El Sistema — troubling

This may be controversial.

Yesterday I got promotional email about an event the LA Philharmonic is cosponsoring — a three-day symposium in May about El Sistema, and the attempt to transplant it to the US. The other sponsors are El Sistema USA and the League of American Orchestras.

And of course we all know the connection. Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema’s proudest son, is the LA Phil’s music director. The LA Phil is engaged, bigtime, in the attempted transplant. As are others. When American classical music people learned how El Sistema was teaching classical music to kids throughout Venezuela, even in little towns, the excitement was huge.

I went to concerts by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall, with Dudamel conducting, and the audience went crazy.  As well it might have. The concert was terrific. But the excitement went beyond the performance everyone heard. People exploded with hope for the future. This was the answer to classical music’s problems! Total strangers stopped each other in the aisles — I’m not making this up — to embrace the possibilities, in voices full of hope and wonder.

And so now the LA Phil — which has started a youth orchestra on the El Sistema model — will talk for three days about these things, in sessions with subjects like, “What are the main transferable elements of El Sistema we are seeing so far in the U.S.?”

Well, here’s one element of El Sistema I hope won’t be transferred. As far as I know, they don’t do new music. They don’t, as far as I know, train or encourage composers. If anyone knows more about this — or has contrary information — I’d love to hear it. But an explosion of classical music among kids in which all the music is old strikes me as truly unfortunate, if not…well, I want to say “disastrous,” but maybe that’s too strong. It’s certainly a movement where I couldn’t feel at home.

Xavier Losada, a Venezuelan composer, pointed me to a Venezuelan website, where another Venezuelan composer, Emilio Mendoza, deplores what’s going on. Some excerpts from his paper, translated from Spanish with lots of help from Google Translate:

Venezuela is a special case because of the existence of a large number of symphony orchestras, among professionals, youth and children, also distributed throughout the national territory. We have a huge orchestral platform that completely ignores our music…

…after an unimaginable development budget for 35 years of symphonic music for young people, we have a country with hundreds of orchestras, on a scale seen nowhere else in the world, but without the slightest financial or administrative provision to encourage the creation and dissemination of symphonic works by composers in our country. We were removed completely from this important musical development in Venezuela.

In a country whose musical reputation has reached the highest levels of international attention…with an unsurpassed investment by the government, sustained for over three decades, and with an orchestral platform unparalleled anywhere in the world for its quality and scope, it is even more contradictory that composition is separated from the boom going on in our music. [He uses the English word “boom.”] It was a big mistake not having built it in from the start of this important

national development. This “Venezuelan Musical Marvel” is devoted exclusively to performing the music of dead composers and the foreign repertoire commonly known as “classical,” stretching from the pre-Baroque to just the beginning of the twentieth century. Only recently have some Venezuelan pieces joined the regular repertoire in order to enrich orchestral tours abroad, where doubtless visitors are required to play music from their country of origin. In this sense, the Venezuelan musical contribution to the outside world, along with the attention the media gives to “Dudamel-mania,” is really

ephemeral, a media bubble, because the phenomenon is judged by its superficial impact, and is not based in enduring works that could redefine the

art of music, offer new styles and forms of expression, and be identified as uniquely Venezuelan.

Mendoza, as I read him (again with the help of Google Translate), seems both outraged and despairing.

Thoughts on this? I’m sorry if I seem negative — I’m certainly not against kids learning classical music — but what I’m reporting here really troubles me.

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Comments

  1. says

    (Treading carefully in enemy territory, my feet cymbal shod…)

    You have to know where you’ve been before you’re competent to decide where you’re going.

    The creation of New Music is NOT the function of an enterprise such as El Sistema. First things first, after all.

    ACD

  2. Janis says

    I tend to agree with the above. It’s a great system for what it does, and it doesn’t have to be all things to all people.

  3. says

    Greg-

    You know that I know really very little about music. BUt, I have tyo agree with these guys. A novelist must first learn to read.

    BTW, no better place than here:

    If you want to see what might have been a sort of genetic precursor to alt – classical, get the original movie “Fame” and look at the first lunchroom scene.

  4. says

    Hi Greg!

