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El Sistema in Venezuela probably is not that much harsher than most musical education

The moon is blue, so I shall defend a socialist prestige cultural project. East Germany had its shotputters, the USSR its grand masters of chess, Venezuela has “El Sistema” – a much lauded system of musical education. Now, however, there is a discordant note:

Author exposes ‘tyranny’ behind musical miracle for poor children

Over 40 years, El Sistema, Venezuela’s music education system, has given a million children the opportunity to play in an orchestra, enriching, they say, the lives of youngsters from the barrios.

Its methods have been emulated in 60 countries, notably Scotland, where a Sistema-style operation was pioneered on a tough housing estate in Stirling with support from the classical violinist Nicola Benedetti.

The mood music has changed, however, with the publication of El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, by Geoffrey Baker.
Aghast at the book’s claims of corruption, mismanagement and nepotism within Venezuela, a Conservative politician has questioned whether El Sistema should extend its reach any further. Yesterday, Alex Johnstone, MSP for North East Scotland, said that plans for a Sistema orchestra in Dundee must be halted while the claims are investigated.

“This book gives the impression that the system is much more authoritarian and intolerant than some were letting on,” said Mr Johnstone. “Not so much a new idea, as back to the Victorian habits of teaching piano by rapping them across the knuckles.”

Corruption, mismanagement and nepotism in a socialist show project would astound me only by their absence. But authoritarianism is the norm when teaching children to play musical instruments the world over, and has been since forever. The exception is the namby-pamby modern Western middle classes, and not all of them. The common opinion of that portion of mankind that gives music lessons or pays for them is that you won’t be going anywhere until you have done your quota of scales, sweetums, and if your name is Wei or Xiuying, these days that quota is likely to be big.

Do not misunderstand me. I like namby pamby. I’ve been uncomfortable with compulsion in education for decades now, and if not convinced that it can be dispensed with altogether for the very youngest children, am certainly convinced that it can be phased out at a far younger age than most people think. In most contexts I am convinced that education without force is immeasurably better education.

But how do you get them to practise – or don’t you? Given that it takes unfailing hours of daily practice to make a great player, and that for most instruments the great players invariably start young, would the price of freeing children from the slavery of music practice be no more great classical musicians? If so, would it be worth it?

29 comments to El Sistema in Venezuela probably is not that much harsher than most musical education

  • staghounds

    A great artist will find a way. You can’t stop them.

    And at the same time, if we need more cellists, or pilots, or whatever than there are artists, then catching them young and forcing them is the way to get the best ones.

  • gongcult

    Being encouraged to practice at an early age will probably help develop music skills (I hated piano practice & it shows. ..) Little brother who rebelled &took up guitar in his teens eventually found a way to avoid the tyranny of enforced practices and became a casual practicer and far better amateur musician than I could ever hope to be.

  • mdc

    What is the purpose of forcing people to play classical music at all if they don’t enjoy it? The plentiful and well paying jobs for mediocre concert pianists?!

    It fits the socialist mould exactly – tremendous and not necessarily incompetently managed resources directed towards an arbitrarily chosen a goal of little or no value.

    The world’s tallest dam! Colonies in Siberia! Cargo cult economics.

  • mike

    ” If so, would it be worth it?”

    Absolutely – not even worth the question mark.

  • Patrick Crozier

    “East Germany had its shotputters, the USSR its grand masters of chess…” Britain has its Olympic cycling programme.

  • James Waterton

    Hey, that was ours.

  • Snorri Godhi

    A cynical view (which i submit for discussion only) is that we have so many classical music recordings that we don’t need performers anymore.
    Perhaps future composers ought to write for computers, rather than traditional instruments.

