Why Geoffrey Baker’s book Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth is wrong

By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

In the recent period reports were published on some fascinating performances that were given by various youth orchestras in Europe, among them the Bogotá youth orchestra which during the Hesse Rheingau Summer Festival (June- September 2017) performed in Germany. At the same time there were summer music projects taking place in Russia, which brought together talented young Russian musicians. In Ekaterinburg, they got the opportunity to rehearse under the guidance of experienced German musicians and conductors, the great classical repertoire. One particular piece they were working on was Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Also Gustavo Dudamel from the Venezuelan youth orchestra was again invited in 2017 to the famous Summer Salzburg Music Festival.

There is however a paradox emerging: On the one side the world at present sinks into chaos and has moved very close to the abyss of war. On the other side it is precisely in such crisis that we should pay attention to the method of classical education, in particular music education.

One illustrative example is the music project “El Sistema” with which Venezuela in the last decades has contributed to the culture of Latin America and of the world. Hundreds of thousands of young people – often from poor background-, have had during the last years the chance to become introduced into the method of performing classical music. Despite all shortcomings a key question arises: namely what is it that attracts today millions of young people to get familiar with the method of classical music? And why is the “transcendental power” of classical music- as the world famous pianist András Schiff stated, so important for our education today?

It is worthwhile to study the “El Sistema“ model –also by hearing some critical views like the view of the British musicologist Geoffrey Bakers – in order to determine a method how to awaken enthusiasm in young people and motivate them to get involved into classical music as a method of creative thinking.

Campaign against El Sistema

Almost two years ago a book under the title El Sistema – Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth was published by the Oxford University Press 2014 in the United States. The book is an ideological frontal attack, launched by British writer Geoffrey Baker (Professor of Music and Director of the Institute of Musical Research at Royal Holloway, University of London) who directs his criticism against one of the most fascinating cultural projects that have come into being during the last years, aside the Daniel Barenboim West-Eastern Divan youth orchestra, that gathers young Israeli and Palestinian musicians who want to perform for peace. The same goes for the Cuban classical youth orchestra and the Colombian youth orchestra.

The El Sistema educational project came into being during the mid 70ies (1975) and today it is known world –wide, since it sets the standard for excellent classical youth orchestra music and education. Also in Russia projects have been initiated by the famous conductor Valery Gergiev (see Entendendo a Rússia by Elisabeth Hellenbroich, Rio de Janeiro, 2016) and by other conductors who help bring classical music into the most remote provincial areas, for example to Siberia, by training talented musicians with the help of experienced musicians from Germany.

Reading the book by Geoffrey Baker is somewhat painful but necessary because the book is coherent with the type of cultural criticism and cultural relativism that at present is widespread in Europe and the USA as well as in Latin America. What we observe is a trend which is directed against the “Dead White Male” Literature and Philosophy (Stanford University for instance), which insists on teaching ethnology rather than following the classical curriculum and teaching classical philosophy.

The main arguments which Baker uses against El Sistema is that it resembles essentially a “cult” that it is following an authoritarian “Caudillismo” model, by educating the young students in musical discipline. That it is based on reviving the tradition of the “Jesuit colonial missionary” education, by putting emphasis on “classical music education” rather than reviving the “native- multicultural tradition” of Latin America. In short: it follows a “Eurocentric” rather than a multicultural model.

The history of El Sistema

José Antonio Abreu and the young music studens.


El Sistema has become known as a cultural musical project which was founded by José António Abreu in the mid- seventies in Venezuela. “Music for social change” was one motto of the project whose aim was to bring music into the most impoverished areas of Venezuela and offer each child to play music. By 2015 the El Sistema consisted of 400 music centers and 700.000 young musicians. These are young people from very difficult social background who follow 4 hours of musical training and rehearsal per week after school and who work on weekends. Abreu during the last 35 or more years received a lot of backing and material support from the side of the different Venezuelan governments, which irrespective of the party allegiance, gave him support. One of his most gifted students is Gustavo Dudamel, who today conducts the “Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra” and who has made several tours in Europe with the famous “Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela” saying about himself “music saved my life and has saved the lives of thousands of risk children in Venezuela.”