    I agree with your concern on the premise that El Sistema reflects government support/infrastructure for music education, and that it would be great to see Venezuela’s government encourage the development of new music as an acknowledgment of its importance. But I think we don’t know enough about El Sistema and the specifics, beyond the fact that it is an education program. I’m sure those student orchestras play new works, and I’m sure that Venezuelan composers get support from a variety of sources.

  5. Jeremy Howard Beck says

    I must admit, I’m kind of shocked at the comments posted thus far: do people really think that Venezuelans need to be schooled in old European music in order to write new Venezuelan music? I guess that would be true, but only if you believed in the assertion that new Venezuelan music should be part of a lineage stretching back to the old European music, and I don’t see how you can assert that without also asserting that the European music is somehow “better” than the music that would arise spontaneously out of Venezuela. That attitude, way more than any other crisis facing the classical music world, is–I believe–the single biggest obstacle to bringing classical music out of the situation it’s now in. It’s certainly what I find most repulsive about the classical music world, and why I am earning my Masters in composition from Juilliard this May with more than a little ambivalence about the music world I grew up in.

    A child who wants to be a novelist must first learn to read, absolutely. However, saying that the child must never write at all until he or she has read the “right” books, written by the “right” people in the “right” time and the “right” place about the “right” things–none of which have anything to do with the child’s own time, place, heritage, and circumstance–is essentially the kind of Kabalistic attitude the classical music world unconsciously broadcasts to the wider culture.

  6. says

    Perhaps the purpose of El Sistema, ultimately, isn’t that Venezuela is intent on capturing world-wide leadership in the performance of 19th century symphonic forms. Rather, the concentration, discipline, teamwork and practice required to perform in a symphony orchestra successfully is the real benefit to its participants. And what country wouldn’t want to have thousands of young people with those virtues?

    This is the point our public school systems always overlook: the purpose of music education isn’t to create more musicians – we already have plenty of those – but rather to develop a skill set that will be valued in any occupation.

    I look for the day when the all-Venezuela Physicians Orchestra plays a concert of cutting-edge works written by members of its College of Surgeons (pun intended).

  7. Dave says

    Slightly off-topic, but I do tire of the El Sistema hype when it comes at the expense of what is already happening here. The US has an extensive program that has produced thousands of professionals in orchestras and class rooms around the world. It’s called the US public school system. Yes, it is inconsistent, but I haven’t seen one bit of evidence that every student in Venezuela is getting the same high quality education that produced Dudamel and the SBYO. Between school orchestra programs that have survived 30 years of potential budget cuts and a network of youth orchestras, the US is doing pretty well. Instead of inventing new programs, perhaps existing programs could enjoy better support.

  8. Janis says

    Gimme a break. You’re talking to someone who thinks Jeff Lynne walks on water, and even I see nothing wrong with at least starting the kids out on stuff like Mozart and Beethoven. How terrible that this program that lifts children out of drug- and poverty-infested areas and gives them the tools to create and appreciate beauty doesn’t do it in a way that makes the academic leisure class half a world away comfortable.

    Jeez.

  9. says

    Jeremy Howard Beck wrote: “A child who wants to be a novelist must first learn to read, absolutely. However, saying that the child must never write at all until he or she has read the ‘right’ books, written by the ‘right’ people in the ‘right’ time and the ‘right’ place about the ‘right’ things–none of which have anything to do with the child’s own time, place, heritage, and circumstance–is essentially the kind of Kabalistic attitude the classical music world unconsciously broadcasts to the wider culture.”

    —————————————————————————————————————-

    There’s nothing the least “Kabalistic” about that sort of thinking. It’s the basis of all canons of art including literature, music, and painting, and the Western European canons of art have produced the most enduring, most profound, most influential works of art in all of human history, all the products of unparalleled genius. Period. Full stop. There’s no arguing that point unless one’s a rabid PC multiculturalist, in which case the opinions of that one can be safely dismissed out of hand.

    ACD

  10. says

    Oops!

    I wrote: “…and the Western European canons of art have produced the most enduring, most profound, most influential works of art in all of human history….”

    That should have read: “…and the Western European canons of art comprise the most enduring, most profound, most influential works of art in all of human history….”

