Geoff Baker on El Sistema: sexual and other abuse in an authoritarian, hierarchical, archaic music culture

I was privileged to chair an important paper by Dr Geoff Baker, Reader in Musicology and Ethnomusicology at Royal Holloway College, University of London, on Wednesday October 29th at my own institution, City University London. This was a penetrating and hard-hitting talk on the institution of El Sistema (Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, now renamed Fundacíon Musical Simón Bolívar), founded in 1975 in Venezuela by José Antonio Abreu, purportedly to provide access to musical education for impoverished children, and now a global organisation operative in 60 countries, with major branches in the US, UK and Portugal. Baker’s research, based upon fieldwork in Venezuela (consisting of observations, interviews and archival work), is some of the first to take a critical view of the institution (most other writing has simply reiterated the institution’s own propaganda in relatively unmediated form, a peril for musicology about which I wrote last year); he looked first at the dominant narratives presented by the acolytes, and set this against information about the political activities and machinations of Abreu, the founder, the relationship of the institution to banks and other financial institutions, its total adherence to some of the most authoritarian and cruel ‘disciplinary’ approaches to musical education rooted in nineteenth century Europe, the issues involved in holding a middle class European musical model up as the root to salvation (little Venezuelan or other South American music is played by El Sistema), and the ultra hierarchical structures the organisation embodies and perpetuates. Furthermore, he questioned the basis upon which the organisation’s claims to be helping poor children, drawing attention instead to the predominantly middle-class make-up of the institution and its showcase ensemble, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, not to mention the rise of the leading conductor Gustavo Dudamel (b. 1981) at the behest of a socialist government, so that he could become the face of a Rolex watch advertising campaign.  Baker’s book El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) has just been released in the US and will be released in the UK in January; he has also maintained an extensive blog on El Sistema for a while.

Earlier this week, Baker published a short article in The Guardian arguing cogently some of the above points (Geoff Baker, ‘El Sistema: A Model of Tyranny?’, The Guardian, November 11th, 2014) which brought of his research and conclusions to a wider audience for the first time. This immediately brought a great many reactions, many of them – by those emotionally or otherwise wedded to El Sistema – quite negative, which have been collected in various places (see Hannah Ellis-Petersen, ‘Venezuela’s El Sistema music scheme is ‘model of tyranny’, UK academic says’, The Guardian, November 11th, 2014; Norman Lebrecht, ‘Exposing the Underside of El Sistema’s Musical Revolution’, Slipped Disc, November 12th, 2014; ‘”El Sistema”: un modèle de tyrannie?’ France Musique, November 13th, 2014; ‘Gustavo Dudamel: “Estoy en evolucíon permanente”‘, El Universal, November 13th, 2014 ; ‘El Sistema se defiende ante acusaciones’, Ultimas Noticias, November 13th, 2014 ‘Sistema de Orquestas prepara una generacion avasallante. El director Dietrich Paredes revela que viene un lote de orquestas’, El Universal, November 14th, 2014Phil Miller, ‘Academic makes a noise over tuition row’, Herald Scotland, November 15th, 2014 ). Baker has himself posted some other responses on the blog.

I am expecting to receive my own copy of Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth on Monday, so have not yet been able to read it in full. I write as one deeply sceptical about some branches of ethnomusicology, especially some of them involved with the study of institutions. Much research depending heavily upon results gathered through fieldwork, where sources remain anonymous, requires a good deal of faith on the part of the reader that the researcher is giving a fair representation, when it is difficult to test this against data. Having heard Baker’s paper and read his articles and blog, as well as having had quite extensive correspondence and exchanges with him over these subjects over an extended period, it is clear to me that this important research is poles apart from some of the hack work in this field of which I would be most critical (as with the lack of context, knowledge of or interest in the area of activity, or musical engagement, of Georgina Born’s study of IRCAM or Hettie Malcolmson’s study of the BMIC New Voices scheme, amongst the poorest examples of the genre, or the pedestrian work of Kay Kaufman Shelamay on the Boston Early Music Movement, spending a good deal of time only to discover very elementary results). Baker’s work appears not to be about proving a polemical point with respect to a singular methodology to the exclusion of all others, nor a self-aggrandising assertion of the domination and superiority of the author over their subject in the manner of Born, but a piece of work far from easy to have undertaken, resulting from a process of research which led the author to seriously rethink his earlier benevolent or at least benign assumptions. This is not to say that I am unlikely to have some criticisms of the final work – in the below, for example, the conclusions (which may be quite tautological, as some of the authors, wishing to deny the validity of any sexual dimension to power, would define a sexual encounter involving a power imbalance – true of the vast majority of all possible encounters – as exploitative) cited of Catherine Donovan, Liz Kelly and others could do with more critical treatment rather than simply the ‘We know, because of…..’ approach to argument.