Having seen with his own eyes how much enthusiasm the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra aroused in the Albert Hall in London, Geoffrey Baker decided to write a book on El Sistema in order to convey the line that El Sistema is a “corrupt” institution, organized like a cult and a sect by its founder Abreu and his follower Gustavo Dudamel.

Abreu and Gutavo Dudamel.

In 2010 Baker visited Venezuela to do field research about the project and the Venezuelan State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras (Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de Orchestras Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela). Baker reports that the project describes itself as “Social program of the Venezuelan State devoted to the pedagogical, occupational and ethical salvation of children and young people, via the instruction and collective practice of music, (and) dedicated to the training, protection, and inclusion of the most vulnerable group in the country.” It began in 1975, Baker reports. According to official figures, by 2012 it comprised approximately 200 music centers (called núcleos), nearly 400 orchestras, and some 350.000 participants, around two –thirds from the country’s two poorest social strata. Two distinctive elements are its emphasis on collective learning through orchestral practice and its intensive schedule. Many students may spend around four hours a day in the núcleo for five or six days a week. Tuition is offered at low cost or for free, and instruments are loaned to student according to availability.

The primary individual benefits attributed to the system include improvements in academic achievement and in the psychological development of children and young people. Its social benefit includes reducing the school drop- out rate and the rate of youth violence. It has transcended the artistic world to become a social development project that aspires to imbue citizens from a very early age with civic values and team works. Baker further reports that the idea that this nationwide network of youth orchestras is in essence a social project aimed at the poor, has put El Sistema firmly on the global map.

What deeply frustrates Baker – as his book illustrates- is the fact that among the most fervent defenders of El Sistema one can find some of the world most famous conductors, among them the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Director, Sir Simon Rattle, who described it as “the most important thing happening in music anywhere in the world,” proclaiming that “if anybody asked me where is there something really important going on for the future of classical music I would simply have to say here, in Venezuela. I say I have seen the future of music in Venezuela and that is a resurrection.” Other major enthusiasts of El Sistema included the famous and now deceased Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, as well as the Mexican Singer Plácido Domingo, aside prestigious institutions such as UNESCO, the OAS (Organization of American States) which all have enthusiastically endorsed El Sistema and its founding director José Antonio Abreu. In April 2013 the Brazilian government committed itself to creating three hundred orchestral núcleos and serving half a million children under the guidance of El Sistema (Brasilia 2013).

In his attempt to “deconstruct” El Sistema, Baker brings forth a whole series of arguments – among them the argument that El Sistema is an “opaque organization, verging on the secretive, sometimes described as a state within the state; external monitoring and evaluation have been minimal, and most reports have not been made public.” And he states further: “El Sistema functions through the strict exercise of power and control. Critics of him have been fired and blacklisted. He has a formidable PR machine to keep information under tight control.” (p 6)

On the basis of various interviews which Baker conducted in Venezuela he states that there is a climate of fear behind the scenes and that musicians see Abreu as “omniscient and omnipresent,” while for some he is a vengeful God. Informants described a culture of fear, self –preservation and “amiguismo” (looking after friends ). Behind the façade, Baker claims, there is the harsh reality: “corruption, mal-administration, discrimination, nepotism, favoritism, bullying, poor pay and working conditions, strife between management and teachers, and exploitation of staff and children.” (p 15)

El Maestro: José Antonio Abreu

The founding director up to this day and manager of El Sistema is the conductor, pianist, music educator, economist, politician and man of letters José Antonio Abreu. In 2012 he got the Swedish parliament’s Alternative Noble Prize for an “exemplary life.” He was compared to Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and the Pope, while Claudio Abbado even called him a Saint. But behind the scenes, so is the argument of the author Baker, he is nicknamed “Machiavelli, the godfather, the Führer and the Pharaoh.”(p 26) Privately musicians call him an “evil genius.” And the writer Casanova (2009) described him as “totalitarian and opportunist” and “driven by money, power and fame.” (p 26)

The absurdity of such a mean characterization becomes clear if one watches the 15 minutes long video which features Abreu, when he in the year 2009 received the TED Prize in the US.