    ACD

  11. says

    JH Beck, I’m also going to take a crack at your post. I don’t think that new Venezuelan music needs to be rooted in European tradition at all; Venezuela has its own old and rich musical traditions (the “music that would arise spontaneously out of Venezuela” ship has already sailed). However, I think if we want to encourage new classical composers, then it is absolutely valuable to learn the music that has been written before.

    You seem to see El Sistema as an instrument of cultural colonization, a view that I completely disagree with. El Sistema is founded on two ideas: that the act of learning an instrument and communal music making yield benefits to both the individual child and the society at large, and that the Classical music tradition has inherent value.

    Perhaps it is that idea, that there is inherent value in Classical music, that strikes you as “Kabalistic.” I don’t think that that sentiment in any way denotes or implies that other music traditions are less valid or have less value. I’d be interested in what specifically you find repulsive about the classical world, because after 75 years of increasingly experimental pop music and music globalization, I can’t think of anyone under the age of 40 that seriously believes that Classical music is the greatest musical tradition to the exclusion of all others.

    Also, don’t forget that instrumental skills are transferable. El Sistema is voluntary, and I am sure that many kids drop out of the system to play pop or folk music. The instrumental training is useful to them whether they decide to stay in the classical music world or not.

  12. says

    Dave: The biggest difference between the public school system and El Sistema is that ElS takes kids from all backgrounds and all economic classes. Also, they start much earlier (the youngest group of string players is 4 years old), and provide outreach to kids that might not make their way to classical music otherwise. It’s been my experience that school orchestras are populated with kids that have played their orchestral instruments before, which is usually a function of their parents.

  13. Jeremy Howard Beck says

    Matthew: I think you misunderstand the point I was trying to make (which is probably my fault). It’s not that I think young classical composers in non-European cultures should not learn about the European canon; I think knowing more music can only make you a better musician, and knowing more orchestral music can therefore only make you a better orchestral composer.

    However, when you say that young composers should learn the European canon, which canon are you talking about? The concept of the “canon” has narrowed sharply in the past few decades; there are dramatically fewer pieces (and, not unrelatedly, fewer composers) in the canon now than there were even as recently as the 1950s. Christopher Rouse–who must know every piece ever written by anyone, no joke–talks about this all the time. We simply don’t play as much music as we used to.

    When AC Douglas writes that the Western Canon is comprised of “the most enduring, most profound, most influential works of art in all of human history,” there is no way to interpret that in any way other than an assertion that European art from a certain period is BETTER than any other art from any other place and any other time. I know very many people from East Asia, Latin America, and North America who would disagree, and strongly.

    And I hear assertions like that ALL THE TIME from classical music people, so it’s not true that we live in The Age of Eclecticism and everyone has fashionably catholic tastes. Why, for example, should I not learn the jazz canon? I’m an American, I play the trombone, I want to write American music–why are jazz musicians required to take classes in Classical Music History, but classical musicians are never required to take Jazz History? Is there not profound, influential, enduring art to be found there?

    I guess what I’m trying to say–and I’m struggling to find the right words for it, because it’s a point I’ve been trying to make for years–is that the kind of closed system El Sistema and so many other classical institutions perpetuate with their repertoire choices would never EVER be tolerated in any other art form. The literature canon, the poetry canon, the theater canon, the dance canon, the popular music canon, the jazz canon, the visual arts canon, the film canon: ALL have continued growing and changing all the way up to the present to include contemporary works which display all the virtues necessary to be included with AC Douglas’s “most enduring, most profound, most influential.” And then you turn to look at the classical music canon, and not only has it stopped accumulating new works, but it’s actually shrinking! And the works that remain are increasingly from just two countries, Germany and France. And it’s really mostly Germany (when was the last time you heard someone list Berlioz as among the most enduring, most profound, most influential?).

    Teaching disadvantaged Venezuelan children about great classical music and teaching them to play the music themselves is a wonderful, wonderful thing. But teaching them the music history of Germany, and a little bit of the music history of France, and then completely locking their Venezuelan/American/Korean/African/Turkish/etc. experience out of the realm of the most enduring, most profound, most influential, is the definition of cultural imperialism. It sends the message that only by knowing that music can greatness be revealed to you, and that is pretty much what esoteric religions say–I absolutely stand by my Kabalah charge.