Nonetheless, this work is naturally of great interest to me as one involved in research into the nineteenth-century symphony orchestra and all its associated structures and ideologies, the history of musical education, and above all the potential for abuse in the latter. Baker is acute on locating specifically sexual abuse within the wider culture of the institution, about which I will write more on a later date. With this in mind, I am able for the first time to give a preview of some of the material (not mentioned in the City presentation but alluded to in the Guardian article) by Baker on sexual abuse within El Sistema. This is disturbing material which requires extensive investigation immediately, and in which I hope some journalists will take a wider interest.


Many stories that circulated privately concerned sex. This is hardly surprising given El Sistema’s age profile and orchestras’ reputation. Seminarios, which see large numbers of teenagers and young adults sent off on long residential courses, are notorious, and the reports that emerge sit uneasily with Abreu’s austere, moralistic discourse.

Less predictable and more problematic than the frequent tales of promiscuity and infidelity was the relative normality of sexual relationships between teachers and pupils. On my first day in the Veracruz núcleo I had lunch with a teacher and his rather young-looking pupil/girlfriend; the next time I saw her she was wearing her school uniform. Rodolfo, a longtime Sistema musician, described a culture of permissiveness at all levels of the organization. He reported three cases of teachers being caught having sex with pupils in teaching rooms at a Sistema institution. He described this scenario as an institutional rather than individual problem, the result of a culture of turning a blind eye.

Eva, another Sistema musician, felt that there was a widespread problem around sex. She named five prominent Sistema teachers who were alleged to have a particular inclination toward their female pupils. One Veracruz teacher was renowned for working his way through female students during seminarios. Two núcleo directors had dated school-age members of their orchestras.

Relationships between teachers and pupils (some under eighteen) are conducted openly; they are not even viewed askance, much less the object of sanctions. This may be a consequence of blurring the line between youth and adult orchestras. Yet Eva was concerned that such relationships were clouded by institutionalized imbalances of power: students’ career prospects are often in the hands of their teachers and directors, putting pressure on students to accept invitations or advances. Eva spoke from experience, having dated a teacher herself while a student.

The age of consent in Venezuela is sixteen, making most such relationships legal, but they would be illegal in some of the countries where El Sistema has been lauded and copied, and would be banned, taboo, or at least contentious in most countries because of the institutional connection and power imbalance between the parties. Sexual relations between teachers and students aged under eighteen have been illegal in the United Kingdom since 2001. Some music education institutions prohibit sexual relationships between faculty and students of whatever age, and the composer Michael Berkeley proposed a blanket ban on such relationships within U.K. music institutions (Higgins 2013).

Eva also reported an incident of group sex at a seminario, involving both teachers and students. Those responsible were caught and thrown out of the seminario, but they went back to their núcleos and carried on playing in their local orchestra and giving lessons to children. There are no criminal record checks on teachers, she claimed, and most sexual misdemeanors are brushed under the carpet.

Most disturbingly, a number of allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in my interviews. Two former Sistema students claimed to have been victims themselves, while a number of prominent individuals—including three founders, a senior journalist, and an institutional head—stated that they knew victims or had strong suspicions of abuse. Two teachers and two former students made similar claims. Several older musicians had heard rumors of abuse involving figures of authority, though most claimed to be unsure about their accuracy. One prominent Venezuelan musician said about allegations of sexual abuse: “I know some very serious individuals who claim this with certainty.” He went on, however: “It is something so horrendous that I prefer to forget about it.”

One ex-Sistema musician described the program as “like a chain of secrets and favors—like a secret society.” She claimed that stories of sexual abuse were widespread and that other young musicians regarded the trading of sexual favors as an unremarkable, even humorous, subculture within the orchestra. She mentioned so-called niños bonitos (pretty boys) appearing with brand-new, expensive instruments: “you think, there’s something more going on there than just talent.”

