeseke, which would most probably horrify Mr Baker, I am sure.]

Baker did speak to anybody and everybody with an axe to grind. And anonymously, of course. The book contains 322 pages of anonymous accusations about very serious issues including sexual abuse, bullying and corruption. Baker admittedly never presents a shred of evidence, but he still slings the mud to see what will stick. Let me be clear: If there have been crimes committed within El Sistema, they must be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. But with his flawed research Baker seems more interested in attacking the programme than in obtaining justice for any victim.

Is El Sistema perfect? Of course not. But most of the problems that any critic would find in the programme are endemic to Venezuela and not specific to El Sistema. As we Venezuelans often say: We are not Swiss. It is a difficult country to live in, with a reality that is alien to most people in Europe or North America. Last year, a daily average of 67 people were murdered in Venezuela, and less than 10% of those homicides led to an arrest. 2013 closed with an inflation of 57.2%, the second highest unemployment rate in Latin America and excruciating shortages of food and medicines. Yet, in the midst of this chaos, El Sistema continues giving half a million kids the opportunity to experience discipline, structure, joy and support, while discovering the value of striving for excellence.

How you engage with children in a social project, and how you teach music in Caracas, is not how you would do it in London or Boston or even in Bogota. Knowing this, there are still many things that I believe can be taken from El Sistema and adapted to other countries and societies. Some of them: The belief that all children deserve access to music; that every child can make music if he finds an inspiring teacher; that kids are willing to work hard and achieve excellence; and that playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir does positively transform children’s lives. Those involved in Sistema-inspired programmes all over the world will decide for themselves what they take from the Venezuelans.

Baker has said that he travelled to Caracas with the best of intentions, enthralled by the SBYO’s performance at the 2007 Proms. But before focusing on El Sistema he had already authored Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco, a book about how Spanish missionaries used European classical music as a mechanism of colonialization and control, so I am guessing that he was never as enthusiastic as he claims about the young Venezuelans playing Shostakovich. In any case, and assuming his good will, my belief is that the limitations of his research and his own prejudices left him like a blind man grasping the elephant’s tail, convinced that the elephant was a piece of rope.

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The power of (teaching) music

1978489_694503383939600_217299481_oI am not a music teacher. My involvement in Sistema work has mostly been as a Communications professional. My perception of how music changes the lives of children comes from talking to them, to their parents and to their schoolteachers. But until recently I had never been in charge of the process of using music to help flourish something positive inside them.

However, due to the fact that I have some experience with Salsa, I was asked to help out some of the kids of In Harmony Lambeth, a Sistema-inspired programme in England, with the percussion for a latin piece called Chamambo.

The experience was terrifying. After the first rehearsal, I realised that the children in the percussion section were far behind their peers in the strings, and I felt the pressure of knowing that we would be performing the piece with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall!

I must confess that my initial reaction was pessimistic. Because I am not a music teacher, I briefly felt the temptation of telling Gerry Sterling, the director of the programme, that this couldn’t be done. But then I remembered that Sistema is, precisely, about discovering that you can do things that you initially thought were impossible. So I kept my doubts to myself and I started working with the kids.

The swiftness with which they caught on and started playing the bongo, the congas and the maracas was amazing. After a few sessions, the kids were ready not only to perform, but also to improvise their own percussion solos. What was most interesting to me was that I realised that the more faith I put in these children, the more self-confidence they showed.

The two performances at the Southbank Centre went great (in the second one, the LPO players were actually dancing as they performed!), and the accomplishment, pride and sheer happiness in the faces of our young percussionists is a memory I will always treasure. But most importantly, the experience allowed me to understand that music not only changes the students, but it can also touch the heart of the teacher.

El Sistema: Where does all that passion come from?

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One of the issues I explored during the recent trip to Venezuela organised by Sistema England was the astounding passion with which players in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and other El Sistema ensembles usually perform. This is a subject that has been discussed by Sistema-inspired organisations in other countries, who are trying to ignite a similar sentiment among their young performers.

A couple of months back I had the chance to raise the issue with Ron Davis Álvarez, former head of the Guatire and Guarenas núcleos, about 30 miles East of Caracas, and who now leads a Sistema-inspired project among Inuit orphans in Greenland. According to Ron, passion is something that –just like music theory or practice– you can teach.

No 4-year-old child is sitting at home dreaming of becoming a violin player, says Ron. The children that join a núcleo in Venezuela are initially as dispirited and even perplexed as the ones in any other country. But their teachers quickly light their passion through a mix of games, competition, rewards and positive reinforcement. To the children, every lesson, rehearsal or performance is not only a lot of fun, but it is also a chance to prove how great they can be. Teachers in El Sistema are experts in persuasion, concludes Ron.

Like many things in this System that is not a system, there isn’t a magic formula or a single explanation. Eugenio Carreño, head of the La Rinconada núcleo, doesn’t really believe passion can be taught. He thinks it is rather transmitted. And he is convinced that most of the passion comes straight from José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, and then it flows through the núcleos, academies and ensembles, like a benign virus. When I ask Maestro Abreu where this passion originates, he mentions two things: first, from the faith he has in the Sistema project; second, from the positive transformation he has already seen in so many children and young people.

In Barquisimeto, a city 300 miles West of Caracas, I discuss the subject with Jhonny Gomez, the director of the Vicente Emilio Sojo núcleo, a place that absolutely exudes passion. He agrees that this feeling is the product of the pride and the joy for the social work they are achieving. When you play music to save someone’s life –be it your own, or someone else’s– you cannot do it in an indifferent manner. And this passion naturally moves from teacher to student, then among the students themselves, and finally it touches the audience and the community.

Back in Caracas, I speak to Lennar Acosta, the director of the Los Chorros núcleo. When I ask where his passion comes from, his eyes fill with tears. He talks about growing up on the streets of Caracas, among violent criminals and drug dealers, and of eventually trading his gun for a clarinet and discovering a world that until then had been denied to him. “How can I not feel passion when I am playing or, even more, when I’m helping other children discover this world?” he asks.

If I had to choose one explanation, it would no doubt be Lennar’s. From 2005 to 2007, I had the opportunity of working in barrios (slums) and neglected rural areas across Venezuela. I met many young Lennars and their families, and it was obvious that someone who has nothing and is all of a sudden included (in an ensemble, a classroom, a society) will, as a result, be filled with passion (for music, for progress, for life).

The challenge for programmes like In Harmony and Sistema Norwich, or any other being developed in countries that fortunately do not suffer from the atrocious level of poverty of Venezuela, is how we can still make our children and their communities understand that music is not just another extracurricular activity, and that it is actually helping save their lives.

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Reynaldo Trombetta is Director of Communications of the Sistema England charity.