  14. says

    I agree with the view of the Venezuelan composer. El sistema is probably a good project, and of course european classical music has inherent value, but…

    The problem is partly the general problem of orchestras not playing new music, and party the importance placed on the canon. If we could somehow tone down this importance, I think that would spark new creativity in classical music.

    I am reminded of how fertile ground another Latin American country, Argentina, has been for classical music, producing such interesting composers as Piazolla, Ginastera and Kagel.

  15. Richard says

    One of the things I find troubling in El Sistema is the emphasis on symphonic music. For many contemporary composers, the bloated 19th century orchestra is an unwieldy beast. Many want a clearer, sparer sound, and if one is writing “cutting edge” rhythmns or working with altewrnative tunings large orchestras just cah’t do it.

  16. says

    Getting back to Greg’s point about what could be transferred from ELS to USA music programs (the best of which we can take justifiable pride in!), I’d reframe the issue as, “can we take something like ELS and add to it training of and support for composers and new music?”

    The lack of this in ELS as it’s currently structured in Venezuela may be the result of a an old-paradigm “Western classical music is superior” national inferiority complex. It could also be the result of being a system that emphasizes group activities including group performance. Fitting the very individual process of composition into any system, especially one that emphasizes group activity, is a big challenge.

    In the USA, the K-12 National Standards in Music emphasize the development of compositional and improvisational skills in all students. Our funding for arts education is so inadequate that often not even lip service is paid to those standards. But the ideals are in place.

    As we reimagine classical music and music education in the USA (and elsewhere) we do need to imagine the role of newly created music and the role of the creative process in the development of complete musicians. So it’s great that Greg brought it up and to see things getting thrashed out.

    Finally, it’s interesting that Dudamel, who has become the personification of ELS, is very supportive of new music.

  17. says

    Jeremy Howard Beck wrote: When AC Douglas writes that the Western Canon is comprised of “the most enduring, most profound, most influential works of art in all of human history,” there is no way to interpret that in any way other than an assertion that European art from a certain period is BETTER than any other art from any other place and any other time. I know very many people from East Asia, Latin America, and North America who would disagree, and strongly.

    No, you don’t. Not, that is, any aesthetically well-informed persons whose thinking has not been corrupted irredeemably by the absurdity of postmodern and PC mindsets, and/or by nationalistic agendas. And I did NOT say or imply that “European art from a certain period is BETTER than any other art from any other place and any other time.” What I said is what you almost correctly quote me as saying; viz., that the Western European canons of art “comprise the most enduring, most profound, most influential works of art in all of human history,” an inarguable assertion — not my assertion, but history’s. I didn’t in any way restrict that to any particular period, and for the purposes of this conversation, should not have even restricted it to Western Europe, but should have specified instead the West generally. I made no better/worse judgments. That’s your take on the matter, not mine.

    Jeremy Howard Beck wrote: Why, for example, should I not learn the jazz canon? I’m an American, I play the trombone, I want to write American music–why are jazz musicians required to take classes in Classical Music History, but classical musicians are never required to take Jazz History? Is there not profound, influential, enduring art to be found there?

    By all means learn the jazz canon if your interests take you in that direction. But jazz is a latecomer in the world of music. One will never fully understand it absent a knowledge of the centuries of Western music that preceded it. As to whether the jazz canon might contain profound, influential, enduring art, it’s way too early to determine. Ask that same question 300-400 years from now, and you’ll have your answer.

    ACD

  18. says

    I seem to remember watching a documentary on El Sistema in which the founder explained his choice of music; he wanted to give the kids an escape from the world they knew, which was full of poverty and misery. Classical music represented a clean slate, while anything incorporating traditional Venezualan music might have been too reminiscent of what was blaring on the radios in the broken homes these kids were escaping.

    This, to me, would make Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven etc. a natural choice for a student orchestra. What’s the alternative, anyway? If we’re talking about escaping from “cultural imperialism”, how do you avoid the music of Germany if you’re going to work in the classical tradition, which is the mandate of El Sistema?