  • Coniston

    It is El sistema not La sistema. The word ends in a but is masculine. Other examples: El clima, el tema, etc . But then there are common words like el agua and el hambre that use the el but are feminine. In the plural you say las aguas or las hambres. Fortunately the rest of the language is quite simple and straightforward and most of the exceptions are down to sound. La agua sounds awkward, ditto la hambre (the h is silent). El sistema has produced fine young musicians from all over South and Central America and the Caribbean…Corrupt? most likely. Effective? Undoubtably.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Thank you for the correction, Coniston, I will amend the post accordingly.

  • Tedd

    We aren’t born with the discipline to carry through with things that require a large investment before the payoff, such as learning to play an instrument. At least, most of us aren’t. That’s a trait that parents have to help a child develop by imposing some discipline (at first). Most of us here have benefitted from that process, although it might have been long enough ago that we’ve forgotten it was something we had to learn. Up to a point, this also applies to agents that parents engage to help raise and educate their children, such as schools or music teachers.

    Where this goes wrong is when the parent or agent continues to impose discipline dogmatically, after the child has learned all they can from it. This is always going to be a problem in institutions, because children develop at different rates and institutions have a lot of trouble treating people as individuals.

  • Sean McCartan

    Interesting point , Coniston , and also a good illustration of the pitfalls hidden by every language , save , pethaps , Esperanto.
    Oh yeah , while we are on that subject , it’s ‘undoubtedly’.

  • bloke in spain

    There’s something about both the arts & sport that’s fascinating. Their potential for completely reversing political philosophies. For their popularity with the left, despite the cut-throat winner takes all competitiveness. The way so many libertarians are happy about them forced on youngsters irrespective of their wishes.

  • James Waterton

    The way so many libertarians are happy about them forced on youngsters irrespective of their wishes.

    Come again?

  • Paul Marks

    “40 years” so the “classical music from the poor” project goes back many years before the socialists came to power.

    Not what is implied in the media – including Classic F.M.

  • Ljh

    I write as the parent of a musician, educated at music schools from age ten where I was able to observe fellow musicians.
    Unless a child has some facility and interest, they will not enjoy the perseverance required to reach the stage at which the music itself and the experience of working cooperatively with others is rewarding. Externally imposed discipline helps the talented to progress rapidly but is a turnoff for the ungifted and unenthusiastic.
    Once a child is playing complex music selfdiscipline emerges especially in an environment where there are role models and music is seen as a serious pursuit. Some may go through phases of practising obsessively as a means of proving themselves and seeking approval. Where would the world be without obsessives?
    Those who turn from music after years of training have developed a fabulous work ethic which is transferable elsewhere and the knowledge that effort brings rewards, a mystery to many school leavers who have never had to knuckle under.
    It would be a better world if children were encouraged to find a passion and try to get seriously good at it, rather than being patronised by educators who are squeamish about discipline.

  • Kevin B

    What Ljh said:

    When Nannerl was seven, she began keyboard lessons with her father while her three-year-old brother looked on. Years later, after her brother’s death, she reminisced:

    He often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good…. In the fourth year of his age his father, for a game as it were, began to teach him a few minuets and pieces at the clavier…. He could play it faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy, and keeping exactly in time…. At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down.[10]

    These early pieces, K. 1–5, were recorded in the Nannerl Notenbuch.

    Of course Mozart was more than a great musician; he was a genius. He also had the gift of tongues, unlike me whose schoolboy French, almost non-existant Italian and totally non-existant German, not to mention my extremely rudimentary grasp of the language of music, somewhat interferes with my appreciation of his operas.

    He was earning his keep as a musician at the age of six and, while he was never rich, he spent his money when he had it. It’s tempting to bemoan the fact that he didn’t make a fortune whilst some pretty average talent these days makes millions but such is life.

    I could do with a bit of cheering up today so a quick listen to Mozart’s, (and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s) perfect evocation of the problems of an adolescent boy struggling with the sudden onset of hormones will help.

