Gustavo Dudamel is one of the most famous classical musicians in the world: his 2016 Super Bowl appearance was watched by over 100 million viewers; 50 million tuned into his new year's day concert with the Vienna Philharmonic; he has a TV series based on him ('Mozart in the Jungle'); he has even been on 'Sesame Street'. But while he is a bona fide cultural celebrity in Europe and North America, things are getting more complicated for him at home in Venezuela. Though still revered by some, he has also become a target of increasingly vehement criticism by a swelling opposition that sees him as a stooge of the unpopular, authoritarian government that presides over a disintegrating country. Venezuela's most internationally famous cultural icon has become the focal point of a public debate just as bitter and polarised as any other in this troubled nation.
Matters came to a head in early May after Armando Cañizales, a 17-year-old classical musician, died after being shot in the neck during clashes between protesters and police. Dudamel responded the following day with a message on Facebook that was reported by the world's media, but for many Venezuelans it was too little, too late. Critical views had hardened since 2014 as the conductor maintained warm relations with top government figures and a steadfast silence over the escalating civil strife. Political commentators, journalists, public intellectuals, musicians, and even comedians had spoken out against Dudamel's stance; Fernando Rodríguez in El Nacional, Venezuela's most prestigious newspaper, had lambasted Dudamel for what he described as a 'hypocritical masquerade'.
Cañizales's relatives rejected Dudamel's message, adding to the swell of criticism. So too did other Venezuelan classical musicians, including the conductor's most prominent and persistent critic, the pianist Gabriela Montero, and the conductor Manuel Hernández Silva. Thousands more Venezuelans joined in the chorus of condemnation on social media.
The shine is wearing off not just Dudamel but also the huge youth orchestra programme he heads, commonly known as El Sistema, to which Cañizales belonged. And it is here that this story begins to have implications for Scotland, where the most high-profile and celebrated music education initiative of the last decade, Sistema Scotland, is an official partner of the Venezuelan programme. Will there be fallout from Venezuela? Will Sistema Scotland escape it?
Dudamel has justified his refusal to take a political position by emphasising the importance of safeguarding El Sistema, a state-funded project that is supposedly transforming the lives of the country's poorest children. El Sistema has been hailed around the world as a miracle, turning children from the slums into world-class classical musicians. Simon Rattle once called it 'the most important thing happening in music anywhere in the world.' The social benefits of the programme, so the argument ran, warranted political silence and co-operation.
For much of its history, El Sistema has been highly regarded by broad swathes of the Venezuelan public. Its founder, José Antonio Abreu, had close ties with the media, ensuring predominantly glowing coverage. However, since political protests began in 2014, critical opinions have started to surface in Venezuela as scrutiny of Dudamel has put a spotlight on the programme behind him. An increasing number of commentators have noticed that the 'neutrality' of El Sistema's leaders has allowed the government to use the orchestral programme for political ends. This criticism has coincided with an upsurge in international research on El Sistema that has uncovered an array of problems behind the carefully constructed PR façade. If the miracle story sounds almost too good to be true, now it seems it may be.
In January 2017, the Venezuelan journalist Ibsen Martínez wrote a pair of highly critical articles in El País, describing the programme as 'that ongoing rip-off, that vast populist swindle, that product of the corrupt Venezuelan petro-state.' The pianist Gabriela Montero called El Sistema 'the greatest propaganda tool of the political leadership.' She recently criticised Dudamel's decision to promote 'the illusion that the endlessly repeated, media-friendly, promoter-friendly, agent-friendly mantra of "social transformation through music" would miraculously overpower the degenerative social effects' that the country was experiencing.
Just days ago, the journalist Sérgio Moreno published an article entitled 'Authoritarianism and talent flight: cracks in the System of Orchestras' in which he detailed allegations of secrecy, coercion, mass desertion, falling standards, frustration and apathy within El Sistema's top orchestra (the Simón Bolívar), and tensions between the orchestra and Dudamel, who had threatened to resign. Yet perhaps the biggest blow to Dudamel's argument has barely been reported, even within Venezuela, let alone internationally.
In 2011, after 15 years of flawed and inconclusive efforts to demonstrate that El Sistema worked as a social programme, its main international funder, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), decided to carry out a $1 million study and put the matter to rest. However, the report, finally published last year, did the opposite: it revealed little evidence of transformative social effects, and suggested that the programme catered to a relatively privileged population rather than poor slum-dwellers.