    I agree with Matthew; if you want to talk about “Venezualan music” full stop, then you’re dealing with salsa, merengue, etc. But if you want orchestral music, let’s not pretend that we’re not working from a European tradition here. If you want to reform the repertoire to be more inclusive of other cultures, then you’re not talking about El Sistema here, you’re talking about ALL OF CLASSICAL MUSIC. (In other words, Jeremy, I don’t necessarily disagree with your sentiments, but I’m struggling to see any practical application to this topic.)

    On the other hand – getting back to Greg’s initial complaint, which we’ve veered away from – Venezualan composers that are writing in the classical tradition could and should be included in El Sistema; they could write educational works that all student orchestras play alongside Beethoven and Haydn, and larger works for the Bolivar orchestra and other advanced groups. An American system could adopt this easily enough. These composers, by the way, would have studied German and French music etc. as they learned to write orchestral music; that doesn’t make them any less Venezualan, but it does make them composers in a tradition that has its roots in Western Europe.

    Rob, I like what you’re saying here, at the end. And I’m going to discuss the larger points involved with all this in a separate blog post.

    But I want to add one footnote to what you said. It’s about Venezuelan music. What, exactly, is it? One thing that hampers us in this discussion is that I’m sure most of us don’t know. You, if you’ll forgive me for correcting you, talk about salsa and merengue. But salsa is Puerto Rican music, and merengue is music from the Dominican republic. Both are heard a lot in New York, because a lot of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans live there. But I doubt they’re heard in the same place. And neither is heard much in Los Angeles, where only Latino east coast transplants are likely to listen to salsa or dance to it. The Latin music in LA (and throughout the west and southwest of the US) comes from Mexico and Central America. Venezuela, I don’t doubt, has music of its own.

  19. says

    El Sistema surely shows some of the best sides of not just classical music but its relevance to contemporary life. It allows people from any background to participate in something profound and moving. It teaches kids all kids of skills, both cognitive and interpersonal, that will help them navigate the world. It helps them get in touch with their expressive selves in ways that other institutions might not have helped them to do.

    If I say that poorer countries should study Western classical music because it is better or better for them, then I am indeed an ignorant cultural imperialist. But if Venezuela pours resources into its orchestra system, if piano kindergartens are in vogue in China, if Peabody opens a successful branch in Singapore, these are just empirical facts on the ground. People in these countries are finding classical music something that suits their needs; by necessary implication, possible confounding factors aside, they think it is suiting their needs better than the indigenous materials available to them.

    One poster argues it might stem from Western inferiority complex – an awfully presumptuous thing to say in itself I think. It seems as least as likely that these cultures are secure enough in themselves that they can let in a little Euro-culture when they find it the right thing for modern times. Not being Venezuelan, Asian, or South Asian, I’m not prepared to speculate either way. I simply see the facts of classical music being adopted widely in kind of a marriage with educational development in all of these areas.

    This is not at all to disagree with the Venezuelan composer and his concerns. Is there anything particularly cultural about El Sistema? The whole affair reminds me more of the way autocratic dictatorships develop great Olympic athletes to make their countries look good on the world stage than any kind of rich cultural process. Those tend to be messy. I’m not sure it’s possible to have an authentic yet autocratic-state-sponsored culture. I think it might be a contradiction in terms, and only in the opposition will one find the art.

    When I think of music of Argentina and Brazil, I can almost feel the pleasure centers in my brain crackling. Magnificent musical cultures, some that ventured into European genres and others that were influenced by them, but fundamentally expressions of the nation that have taken their place in great world cultures. So far, the achievements of El Sistema seem antiseptic by comparison. If that doesn’t change, I think the composer is spot on that it will just turn out to be a bubble, another distraction from what’s coming for classical.

  20. says

    Greg – confession time, I have zero knowledge of Venezuelan music so I went to wikipedia and saw that Salsa and Merengue, apparantly, are common traditional forms in Venezuala. There are of course other musical traditions that are unique to that country. I attempted to use the “etc.” to denote that I was generalizing, perhaps a bit too slickly and certainly ignorantly.