Abreu stated at that occasion that he had always been a musician and that he personally had been driven by the impulse to convey music into the reality of Venezuela. He first started with 50 stands. “Today we can say that art is no more a monopoly of the elites but it’s the right of all people,” Abreu stated. He organized among the poorest and gave them the hope and optimism that if they are talented and have vocation they should join the work. Abreu described the El Sistema as following a “social model” which involves strict discipline and ethical values, the aim of which is to awaken sensibilities and values and to give the young people the capability to also teach the other kids. “Each child, he said, has its own story.” One is the story of the Double Bass player Edicson Ruiz who came from a poor background and today is member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. His story is similar to the one of Gustavo Dudamel, a violinist, who today is conducting the L.A. Philharmonic.

What Abreu emphasized is, that “each child who successfully participates in the project through the musical training obtains something which has an effect in the personal and social realm, in the family and in the country. Music hence must be understood as elevating the spirit, as shaping emotions and intellect.” And it is making the young person capable to lead and take responsibility. He ended with a quote from Mother Teresa: “The most miserable is not the lack of bread. It’s to feel nothing, the lack of identification.” Music on the other hand provides a noble identity. It makes the person a better student and helps at school.” The child who plays in such orchestra becomes the role model for the family and this must be seen together with the hopes for social and economic improvement for his family. The family joins with pride and joy.” Hence Abreu emphasized, “Orchestras prove to be spaces of culture. And only art and religion can give an adequate answer to the historical challenges of our times.”

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (SBYO)

According to Baker Gustavo Dudamel (who during the upheavals in Venezuela openly criticized the Maduro government and sided with the Venezuelan Opposition) is El Sistema’s “Poster Boy”. The son of musicians from the city of Barquimeto, he rose rapidly through the ranks of his local youth orchestra and was then whisked off to Caracas to be Abreu’s conducting protégé. After winning the Gustav Mahler conducting Prize 2004 he went on to be appointed conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and become, according to Time magazine, one of the “World’s most Influential People.” With is dark curls and aura of freshness Dudamel has seduced audience and critics around the world often portrayed as a conductor who has revolutionized the stuffy world of classical music.”

The SBYO has rapidly become one of the world’s most high profile orchestras selling out major concert halls around the world, receiving lavish praise from the press and enlightening audiences everywhere. However Baker holds against this the argument, that the orchestra players are not youth but average 30 years old and they are a largely middle-class orchestra and not socially disadvantaged.

Baker seems to be driven by a deeply rooted anti- catholic impulse when he writes that El Sistema resembles the efforts of “Catholic evangelizers during the colonial epoch”. He further states that El Sistema is “not just underpinned by Catholic ideology, but also shows intriguing parallels with the Church’s establishment of European music schools across Latin America in the colonial period. The most famed foot soldiers of the Spanish “musical conquest” were the Jesuits. El Sistema’s mixture of mystical rhetoric, military discipline, theatric displays and music as civilizing project carries distinct echoes of Jesuit ideology and specifically the order’s colonial –era colleges.” (Baker p. 67) The Church’s aim was a dual one: to train up the indigenous musical work force and to “civilize the participants in the process (…) The colonial musical culture that was transmitted to the indigenous population focused an ensemble performance of European (-style) repertoire. The Spaniards were more interested in hearing indigenous musicians perform European (-style) music than in teaching them to compose their own.” ( …)Early colonial accounts by missionaries demonstrate a belief that the skillful performance of European music signified civilization.” (p 67) He nastily adds that El Sistema’s language or rescue and salvation underlines its role as the “successor to colonial missionary music” and concludes:

1.“Forming orchestras of poor children in the barrios is thus the contemporary version of Jesuit missionaries who set off into the Paraguayan jungle in the seventeenth century to form choirs of Indians ”(!) (p 68)

2. The second major point of criticism is El Sistema’s worship of the authoritarian caudillismo (strong leader) who according to Baker operates through charisma, patronage and clientelism and maintains his own private army – in this case of musicians. (see p 74) Baker writes: “El Sistema is a corporation in which such “cultish dynamics” are quite pronounced. Cult tends to be organized around a “totalistic” (all embracing) vision of a new world order. The group’s leader suggests that their vision constitutes an inspirational new paradigm, capable of transforming an otherwise impure reality.” (p 88)

3. The author criticizes that El Sistema tries to impose the global northern standard as the standard to which the South should aspire. He complains that “it pays almost no attention to the Latin American development alternatives that emerged from social movements associated with liberation theology and radical pedagogy in the late 1960ies and 1970s, despite its creation at this very time. It also shows little trace of the later alternatives to development proposed by Latin American post development theorists (!) like Escobar.” (p 106) On the contrary what Baker calls a “universalist approach” to development has been according to his view accused of failing to respect cultural rights and diversity.

Baker prefers the Adorno Frankfurt School approach

In order to further substantiate how much the character of El Sistema resembles the “Authoritarian personality”, Baker refers to Adorno’s concept of the “Anti -Authoritarian” personality and makes reference to the 1968 and 70ies period when in Europe under the influence of the Frankfurt School and Adornos ideas there was a major youth revolt and upheaval.

Symphony orchestras and classical music education thus came under intense scrutiny and fierce criticism in Europe at precisely the moment that the idea of El Sistema was getting on stage. Dutch and German musical radicals recognized the orchestra as an inherently flawed structure and a microcosm of a hidebound society; yet they could not have had less influence on the Venezuelan project, whose management and educational practices embody the reactionary forces that the European musician rejected.”(p 117)

Baker makes direct reference to Adorno who once stated that “The conductor acts as though he were taming the orchestra, but the real target is the audience – a trick not unknown to political demagogues.” And the spectacle of conductor and orchestra “provides a means for rendering listening subjects amenable to authoritarian rule”. He concludes by saying that “ a conventional symphony orchestra is a majoritarian formation and that the kinds of social values that might be learned through collective free improvisation would be quite different, providing students with experience of an anarchist rather than an authoritarian political model.”(p 116)

The Enemy is “classical culture”: Multicultural versus Classical

Baker reveals himself as someone who favors the “multicultural or popular music education.” He argues that there are many exclusively musical rationales for including genres other than European art music in the curriculum, including the fact that other genres are more readily conducive to the development of compositional, improvisational and multi- instrumental skills and more often permit creative experimentation. (p 138)

Teach as you were taught” would be El Sistema’s philosophy, one that emphasizes less inventiveness than the reproduction of established ways and encapsulates a conception of “peer teaching” that replicates “the hierarchical dynamics of conventional teacher /pupil instruction or adult/child interaction.”(p 141)

Abreu as expression of authoritarian personality

After El Sistema had started in 1975, Deutsche Grammophon in its publicity for El Sistema wrote about it: “It is all a vision in one man. José António Abreu, qualified economist, organist and politician, resolved to do something to change social conditions in his country 30 years ago.” Baker uses the opportunity to lash out against Abreu. His thinking that music has the power to change society is “wrong”, according to Baker. And the author seems to be quite frustrated about the fact that one of the most powerful conductors like Daniel Barenboim who became known world- wide for the founding of his West- Eastern Divan Orchestra (Young Israeli and Palestinian Musicians) in order to build cultural bridges in the Mideast, particularly praised El Sistema. In the year 2010 Barenboim’s WEDO visited El Sistema. “The exchange between the orchestras was a true meeting of minds,” it was written at the time on the webpage of WEDO. Abreu applied the WEDO’s work and the WEDO’s approach pointing out that both projects aim to go beyond the aesthetic dimension of the music and use it as a tool for human development and peace. “Maestro Barenboim could only return the compliment stating that its music proved that El Sistema does not use music for social purpose but rather gives shape to music its authentic humanitarian dimension.”(p 175)