The study measured effects in 26 areas and found only two significant findings, suggesting that the 'theory of change' had been highly over-optimistic. More strikingly, the estimated poverty rate among the El Sistema participants was 16.7%, while the rate for the states in which they lived was 46.5%. In other words, the El Sistema participants in the experiment were three times less likely to be poor than all six to 14-year-olds residing in the same states. The authors admitted that their study 'highlights the challenges of targeting interventions towards vulnerable groups of children in the context of a voluntary social programme.' Furthermore, 44% of students who were offered a place failed to complete two semesters. The study thus raised significant questions about El Sistema's central claim: that it is transforming the lives of the most vulnerable in society.
Since the study was commissioned by the IDB and three of the authors were IDB employees, it unsurprisingly put the most positive spin possible on the results. (The IDB has loaned El Sistema $160 million over the last two decades, so the unvarnished findings are rather awkward.) However, according to Dr Mark Taylor, an expert in quantitative research methods at the University of Sheffield, even the minimal positive findings probably exaggerate the effects of the programme during the experiment, because of the statistical methods used. He argues that this aspect of the study is 'almost impossible to take seriously' and 'a form of cargo cult analysis.'
Given the amount of ink that has been spilled on the 'Venezuelan musical miracle' over the last decade, it is surprising that such significant findings have not been reported in the media. Most journalists seem less interested in the reality of El Sistema than in the myth. It is possible that some, rather than reading the report, were swayed by a press release from El Sistema which declared that the study had found an array of positive social effects and thus confirmed the transformative work of the programme (contradicting the researchers' published statement that they 'did not find any full-sample effects on cognitive skills...or on prosocial skills and connections'). Ignoring the crucial evidence of a low poverty rate and high drop-out rate, the press release claimed that the report 'reaffirm[ed] the value of social inclusion via a programme of artistic and musical education.'
However, there are broader reasons why criticisms of Dudamel and El Sistema barely circulate internationally. There is a now global Sistema industry that encompasses a major record label, famous concert venues and series, residencies, festivals, agencies, conservatoires, universities, symposia, educational programmes, famous conductors and musicians, institutional leaders, self-proclaimed experts, journalists, national and international umbrella groups, and a global advocacy network.
Constructing the Sistema brand has brought profits, built reputations, and bolstered careers. Institutions and individuals have boosted their profile and prestige by associating themselves with the famous 'miracle'. With so many invested in a positive story and thus advocating for El Sistema and Dudamel, critical scrutiny has unsurprisingly been in short supply, and the response when problems have been uncovered has generally been to brush them under the carpet. The result is that we hear little in the English-speaking world about the slipping of Dudamel's halo or the fading of the Venezuelan musical miracle, and public understanding of El Sistema continues to rest on myths and PR campaigns.
The word 'Sistema' has served its adherents very well in Scotland; evoking an exciting new face of classical music and the power of music to save lives, it has opened the tap of funding and media attention. But with Dudamel increasingly criticised as a cultural ambassador for a corrupt, authoritarian government and the shine wearing off the Sistema miracle story, the word may soon lose its magic powers. Dudamel's reputational problems in Venezuela are more prominent, but the IDB study is potentially problematic too, since the very reason that El Sistema was brought to Scotland was the assumption that it was a resounding success – something that no longer appears to be the case.
Sistema Scotland, as an official partner, might well have some concerns. However, it has been working hard to build up its legitimacy at local level, and it has found a valuable advocacy tool in external evaluations of the Sistema Scotland Big Noise programme conducted in 2011 and 2015. These reports painted the project in an appealing light: according to Sistema Scotland's website, the 2015 study by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) 'found convincing evidence of positive change to children's lives and concluded the programme represents a good investment for society.' Whatever is happening in South America, then, Sistema Scotland seems to be on a good footing, and it has garnered legions of fans in high places such as government and the media.
Not everyone is convinced, though. Shortly after its launch in 2008, a group of researchers led by Julie Allan reported on tensions involving programme representatives who wanted 'to keep parents at arms length, with controlled access to information and publicity, until the programme is established.' The researchers described Sistema Scotland's dealings with the local community in terms of a 'missionary stance' and 'top-down decision-making.'
Around the same time, Tom Service at the Guardian put his finger on several issues, wondering whether Sistema Scotland was 'a Big Noise about nothing?' He questioned whether El Sistema was genuinely bringing anything new to Scotland. In particular, he queried the decision of Richard Holloway, Sistema Scotland's chair, to devote his considerable energies to a tiny part of the music education sector, potentially even at the cost of other valuable schemes.