    The broad point I was trying to make is that, whatever the traditional forms may be, they are all starkly different from European classical music – and may be starkly different from eachother. Cultural inclusiveness is not so simple as playing an orchestra piece that incorporates traditional folk rhythms. I once met someone here in Toronto who had just moved to the city to study musicology at grad school; she told me enthusiasically that she planned to focus her research on the city’s live music scene. I blurted out, “Which one?” because there are hundreds of live music scenes in this city, each with their own traditions and audiences, some cross-pollinating and giving birth to new scenes.

    The simple argument that a Venezuelan (or Canadian, or American, etc.) classical music program should serve “Venezualan music” requires us to then define that music. and that’s not easy. Assuming we’ve narrowed down to only the classically-trained composers from Venezuala – should they then be required to incorporate traditional Venezuelan music in their compositions? If so, which traditions are “best”, i.e. most identifiably Venezuelan? Who decides? What if a composer from Venezuela studies in America, and produces music that sounds American? Pretty soon the state is making decisions about what constitutes “appropriate” music. We’ve seen this before in other parts of the world.

    Anyway, to me it’s easier just to say: let’s include the local composers for the sake of the economic health of the national music industry, but let’s not worry so much about whether their music its culturally inclusive or nationalistic enough, and by the way, a classical music program still has to be founded on the European tradition, unless you want it to be a (sorry) Salsa or Merengue program instead.

    Points for a larger thread indeed!

  21. Jeremy Howard Beck says

    ACD, you wrote: “What I said is what you almost correctly quote me as saying; viz., that the Western European canons of art “comprise the most enduring, most profound, most influential works of art in all of human history,” an inarguable assertion — not my assertion, but history’s.”

    Well, not to be a snark, but it’s obviously not an inarguable assertion, because I’m arguing it. And there is by definition no way to assert that one culture’s art is any of the “mosts” you say it is without saying that it’s also better. If it weren’t better, then on what grounds would you be able to give it all of those superlatives?

    You also said: “… jazz is a latecomer in the world of music. One will never fully understand it absent a knowledge of the centuries of Western music that preceded it.”

    Remember, you can also never fully understand jazz absent a knowledge of the millennia of African music–and the centuries of music sung by African slaves in the Americas–that preceded it. You may accuse me of cultural relativism, and you may be right to a point, but by that measuring stick you are also guilty of ethnocentrism generally–and eurocentrism specifically–in the extreme.

    Cases in point:

    1. The world’s oldest written story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, dates to Mesopotamia.

    2. The world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written in Japan.

    3. Some of the most enduring and influential works of visual art ever created have come from Egypt, Iran, India, and Tibet. The large Buddha statues in Afghanistan which were recently destroyed by the Taliban were roughly 2,000 years old. The temples at Abu Simbel in Egypt are roughly 3,300 years old.

    There are many, many more examples which easily disprove your core argument, and your unwillingness to defend your assertions–by simply stating that they are fact, and therefore unassailable, without ever providing any evidence of your claims–has given me serious doubts about your willingness to consider ideas which are not your own.

  22. says

    To put simply, I think all that Greg is suggesting is that in addition to a core classical training, the kids are given the experience of music written in their own time. I don’t think he’s suggesting they trash the entire repetoire, but include another ingredient or two.

  23. SR says

    Adding on the information I have from numerous documentary DVDs on El Sistema, what Greg informs us about here is a surprising non-nationalistic approach within a social system that I have found to be very nationalistic throughout all levels (despite the choice of music). There are several examples of orchestras playing classical music where the musicians (usually young) utilizes the orchestra as a post-colonial mimesis strategy, aiming for a professional career in Europe. However, even the most talented El Sistema musicians seem to (with the exception of Dudamel) stay in Venezuela – holding on to an idea that music teaching, rather than a professional (even soloist) career is what they own to the future generations, having received so much. Now, this should certainly be regarded as national pride and care-taking, and then to see how Venezuelan composers are left out of this pride and care-taking hits me as yet another example of the nationalistic-Eurocentric paradox of El Sistema.

    Thanks for this, SR. Very useful, and well thought out. And, I think, based on more information than most of us have. (Including me.)