What infuriates Baker is this El Sistema method of musical education. According to him “El Sistema produces social stratification and inequalities via the internal organization of the orchestra and also the structure of the program itself, implementing pay and status differentials between principals and practicantes, elite performers and nucleus teachers, yet those obvious effects are masked by talk of inclusion (…) El Sistema produces a microcosm of capitalist society.”(p 202)

The search for discipline is according to Baker countered by arguments which the French psychoanalyst Foucault had used, who had stated that discipline is the expression of “military and capitalist thinking”, it is the perfect watchword. As Baker comments, “this holds true for Abreu, schooled in Jesuit theology and business administration. These twin ideologies, so deeply ensconced within El Sistema, provide the key to understanding social inclusion and discipline in the present context.” (p 202)

Baker makes a comparison between Barenboim’s WEDO (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra) and El Sistema, underlining that both orchestras are based on “charismatic leaders” and are “authoritarian in style.” A senior musician of El Sistema told the author: “José Antonio Abreu was obsessed with working on the sheer beauty of the orchestra’s sound. In rehearsals he would say, ‘I want this sound!’ And they would play the same passage over and over and over, trying to get what he wanted until he would finally say, “That’s it. That’s the sound!” For Baker this is a bad way of doing music, since the musicians’ role is to realize their leader’s vision, not express their own. And he refers to Dudamel who openly admires the orchestra’s autocratic system: “What a beautiful model for a society. Everyone together, listening to each other, with one goal!” One decided of course by the conductor. (pp 205-206)

El Sistema’s use of musical metaphors, but particularly metaphors of “harmony” is something which is counter to Baker’s idea of art and esthetical thinking. As he writes in his book, the rather sinister idea of tuning up children to achieve a single voice is hard to square with claims for ‘democratic’ functioning, because “democracies are not harmonious; they are diverse and discordant.” Nor are laboratory, creative environments perfectly in tune; they make space for dissent and cultivate divergent thinking.” In other words: “to imagine a harmonious society based on the orchestra is to imagine the presence of a script that must be followed and a leader with the power to correct or silence jarring notes. The dream of a society that sings in unison, perfectly in tune, evokes the (mono) culture of conformity typically found in cults.” (p 208)

Venezuelan Jose Luis Alvaray, 11, (R), a musician in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, performs as director during a presentation at a ceremony in the city of Caracas on June 8, 2013. AFP PHOTO/JUAN BARRETO (JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

Heir to a long standing colonial project

To the dismay of Baker Abreu’s philosophy which as Baker states at one point- has roots in Romantic idealism, has a humanist civilizational aspect. As Baker describes, many of El Sistema’s values stem from even earlier times – going back to the Spanish (musical) conquest of Latin America five centuries ago, when the Church began to found schools that taught music as core project. Their aim was to instill in the “indigenous population” with Christianity and civilization. Social elites have thus been trying to “civilize” or “improve” poor/ and or darker skinned children through education in European –style music for five hundred years in Latin America; far from a revolution, El Sistema is heir to a long- standing colonialist project. The history of social action through music is, if anything, more dubious in Latin America than in Europe. I would argue that El Sistema has become so popular today precisely because it plays on orthodox cultural assumptions like the ‘universality of European art music and its civilizing effect on the masses’, while also making appealing claims to novelty. The notion of European music as a positive influence on Latin America has been a recurring one since the early colonial period, reemerging after independence with the efforts of social elites to define themselves and their newly formed nations…” At the heart of El Sistema’s thinking lies the “reactionary” idea that free time is dangerous, idleness is a sin, and without the program’s intervention, everyday life is “empty, disoriented and deviant.” (pp 290-291)