The sociologist Owen Logan has been a consistent critic of El Sistema in both Venezuela and Scotland. He dismisses the idea that it offers an egalitarian agenda. For Logan, El Sistema 'turns music into a cultural veil to be draped over failures of the state and the inconvenient facts of everyday life.' Other independent academic studies of UK Sistema programmes have also been critical, painting quite a different picture to commissioned evaluations. They suggest that behind the media-friendly surface, El Sistema is no magic bullet.
Logan has directly questioned the official evaluations of Sistema Scotland, which he accused of having a 'hand in glove' relationship with the programme (in the form of a shared neoliberal ideology). He described the central logic of the 2015 study as 'rather similar to the plotline of a second-rate Hollywood movie.' He is also sceptical of the financial calculations, which he called 'throwing variables together in a cost-benefit analysis of mythical proportions.' This scepticism is justified. The authors of the 2015 study describe their cost-benefit analysis methodology as consistent with that used to estimate the social impact of El Sistema in Venezuela in 2007 by the IDB. However, the 2007 study has been questioned by academics, and the bank had already distanced itself from this methodology by 2011, four years before the Scottish report.
Nevertheless, the GCPH report does acknowledge a number of problems and limitations, including the fact that many of its conclusions are speculative: it describes potential future impacts, based on theories and projections as much as evidence (hence Logan's scepticism). Digging down into the report reveals a more complex picture than the headlines suggest. Echoing Allan's early criticism, the authors note that 'the decision to implement the Big Noise programme within communities is based on a top-down understanding of community deficits as opposed to a collaborative consultation alongside communities to identify and enhance assets.' In this respect, the programme diverges from progressive contemporary thinking about culture and social development.
Parents and other neighbourhood residents play little role in governance or decision-making. As a result, according to one local partner in Raploch, 'if the money runs out for Raploch they will disappear. That's, I think, for the folk of Raploch, that's how they see it...It's not theirs; it's still an outside organisation coming in. They are grateful for them doing what they are doing, but they aren't fully expecting them to stay. I certainly think local involvement would make a huge amount of difference.'
The words 'challenge' and 'challenging' appear regularly in the report. The programme focuses on orchestral instruments and classical music, and 'some questioned the cultural relevance of this for children in both Raploch and Govanhill, citing this as a possible barrier to engagement and inclusion'; 'those not engaged in the programme identified the difficulty of learning an instrument, boredom stemming from repetitious learning and the pressure generated by performances as reasons for disengagement.' The amount of repetition, listening, and silence during group rehearsals 'was often described as presenting a challenge for children and young people', leading to frustration and a degeneration in behaviour in some.
A question mark is also raised over inclusivity. The report provides statistical evidence that children from an ethnic minority, with English as a second language, or with additional support needs are more likely to drop out, suggesting that 'there may be cultural and language challenges within Big Noise delivery' and 'that the intensive and immersive qualities...of the programme may be too demanding for some.'
Such issues are rarely acknowledged in the celebratory accounts of Sistema advocates, but they are raised by some individuals close to the source, if more sotto voce. One striking aspect of the 2015 evaluation is that it was carried out by researchers in public health. The absence of substantial input from music education experts is surprising – Sistema Scotland may be framed as a social project, but it consists primarily of music instruction by professional musicians – yet it is symptomatic of a significant gap in the research on the programme. Some in the music education field have their doubts, and several researchers and former Sistema Scotland teachers shared their concerns. (As in the GCPH report, interviewees will remain anonymous.)
They described imbalances between image and reality, and between the programme and the wider ecology of music education in Scotland. The project caters to fewer than 2,000 children, a fraction of 1% of Scotland's school-aged population. One researcher spoke of 'the contrast between the reality and how the world sees it, because people might assume that it's far bigger' on the basis of the media coverage. They were sceptical of the official evaluations, which they believed had overlooked problems and overstated benefits; one claimed that the evaluators had been 'taken in' by Sistema Scotland's impressive PR. Also, 'there is a general feeling around that the Big Noise project is getting a disproportionate amount of funding compared to what's offered for others...so if you live in another area, you might not get to learn an instrument at all.' The difference between Sistema provision and the rest of Scotland is 'just huge', concluded one; 'it's definitely not a picture of equality, as funding is being cut in local authorities.'