  • Mr Ed

    Coniston is spot on, iirc, in Spanish apparently feminine endings for masculine nouns is a feature of words of Greek origin, like el problema, so those who say ‘no problemo’ might think that they are speaking ‘Spanish’ but they are using a vulgar neologism. That a language might, despite the adoptio of a word, conserve noun gender (a concept wholly alien to an English monoglot, barring affectations for ships etc.) in this fashion might be an example of the Hitchhikers’ ‘ousghiansoder’ problem.

    Leopold Mozart’s System was of course, one German’s solution to a private, particular challenge, lighting a fire with the driest, most flammable kindling in all of Creation.

    Now how should the Scottish Government’s exciting new Children’s Guardians react to state-sponsored abouse in the McSystem?

  • Ljh

    Mr Ed: Children’s Guardians vs El Sistema will be a very interesting battle. My child fled “normal” education because her teachers did not approve of either her seriousness nor application, unable to accommodate her drive for excellence and complexity. I fear for the music school system in the current crop of panics. Classical musicians by virtue of the intense and long training required are an elite.

  • Roue le Jour


    The question of compulsion in education is an interesting one. In normal human interaction, if person A compels person B to do something, then person B will assume the compelled action benefits person A to the detriment of himself.

    As a teacher, I see this in class. Teenagers will act as if they are doing you a favour learning something, because you are compelling then to do it. This is obviously not way to get anyone to learn anything.

    I’d be interested to hear any further thoughts you have on the subject.

  • Rob

    I expect the Children’s Guardians, being good Marxists, will be horrified that effort should be expended by youth on something as bourgeois as classical music. They’ll win easily.

  • Roue le Jour: this certainly holds with regard to teenagers, but I am less certain that the same applies to younger children. Biologically teenagers are at the stage where they establish their own identity, very much separate from their parents and, by extension, from their parents’ generation – i.e. teachers and similar. This is where the proverbial teenage rebel comes from. Prepubescent children are not yet given to these hormonal influences, and therefore perceive themselves as part of their parents being – not quite so literally, of course, but still to no small degree. So my guess is that this question of “cui bono” should be taken in that context. My two cents, in any case 🙂

  • Ljh

    Roue le Jour: having high expectations of students is a better motivation than compulsion. Adolescence is a bit late to learn about the satisfactions of delayed gratification and application, plus that mastering something is good in itself. Research shows that students whose effort rather than the product of effort, is praised are more likely to persist. Small children would like to emulate skills and know when they are being patronised. Telling them how clever they are, just dumbs them down for later life.

  • Kevin B

    Does El Systema train singers? And if so, is the regimen quite as fierce as this?

    The training of the boys was rigorous. The regimen of one singing school in Rome (c. 1700) consisted of one hour of singing difficult and awkward pieces, one hour practising trills, one hour practising ornamented passaggi, one hour of singing exercises in their teacher’s presence and in front of a mirror so as to avoid unnecessary movement of the body or facial grimaces, and one hour of literary study; all this, moreover, before lunch. After, half-an-hour would be devoted to musical theory, another to writing counterpoint, an hour copying down the same from dictation, and another hour of literary study. During the remainder of the day, the young castrati had to find time to practice their harpsichord playing, and to compose vocal music, either sacred or secular depending on their inclination. This demanding schedule meant that, if sufficiently talented, they were able to make a debut in their mid-teens with a perfect technique and a voice of a flexibility and power no woman or ordinary male singer could match.
    The castrato Carlo Scalzi, by Joseph Flipart, c. 1737.

    And will the Glasgow version require the boys to have the same operation to make the cut so to speak?

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Here is a comment received by email from a musical member of my family. Some of the proper names have been replaced by X’s, Y’s and Z’s.

    “Thanks for asking my opinion 🙂 First of all I should say that I’ve seen ‘In Harmony,’ which is England’s version of El Sistema, in action at both [venue X] & Opera North & it is fantastic. I agree with you that it didn’t strike me as a particularly harsh way of teaching, indeed the kids I watched at Leeds Town Hall seemed to be loving every minute of it, so I am surprised that this guy is attacking it. It was a lovely performance by the way, the children (from a school in one of Leeds’ most deprived areas) got the opportunity to perform some well known, accessible and fun classical music with the chorus and orchestra of Opera North helping out in the hard bits.