One established musician with whom I discussed these issues emailed me a few days later: “Now that we are on this strange aspect of our subject matter, I am getting commentaries from almost everyone I talk to, with exactly the same script. Molesting attempts, then departed from Sistema, kept the secret for years.” Four current or former Sistema musicians made allegations about the covering up of cases of sexual abuse. “These kinds of issues have always been managed with impressive stealth,” confided a founder. “It’s really difficult to prove the things that have happened because the network of complicity is very extensive.” He named several of his contemporaries, now senior figures in El Sistema: “Among ourselves, when we were adolescents, I heard comments from them that suggest that some things happened that were at the very least incorrect.”

There is no concrete evidence that these allegations or suspicions are true, for all that many come from seemingly reliable sources. It was impossible for me, a foreign musicologist, to assess their veracity, particularly since many related to events that had allegedly taken place years or decades earlier; but the regularity with which they surfaced in interviews, conversations, and Internet forums was striking. Whatever the reality, stories of sexual abuse circulate in and around El Sistema and form part of its belief system.

Nevertheless, my informants were unaware of any significant action being taken as a result. Allsup and Shieh (2012, 48) write: “At the heart of teaching others is the moral imperative to care. It is the imperative to perceive and act, and not look away.” The starting point for social justice is noticing and responding to injustice, they argue. Such attitudes seem to have been somewhat thin on the ground in El Sistema. Yet they would appear to be vital to a project that claims to connect disadvantaged young people and classical music, since it could be argued that the kinds of practices and relationships commonly found in classical music education create the perfect conditions for sexual abuse—a point raised repeatedly during a scandal that erupted recently around U.K. music schools and colleges.


In 2013 thirty-nine current and former teachers at Chetham’s School of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) were investigated for alleged sexual abuse of pupils, with several other specialist music institutions also implicated (Pidd 2013). As former students began to speak out, it became increasingly clear that the problem had been endemic, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, though allegations spanned four decades. Former Chetham’s pupil Ian Pace (2013) was among those calling for a full public inquiry given the number of stories circulating in the music profession yet the reluctance of victims to come forward “in a close-knit world of classical music in which careers are dependent upon the whims of a few powerful individuals.”1

William Osborne, in a comment posted to Slipped Disc on February 17, 2013, pointed to the obstacles to uncovering this issue, helping to explain why decades may pass before such problems are properly investigated: “victims often do not find the understanding, confidence, and support to speak out until they are adults.” One obstacle is a lack of support structures; another is denial. In the words of Michal Kaznowski (2013), cellist of the Maggini Quartet and former pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin School: “if you had confronted me aged 15 and asked me about the school I would have told you it was a wonderful place with huge opportunity. [. . .] Almost nothing would have made me talk about the lessons and my humiliation and pain.” If many victims simply could not articulate their experiences, those few who did found their complaints were generally swept under the rug. Even when problems were common knowledge and reported, allegations were extremely hard to prove. It was thus very rare that anyone spelt out the problem in public or took significant action to confront it.

There is increasing recognition today not just that sexual abuse has been a widespread and longstanding problem within classical music educational insti- tutions, but also that there is a particular relationship between the abuse and the institutions. In other words, there is a systemic problem within classical music education, not simply a few rogue individuals or schools but a more generalized culture of abuse, manifested internationally. Tindall (2005) suggested that faculty-student sexual relations were part of the landscape of North American music schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Osborne provided a catalogue of more recent cases of sexual harassment and abuse from North American and European institutions and orchestras.2 Robert Fitzpatrick (2013), former dean of the Curtis Institute of Music, went much further, describing physical, psychological, and sexual abuse as endemic in European and North American conservatoires since the nineteenth century, yet, “[l]ike the Catholic Church, music schools tended to sweep their dirty little secrets under the rug. Students were never willing to discuss the improper actions of their instructors because of fear of reprisal that could sink their career as a performer.” Fitzpatrick’s own institution had been nicknamed the “Coitus Institute” in the 1930s. Among the soul searching, there were suggestions that abuse of one kind or another was an inherent feature of learning classical music.3

Several prominent musicians spoke out about the risks of intense, power- laden, one-to-one teacher-student relationships in hothouse musical environments. Vicci Wardman, a former teacher at the RNCM, described this relationship (Pidd, Ibbotson, and Carroll 2013): “Its very nature is intimate, detailed and precise, and most often conducted behind closed doors. [. . .] Tragically, that very structure can also be an invitation to the sort of predators who up to now have operated freely within musical institutions.” Martin Roscoe, another former RNCM teacher, identified classical music schools as high-risk places, pointing to the combination of one-on-one lessons, the idolization of top players, teenagers “with hormones going berserk,” and the music itself: “you are inevitably touching on the most passionate places of the soul with adolescents” (Higgins 2013b).