These imbalances have produced some resentment. Sistema Scotland has created 'segregation' or an 'us-and-them' scenario, and the local community is very aware that 'if you live two blocks away from Raploch, you're not allowed to go.' Indeed, the GCPH report noted that Sistema Scotland 'has left some families and service providers outside of these areas feeling excluded.' One of the researchers is 'very annoyed that such a small number of kids have access to this expensive, immersive programme, rather than money being spent in a more even way across the country.' Inequality also affects the music teaching profession, particularly instructors employed by local councils. These teachers are under pressure due to cuts, and 'they feel they've been slogging away for years, working away in the school setting, and El Sistema's getting all the attention.'
Furthermore, squeezed funding means 'cutting good stuff that was already happening, that covered a broader range of interests, that was far more inclusive.' These researchers and others within the music education profession do not regard El Sistema as particularly innovative or progressive, and find more to applaud in other projects. Yet such projects are often struggling as they receive much less attention and funding, while Sistema Scotland is expanding.
Richard Holloway seems to have much to do with this. Like Abreu in Venezuela, he is a charismatic speaker, capable of captivating audiences with his quasi-religious rhetoric and fervent advocacy. An influential lobbyist is almost a necessity, given El Sistema's expense (£1,500-£2,000 per child per year, according to the GCPH report)
One researcher recalled the atmosphere at one of Holloway's Sistema speeches: 'every time he would pull out a statistic, everyone would clap, and I was just sitting there cringing...people are just totally swept up by it and think it's amazing.' It is no coincidence that Sistema Scotland has accrued an impressive array of backers.
It appears that Sistema Scotland is reproducing a distinctive feature of El Sistema in Venezuela: an almost cultic sense of mission. Sistema Scotland's 'missionary stance' was noted early on by researchers, and one of the former teachers described the programme as 'a little bit like a cult.' For Washington Post journalist Anne Midgette, a recent book by two prominent Sistema advocates, Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth, 'verges on cult literature' and 'approaches hagiography.'
This intensity of mission can be both impressive and worrying in an educational setting, as it can work against critical reflection and change. One interviewee claimed that the programme showed little interest in critical debates around El Sistema: 'they take the Venezuelan example and just imitate everything.' The former teacher who referred to a cult-like atmosphere felt that 'you can let yourself become part of that and ignore the day to day issues.' The researchers were also concerned about a 'lack of transparency.' Access is carefully controlled: 'visitors come and they tour around and everything seems wonderful, but they never witness the bad stuff, they don't know about all these kids who have been in Big Noise but they've quit or they can't come any more.'
The concerns of the former Sistema Scotland instructors focused on the teaching. One spoke of a lack of clarity over the programme's mission: 'they are saying that their purpose is about transforming lives and social change, but inside it's basically old-school, conservatoire teaching.' This is a result, they claimed, of hiring mainly professional musicians with limited knowledge or experience of teaching in such settings. One spoke of awkward relationships between Sistema musicians and schoolteachers, and of some music instructors who 'clearly do not know how to interact appropriately with children.' Another claimed: 'they are put in to teach vulnerable kids – I think that's crazy and dangerous...you cannot put in inexperienced teachers to teach vulnerable kids.'
These former teachers were concerned about the quality of the provision and the degree of commitment to improving it. 'I witnessed countless poorly run musicianship classes,' said one; 'I did not once witness a colleague using something they had learnt in training.' This musician pointed to excessive self-belief – 'they don't realise the provision they are giving is not high quality' – and the organisation's reluctance to draw on expertise and experience among its own staff in order to resolve problems and improve teaching quality.
The researchers, too, had doubts about the teaching, with one stating: 'it all seemed very regimented – I wanted to get them up and dancing or whatever, but of course that's not what it's about.' Another concurred: it was 'quite uncomfortable in general, watching the kids being taught to conform – I saw a few kids who looked like they were enjoying themselves, but some of them looked truly miserable. I can't help but wish that amount of funding went into creative musical activities – in my experience, all of the same social/health outcomes, but far more fun, inclusive, and empowering.'
These views chime with the GCPH report, which suggests that participants 'may benefit from greater opportunities to exercise their creative skills' and from 'the development of freer and more creative activities' rather than just 'learning and perfecting playing techniques and practising performance pieces.' A Sistema Scotland instructor interviewed for the 2015 report stated: 'There is a lot to be said about giving them free reign to improvise...I think there is something missing.'