    “As for the practice question I think it’s a question of balance. Does enforced homework take the fun out learning? Not necessarily, but forcing an 11 year old to do hours every night and criticising every little mistake certainly will. The first few years of musical education are boring if you play the harp or piano and practically painful if you play the violin. Learning ‘the train song’ just isn’t going to be that exciting, but you need to get through that stage to be able to attempt fun and interesting music. I think a little coercion to get a child to a reasonable standard is often necessary and isn’t at all harmful unless it’s pressurized (you will practice at least 15 minutes a day instead of you will get to grade 5 by the end of the year like little Johnny in your class has). If the kid is destined to be a musician, when they get to the stage where they’re playing ‘real music,’ they’ll start practising without coercion, as I did.

    “I have a friend who is a good pianist but an excellent drummer. He says his Mum was a bit of a ‘tiger,’ with the piano, forcing him to practice an hour a day from a young age, though she never pushed him with the drums. He thinks that this is why he enjoys practicing the drums a lot more than the piano as an adult (and music student), which means he is a lot better on the drums these days. However, the piano was his first instrument and he admits that being ‘forced’ to attain a high standard early on sparked an interest in other types of music and probably has made him a better drummer, so it’s not all bad.

    “I also agree with one of the comments, that the really great musicians will find a way. I’ve mentioned I think that [Y]’s brother is a really excellent violinist? I’m not doing down mine or [Y]’s abilities (without sounding big headed, I am aware that I play an instrument better than most of the population), but [Z] is a cut above. He asked his parents for a violin at age 3. Chances are, if you child is destined to be a musical genius, getting them to practice won’t be a problem. “

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Another comment by email, this time from a friend from a very musical family, and whose sister is a professional classical musician:

    “I asked my sister about Systema and she told me two things.

    “Firstly, she said that she had watched the Venezuelan lot perform on a
    couple of occasions, and had been struck by their evident enjoyment of
    what they were doing. As she is herself accustomed to performing in
    orchestras, her opinion is probably worth something as regards the fact
    that they looked like they were having a whale of a time, not as if they
    were terrorised kids doing a chore.

    “Merely for prudence, I note that a long list of tourists returned
    from Stalin’s Russia saying how OK it was there, perhaps not all just
    because their politics led them to do so, and that this was maybe a year
    or more ago and things can change.

    “As against that, these were Venezuelan street kids, probably
    accustomed to a violent environment. Old literature suggests that
    discipline styles that even we could think severe, never mind PC
    lunatics, can be accepted and even approved by children if the context
    is one of punishing deeds justly objected to by parents or guardians
    that the kids sense genuinely care about them.

    “The second thing my sister said was that the Scottish version of Systema
    has not, as yet, achieved results remotely comparable to the Venezuelan
    one, and she thinks this is generally agreed. One possible explanation
    is that the Scottish one has only been running for a few years. Another
    merely possible explanation, prompted by your query, is that the
    Scottish one is unable to apply the same discipline. 🙂 And there
    could be many other causes. Maybe the Venezuelan Systema’s success
    reflects an outstanding personality in its founder, or its greater
    attraction when the alternative is _genuine_ poverty.”

  • PeterT

    I started learning violin (Suzuki method) at the age of 5. I was never very interested but it took me until the age of 18 to quit. It was my father’s initiative and whilst I always had the option to quit I knew that he would be disappointed, which is what kept me going. Clearly a considerable waste of time at least.

    My sister manages a Systema project in a European town. By all accounts enjoyed by the participants.

  • T Morgan

    Would the price of sparing boys from the practice of removing their testicles before puberty be no more great castrato opera singers? If so, would it be worth it?