Sunday, January 31, 2016

El Sistema isn't the feel-good progressive program you think it is

Lawrence Cripp, "All that Matters is How Good It Sounds: An Interview with the Former El Sistema Violinist Luigi Mazzocchi," VAN Magazine:
Despite my positive first impression, however, I soon became aware that evidence for the impact of El Sistema had not been systematically gathered and empirically verified. It struck me as unlikely that a large-scale national system of extremely intensive out-of-school youth orchestra training could simultaneously provide free or low-cost instruction, instruments, and community núcleos (music schools) open to all youth; elevate families from poverty and communities from drug addiction and gang warfare; and render exquisite and passionate performances of the most difficult pieces in the classical repertoire.

As an independent researcher, I was disappointed in the lack of evidence for El Sistema’s validity as a model for 21st-century music education in service of broader social goals. As a music educator, I had difficulty understanding how a nationalized orchestra training system based solely on classical music and serving only a self-selected 6-8% of Venezuela’s youth could possibly be considered comprehensive education in music for all. It just didn’t add up.

In 2014, the researcher and musicologist Geoff Baker published a book entitled El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. His account challenged idealized views of El Sistema as an engine of positive social action and focused on the testimony of practitioners who were not directly involved in promoting the program. His interview sources, who were only willing to speak anonymously, portrayed El Sistema as a secretive, autocratic organization that has not been held accountable for its management practices, its treatment of teachers and students, and for gathering objective evidence of its social impact beyond anecdotes and musical performances.
In an effort to check what Baker reported Cripp interviewed "Luigi Mazzocchi, 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." Mazzocchi has been in the United States for 20 year and had just finished reading Baker's book when Cripp contacted him.

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The program demands long hours – 20 or more hours a week – and is highly coercive.
El Sistema used the professionalization of youth orchestras to enforce loyalty to a system that demanded a pledge of silence. Paying the young performers substantial wages meant El Sistema became a job that lured young musicians and teachers into committing to their orchestras, often at the expense of exploring other musical and educational opportunities. Yet young participants were also reminded to keep silent about being paid at all, lest El Sistema’s character as a professional training system rather than an education program become apparent.
Nor is the program directed toward lower-class children.
Mazzocchi testifies that there was a disproportionately small representation of lower-class children, and virtually no female students, teachers, or administrators throughout his early El Sistema years.
My personal experience in my orchestra [was that] it wasn’t primarily lower-class. I saw that the core of the orchestra, the principals who sit in the first chairs [of the orchestra], they were all from middle- to upper-class families.
Over time, a few more girls and minorities appeared in the orchestra, but usually the girls sat at the back, the women had lower management desk jobs, and El Sistema remained largely devoid of female teachers. (Even today, as Baker has noted, the Simón Bolívar Orchestra is 80 percent male, with hardly any women reaching the status of principal and none at all among the elite group of conductors.) Thus, according to Mazzocchi, two standard measures of social idealism—egalitarianism of class and gender—were not consistently present during his El Sistema years. [...]

Financial and professional benefits were therefore more often bestowed on middle- and upper-class students than on the poor, and on boys rather than girls. Mazzocchi, therefore, views El Sistema’s claims of social impact on disadvantaged students as insincere propaganda resulting from the quest for more funding.
Moreover, orchestra members were told how to vote in elections, and male teachers had (inappropriate) sexual relationships with female students.

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The article is an abridged version of the report that Cripp based on five interviews with Mazzocchi. The full report is available for download here: The Need to Testify: A Venezuelan Musician's Critique of El Sistema and his Call for Reform (Update).

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