  24. Tom Foley says

    In my view, composers in classical music are just too dominant. The hierarchy is composers on top, then publishers and editors, then teachers, and then, at the bottom, performers. The only performers with any authority at all are conductors.

    Composers get in the way of performance. They often give too many performance instructions, they ought to let up, and if there is any doubt as to precisely what they mean, some editor or teacher will tell you with a double whammy exactly what they mean, and the performer/student is left with no feeling of being part of it at all.

    Composers, write your notes, and then get out of the way, I say. They’re not gods, and in many ways, particularly in the 20th century, they’ve done real damage to the classical music tradition.

  25. Ms Cynthia says

    Wow!! What passion all of you write with for the sake of music. lol I think Maestro Abreu would be quite flattered and humored that he has raised so much controversy.

    One of my favorite quotes from an El Sistema nucleo in Calabozo I, which serves hearing impaired students:

    “If Beethoven were alive today, he would write for the white hands choir”- Jhonny Gomez

    (consider that an invitation composers)

    [When I (Christina) asked hearing impaired students why they enjoyed being in the white hands choir, they answered:

    “deaf children can also sing through signing”

    “I love the integration that happens between special needs and non special needs”

    “Collaborations with the orchestra, large choir and other nucleos are incredible”

    ““We develop ourselves personally through sign language and through music” ]

    White Hands Choir is a beautiful opportunity for under served and challenged youth to make unexpected music together regardless of their abilities. I am sure they would be excited to try any new compositions that you would send to them for ensemble and choir(s) both hearing and non-hearing. Think of it as a highly innovative, inclusive and collaborative work.

    There were also visually impaired students in the same nucleo who are already interested in composition. (Any interest in doing some workshops for young composers?) So if you are interested in composing any new pieces for nucleo children to perform, you better get busy and come up with some ideas before they write their own.

    The more I read about El Sistema the more hopeful I am for the future of music in the lives of children around the world. As you have described, Maestro Abreu created orchestras so that children growing up in broken families could choose the safety of musical families over the gangs which rule their local favelas. Of course we don’t have that problem in the US!? Or do we?

    Have no fear. I am learning that El Sistema was designed to embrace inclusiveness and integration. Not exclusiveness. In its adaptions you can see that this also means encouraging all kinds of music even if when it starts with a good dose of the classical.

    You would not be able to find its administrators in the Performing Arts Ministry or even the Dept of Education. In the face of controversy, Abreu insisted that the program be administrated by the Dept. of Health and Social Welfare. And within that dept., it is located in the humble division of Family Services. Recently they have even started a music program in the Penitentiary. But not to worry, it is all taught and organized by music teachers (not social workers).

    While he never put any limits on what was possible, I don’t think Maestro in his wildest dreams imagined how successfully his project would evolve to when he started a few dozen at risk children years ago. Like John Lennon says, Its amazing where you can end up when your making plans do do something else at its very best. i.e. Save the world with music through the lives of children.

    About the classical music thing. As one who teaches lots of preschoolers, I have had many parents tell me that when they tried to change the music station to something more alternative, it was their 3 year old in the back seat that demanded that the Mozart CD get put back on. Well there’s no accounting for taste. But when you’re teaching them, children have a way of dragging you in the direction they want to go in. They do eventually get over this classical thing once they get their fill of it. Not to worry. They all have the potential to become as articulate about contemporary music as yourselves one day. And I’m sure we won’t hear the end of it.

    Judging from the New Years Concerts they have in Caracus, I get the impression that Abreu has much more varied taste than his students and encourages this in his staff.

    http://www.youtube.com/user/sjvsb#p/c/9C4A6F7FBE15DA6B/9/qGm5UNtZ6YM (find it on YouTube sjvsb) What a romp!! Your holding out on us Dudamel. Bring some of that to LA.

    When my teacher Dr. Suzuki was busy developing his method in Japan, I do believe he felt some pressure to prove that his Asian students were capable of the international standard. In the face of this he was also happy to include Asian influences and composers in local concerts, in Japan. i.e. koto players at the National Graduation. Of course now days, a Taiwanese kid winning the Queen Elizabeth prize for violin is water over the dam . Nobody thinks twice whether an Asian musician can play Bach well enough. By the same token, YoYo Ma doesn’t loose face recording the Silk Road. I’m sure that at some point third world orchestras from humble beginnings will not see the need to prove they are legit in the eyes of the world and we can all get back to the business of “Saving the world’s children through the vehicle of music.”