Finally, they argued that Sistema Scotland had a limited vision of inclusion in comparison with other styles of music education such as community music. Although the programme in Raploch incorporates an additional support needs school, the children there do not receive the same music education as those in the other two schools attached to the site. Furthermore, the orchestra is a problematic model: 'It's competitive, it's not inclusive...if you can't practise your instrument because of your home conditions, then you're not good enough and you're going to quit.'
This view is backed up by the GCPH report, which acknowledges that intensive, immersive learning 'may make programme engagement difficult for children and young people with additional needs and/or difficult home circumstances.' (It also recalls the IDB study, which reveals a low level of participation by the poor and thus 'highlights the challenges of targeting interventions towards vulnerable groups of children in the context of a voluntary social programme.') One interviewee explained: 'the early-years programme is really good, but from P3 on, they have to choose an instrument and then they attend after school, and that's when the segregation happens, because the kids who come from a more stable environment, they have the support to do this, other kids do not – so it's not inclusive.'
All this is not to say that Sistema Scotland is having no positive effects. The GCPH report shows that some participants clearly derive enjoyment and benefit from the programme, and many adults appear enthusiastic. However, excessively positive publicity appears to have had negative consequences, allowing problems to persist. As one former instructor concluded: 'Sistema Scotland has potential,' but unless various aspects of the programme improve, 'I think it will continue on this poor level of provision.'
Furthermore, there has been too little attention paid to those who do not participate, whether locally or nationally. In the GCPH report, we barely hear the voices of those who drop out. What happens to them afterwards? One of the few mentions reveals that 'the most common reason [for dropping out] given by families is that, logistically, travelling to the Big Noise centre after school to collect children can be onerous in combination with heavy childcare responsibilities, work commitments, health problems or a lack of transport.' Are children from more disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to face such problems and therefore leave? The report reveals that children from an ethnic minority, with English as a second language, or with additional support needs drop out more frequently. So is the programme actually exacerbating social inequalities and divides?
There are larger questions, too. What are the effects of such a narrowly targeted yet expensive programme on music education, or indeed society, in Scotland as a whole? Is Sistema Scotland an attractive 'veil of culture' draped over failures of the state, including cuts to music education in many parts of the country? More than 99% of Scottish children do not benefit from Sistema Scotland: how have their music education opportunities evolved during the rise of Big Noise? The lack of public discussion about the cons as well as the pros is striking, and the criticisms from within music education circles in Scotland suggest that it is high time for more public debate.
It is a decade since the Proms debut by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela that sparked off Sistemania in the UK. Today, things look rather different. As a commercial force, Dudamel continues to grow, but the idea that he represents a compelling moral, social, or educational vision has passed its sell-by date. With El Sistema now firmly part of the Venezuelan government's political plan and the IDB's own study raising major doubts, it looks less like a programme of social inclusion than one of social control.
On 30 April, El Sistema's employees in Caracas received an urgent message requiring their presence at a pro-government march the next day. Music education is now thoroughly politicised in Venezuela; this is the price of El Sistema's dramatic growth under the Bolivarian revolution. On 4 May, employees protested outside El Sistema's headquarters for the first time – further evidence of the organisation's downward spiral. Its PR operation is still formidable, but behind the curtain El Sistema is coming apart at the seams, thanks to a combination of political pressure, poor management, shrinking funding, low morale, and mass emigration.
Sistema Scotland has done very well out of the Sistema brand over the last decade, but its official partnership may turn into a burden if the Venezuelan programme's struggles and failings become better known. Even if media disinterest in revising the miracle story means this does not occur, doubts from Scottish researchers and teachers, reinforced by caveats in the GCPH report, suggest that some rethinking is required. We know far more about El Sistema than we did a decade ago, particularly about its weaknesses and limitations, but this information has been largely overlooked in the spheres of policy and practice, which appear stuck in 2007.
Gustavo Dudamel's predecessor, the conductor Gustavo Medina, resigned in 1999 with a highly critical open letter that characterised El Sistema as 'a gigantic flattery machine designed to satisfy the interests of its founder José Antonio Abreu.' The programme underwent its biggest growth spurt under Presidents Chávez and Maduro, and it is not hard to see the appeal of orchestral training to authoritarian politicians. Discipline is its watchword, the strong leader (conductor) its most venerated figure. But does this autocratic, expensive, and ineffective model really point the way forward for music education and social change in Scotland for the next 10 years?
Geoff Baker is a professor of music at Royal Holloway, University of London, and director of the Institute of Musical Research. His book 'El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela's Youth' is published by Oxford University Press