Researchers are beginning to respond to this issue and underline the need for serious examination. Gould (2009, 66) describes sexual harassment as “music education’s unspoken ‘dirty little secret,’” one that demands urgent attention. Bull (2012) confronts the “sexual economy” [that] shapes both the well-known phenomenon of sexual relationships between music teachers and students; and the now-emerging issue of child sexual exploitation and abuse that this relationship arguably facili- tates, with its privacy, intimacy and entrenched power imbalances. It is well established (e.g., by Catherine Donovan, Liz Kelly, and many others) that power imbalances (for example, age differences) between adults are a predictor for abusive or sexually exploitative relationships. I would argue that the combination in classical music pedagogy of intense musical experiences, intimate one-to-one lessons, and the authority of the teacher or conductor, is a perfect recipe in which sexual exploitation or abuse can occur, and so examining structures of power and authority in classical music institutions and practices is an urgent point of investigation.

Given the systemic nature of this problem, it is important to know what child protection measures El Sistema has in place. I could not make an official inquiry without jeopardizing my research, but Sistema musicians in Veracruz were unaware of any specific institutional measures. Many Sistema teachers receive little training of any kind, let alone child protection training targeted at preventing abuse. Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus that clear institutional strategies are essential to combating this problem, so establishing a rigorous and widely known child protection policy would surely be a wise move. Fitzpatrick (2013) gives a detailed list of suggestions for avoiding and dealing with cases of abuse, and in comments on his post, Osborne provides examples of programs and training that have been implemented in some European and North American institutions, such as clear sexual harassment policies, specifically assigned staff, and online reporting of complaints. Such developments reflect a shift in attitudes since the 1970s and 1980s—a shift that still seems to be waiting to happen in El Sistema.

The reports that I heard in Venezuela raised a number of fundamental issues. El Sistema’s disciplinary focus, production of power differences, male dominance, and opaque, autonomous institutional culture are ideologically problematic in themselves, but they also create the perfect conditions for abuse. The urgency of critiquing these dynamics is thus redoubled. As discussed in Chapter 3, progressive scholars of music education have been wary for some time about hallowed institutions such as specialist music schools, and their views have been borne out by recent events in the United Kingdom. Their argument that schools need to be put under the spotlight is irrefutable, and El Sistema is no exception, since reports of abuse (psychological as well as sexual) from Venezuela suggest that endemic, problematic features of classical music education are being reproduced rather than revolutionized in El Sistema.

The knottiest question of all, however, is whether intensive classical music education is the most suitable focus for a program centered on vulnerable children and youths. Power imbalances are at the core of sexual abuse, and they are as evident in El Sistema as in classical music institutions in other countries. Given the emerging evidence of an endemic culture of abuse in such institutions, putting vulnerable children in this situation looks like a high-risk strategy. Indeed, one ex-Sistema musician reported that his núcleo director tried to abuse him precisely when he, at that time a troubled adolescent with family and drug problems, went looking for help. Classical music education appears to be a problematic sphere, and adding at-risk youths may be creating a potentially volatile combination.

At present, the allegations and suspicions that circulate around El Sistema are no more than that. However, events in the United Kingdom illustrated that even world-renowned institutions had skeletons in their closets; that grave problems could take decades to become public knowledge; and that while these problems were discussed within musical circles, many students were nevertheless unaware of them. The fact that this problem has not emerged publicly in Venezuela does not therefore mean that it is insignificant there. Even stern, open critics of El Sistema told me that they would not touch the issue of sexual abuse, despite having heard about it, for the simple reason that conclusive evidence was too hard to come by. Also, the fear factor that Pace describes in the United Kingdom is even more pronounced in Venezuela: El Sistema’s dominance of the national classical music scene means that any public allegation would be tantamount to professional suicide. It may take careful research, then, to determine whether the silence hides personal troubles that ought to be turned into a public issue.

12 Comments on “Geoff Baker on El Sistema: sexual and other abuse in an authoritarian, hierarchical, archaic music culture”

  1. richard says:

    Thanks for the preview. Sexual abuse needs to be rooted out wherever it exists, and I will never make excuses for any person or institution intentionally or unintentionally enabling/allowing abuse to take place. If there is not proper attention being exerted to this issue by Fundamusical, then that is a very serious problem and needs to be rectified immediately.