    You can read more about Calabozo I in one of my favorite Abreu Fellows’ Blogs.

    http://cwabreufellows.wordpress.com/2010/03/19/special-needs-teacher-training/

  26. Ms Cynthia says

    So Greg. Are you going?

    I want to know what you think after reading and seeing everything.

    Not sure what you mean about going. Going where?

    I watched part of the New Year’s concert. It seemed, please forgive me, very familiar and conventional, the kind of high spirits that orthodox classical musicians often have shown. Safely within the tradition, anyhow. Wonderfully played, of course, and exhilarating to hear, for a while. But it wore me down after a while, I have to say. All that good energy, with no real meaning behind it.

    I was reminded of two things. One is Charlie Daniels doing wild country fiddling in a current Geico commercial. The other is the famous Gilles Apap cadenza in a Mozart concerto movement, which you can search for on YouTube. I wonder what you’d think, if you compare that to the New Year’s concert video. To my ear, Apap has a good deal more daring and imagination. And also is a far more accomplished musician, with a much greater range.

    Sorry if that wasn’t the reaction you hoped for! It also wasn’t the reaction I hoped I’d have. I truly was expecting something much more free and imaginative. If I’m to judge from this video, I’d say that the El Sistema kids have relatively little culture that’s truly their own, or of their own time. Though they’ve absorbed some existing traditions (in this case classical music, violin virtuosity, Bach, folk music) really wonderfully.

  27. says

    Hmmm, I am really surprised – actually astonished by the criticism in some of the postings.

    Critics – Have any of you taught music to children and teens? Have you read the history and purpose of El Sistema? If only we could transplant this system to the US…in every town and city. Those children can play anything, and they do.

    It was my privilege to meet Maestro Abreu in Washington, DC a few years ago. Following the lecture, my husband and I attended an out-of-this-world concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. We are professional musicians and teachers, conservatory trained. I have never, in my entire life experienced such wonderful playing, such unabashed joy…such unity…with the orchestra players giving from the heart..completely giving themselves to the music and the audience. It was uplifting. The audience was inspired….and I did not worry one bit about the “meaning” of the music, whether Western European or Venezuelan.

  28. Pauline Mott says

    The Venezuelan composers and many of the posters here seem to completely miss the point of El Sistema. The ultimate goal is not to produce world class musicians or career musicians of any calibre. It is not a venue for nationalism, cultural showcasing or the musical development of local composers. To paraphrase a well known U.S. phrase – it’s the children,stupid!

    The music is a means to an end…not the end. The goal is to teach non-competitive teamwork, co-operation, respect for others, leadership, listening skills, direction following abilities, discipline and fun to children who , in the main, come from chaotic home lives that stem from poverty both economic and spiritual, and often involve abuse and neglect. That music has been recognized and proven to be a means of offering hope, beauty and spiritual nourishment to these children is a wonderful thing. That the music of Mozart, Bach etc is used in the program is understandable. Even the youngest child can relate to the combination of mathematical resolution and spiritual and auditory beauty with which this music is imbued. Even given its genius it remains accessible to every intellectual level from the fetus to the aged Alzheimer sufferer. My daughter is teaching a program based on El Sistema in an inner city school in Ireland. In the three months since the program began the results have been unbelievable. The teaching staff have reported that the school populace is calmer, more able to concentrate and more co-operative since the program began. It has been the most rewarding experience of my daughters life, her dream job that enables her to not only educate but to work towards social justice.

  29. Katie says

    Having spoken with an El Sistema musician personally, who has participated in these orchestras, I can say that the program does not discourage musicians from exploring new music. That being said, because of the program’s innate goal of helping as many children out of the rampant crime and poverty in that country, symphony orchestras provide the most efficient method of getting as many people as possible involved. Classical repertoire is more easily understood by young minds than new age repertoire, and teaches the fundamental basics that students need in order to achieve higher goals in music. Classical music is also the first thing children learn in schools in the USA.