It has to be acknowledged that not every research seminar plays to a full house. So what were the prospects for a seminar on music in South America that didn’t even feature the samba, or any other “Latin American” music? Despite the prospects, Geoff Baker of Royal Holloway, University of London, captivated a packed house of over 50 students and faculty on 29 October with his talk on “El sistema: orchestrating Venezuela’s youth” (a book of the same title is imminent). This project – whose origins are in the mid-1970s – has attracted much attention internationally, partly via its flagship orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, headed by Gustavo Dudamel.
Baker is an expert in the music of South America and spent a year in Venezuela researching “The system” (well done to those who had achieved their own translation). El sistema has been lauded in the world’s press and replicated in many other countries. The Youth Orchestra has played at the Proms and at Carnegie Hall. Yet Baker’s story is primarily one of the PR exceeding the reality. Yes, thousands of children are taken and taught to play orchestral instruments in a way that is very impressive but is also harsh and authoritarian. They learn to play the instruments but without really learning music. Criticism is deflected by the hierarchy by claiming that this is primarily a social programme rather than a musical programme – yet the evidence about the social benefits is at best mixed and unclear. Baker casts doubt on the project’s claim that it uses classical music training to rescue vulnerable children. The founder and (still) head of the project – Abreu – emerges as a complex and controversial figure, whose project is shaped by his conservative religious education, economics training, and political apprenticeship.
Contributions from the floor were both numerous and very well informed. So extensive are the tentacles of El sistema that a number of people had questions and comments from personal experience. The debate was lively and could have gone on much longer that the allotted period. Chairman Pace’s calling of time did not deter the enthusiasts: they simply formed a queue in front of the speaker. Perhaps he is still there, answering questions.
— Peter Holgate