According to Baker there is no evidence that El Sistema is reaching its goal, that all is just based on a systematic PR campaign. He quotes from known folk singer Cecilia Todd (Venezuela) who expressed her cultural critique: “What we are criticizing is not El Sistema in itself- it is among other things, its ‘Eurocentric’ orientation and its media manipulation of “social action.” Girls and boys who take up the violin and are oriented towards the idea that higher values come from European music, start to disdain their own music as a natural response. They are implanted with the idea that everything that comes from overseas is better… If it is really about distancing boys and girls from drugs, why not do it with our own music, which is so wonderful? There is no reason to train our children just with Eurocentric music, the same that is played everywhere, nothing original. If we are going to give opportunity to these girls and boys who want to get into music, they can easily study their instruments through Venezuelan music—here too there are composers from the eighteenth century, for example and also contemporary composers of symphonic music whose works are played once and then forgotten. This is a very musical country; why take our children way from their roots?” (p 277)

Baker in particular criticizes Abreu who once in an interview said that “As a musician I had the ambition to see a poor child play Mozart. Why not? Why concentrate in one class the privilege of playing Mozart and Beethoven? The high musical culture of the world has to be a common culture, part of the education of everyone.” He also stated that “El Sistema breaks the vicious cycle (of poverty) because a child with a violin starts to become spiritually rich: the CD he listens to, the book he reads, he sees words in German, the Music opens doors to intellectual knowledge and then everything begins”, and “when he has three years of musical education behind him, he is playing Mozart, Haydn, he watches an opera: this child no longer accepts his poverty, he aspires to leave it behind and ends up defeating it.” This cultural hierarchy, as Baker states, is inacceptable, namely to say that it is European classical music that can save Venezuelan children.” He is particularly enraged that “Abreu makes no mention of Venezuela’s existing common musical culture- Afro-Latin popular music.” (p 278)

According to Baker to embrace the universalizing discourse of the European Enlightenment aids the accumulation of economic and cultural capital but it may also ring alarm bells in a “post- colonial context, since it risks reproducing colonialist Western masculine Elites, downgraded indigenous and popular alternatives, and legitimated cultural imperialism.”

Baker essentially rejects El Sistema’s eurocentrism: “Europe is still seen as the center of the classical music universe today. El Sistema’s aesthetic and professional norms are determined by Europe, with the Berlin philharmonic, the ultimate benchmark. Workshops and masterclasses with member of the Berlin Philharmonic considered the pinnacle of instruction. The most quoted highlights of El Sistema’s history are Simon Rattle’s visits to Caracas, and bass player Edicson Ruiz’s move to the Berlin Phil; the latter is the program’s ultimate symbol of success as an orchestral player.” (p 290)

The colonialist aspects of European (-style) music education have received recent critical attention from scholars,” Baker states. Some of them are highlighting the “epistemological colonialism” prevalent in conventional music education, which is shaped by the philosophies that underpinned European expansion, and identifies the continued valorization of the European over the indigenous as “colonial residue.” (p 291)

Grass-root socio musical program versus classical musical education

Why not instead implement truly revolutionary, grass –roots socio musical program, rather than the Elitist education?” Baker asks in his book. One of the grass root socio musical programs, which he likes is the Medellin “Red de Escuelas de Musica”, a network of twenty seven schools in poor neighborhoods. It now included Latin Jazz and Tango in its curriculum. It has organized collaborations with prominent hip-hop, rock, and tango ensembles; and in 2010 it had a composer in residence who wrote Colombian folklore music for the schools. Another interesting project with certain similarities to the El Sistema model can be found in Brazil. The organizers went into the favelas and leafletted around, the concept being that their mission was one of “cultural inclusion” and group effort. Since the publication of Freire’s concept of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970, an emancipatory educational current has been developing in Latin America and elsewhere, one that emphasizes critical reflection on social and political issues, student’s active participation in the co- creation of knowledge and horizontal, dialogic conversation between teachers and students.


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