    There are a few problems I see in you post and Baker’s thinking, and these issues are at work in undermining both of your arguments. Nevertheless, I think your points are extremely important and need to be argued. This is a global movement that has taken off quickly. Child safety must be first on every organization’s list of priorities. We need to embed strong protections from abuse in our policies and program cultures from the outset and monitor and improve them constantly.

    I think that Baker’s idea that “the kinds of practices and relationships commonly found in classical music education create the perfect conditions for sexual abuse” seems like cherry-picking. I would amend that statement to say – the kinds of practices and relationships commonly found in academia and almost every educational institution create the perfect conditions for sexual abuse.

    Furthermore, why does Baker specifically single out classical music education as the danger? All of my training was in jazz music – from high school through college. There were certainly all the same situations prone to sexual misconduct that classical music students experience – and there certainly was misconduct. I don’t see how this would be different for education in any genre of music.

    You say, “(little Venezuelan or other South American music is played by El Sistema)”.
    This simply isn’t true and has already been successfully refuted. You seem to be parroting Baker’s errors.

    This also is not true:

    “…Fundacíon Musical Simón Bolívar)…a global organisation operative in 60 countries with major branches in the US, UK and Portugal.

    Fundacíon Musical Simón Bolívar operates in Venezuela only. Programs outside of Venezuela refer to themselves as “El Sistem-inspired” programs and are completely separate entities. They have no legal affiliation with Fundacíon Musical Simón Bolívar.

    Again, thanks for the post. When points in a criticism are not presented well, riddled with factual inaccuracies and full of negative assertions, the criticism starts to look more like an bungled assassination attempt than a genuine piece of critical thinking.

    • Ian Pace says:

      For now, just want to respond specifically to this point:

      ‘I think that Baker’s idea that “the kinds of practices and relationships commonly found in classical music education create the perfect conditions for sexual abuse” seems like cherry-picking. I would amend that statement to say – the kinds of practices and relationships commonly found in academia and almost every educational institution create the perfect conditions for sexual abuse.’

      Certainly journalists and others who have been researching abuse in schools have found a deeply disproportionate number of music teachers involved, and I believe (on the basis of a lot of testimony I have heard) that various specialist music schools will come to be seen as amongst the worst schools ever in the UK for abuse (various things I can’t say here for legal reasons at present). The culture, teaching modes, rootedness in nineteenth-century practices, hierarchies, and so on of classical music are very particular to that field, by no means simply one example of what is found elsewhere in academia and other educational institutions. Teaching cultures in academic music departments and conservatoires themselves differ – teachers at the latter can get away with lots which would be unthinkable at former. And these are points I’ve argued publicly before I even knew of Geoff’s work – see and .

      I wouldn’t argue that jazz education is necessarily any different; as far as I know it hasn’t been researched in any detail to date. Forms of musical teaching less dependent upon the one-to-one relationship between teacher and pupil may however differ from others. Some patterns have suggested that singers (though not choirboys) may be somewhat less at danger, because of the later maturing stage than for instrumentalists, and the general presence of a third party in terms of an accompanist at most times.

    • Re Richard’s criticisms:

      1) I did not say that these conditions were not found in any other institution – I said that they seem to be particularly prevalent in classical music schools. The work of Ian and others provides evidence and explanations for this view. Is there similar research done on specialist schools of other genres of music? If so, it would be very interesting to see it. But my statement was not a comparative one, so such research would not alter my statement.

      2) Why do I single out classical music? Because I was researching classical music schools. If I had been researching jazz schools, I would have singled out jazz.

      3) Little South American music is played by El Sistema. You say this has been “successfully refuted.” By whom, where, when? Playing Alma Llanera or Mambo at the end of every concert doesn’t constitute a serious engagement with Latin American music. Contemporary Venezuelan composers have been almost entirely sidelined, with a couple of exceptions. Where are the composers in residence in Sistema núcleos? How many premieres of Venezuelan pieces has the Simón Bolívar orchestra performed on its global tours in the last 10 years? There has been a minor shift over the last year or two, I’ve noticed, quite possibly in response to the numerous complaints from Venezuelan composers and other observers. Now, whenever one of the show orchestras plays a Latin American piece, they make sure to make a big song and dance about it. But if you compare the top Venezuelan youth orchestras to their equivalents in other countries, they are far less supportive of new national compositions.

      4) You are correct about the Fundamusical point.

  2. richard says:

    Ian and Geoff,

    Thanks for the replies.

    1) The words “particularly prevalent” implies a comparison. No?

    2) Yes. I understand. But do you agree that there is no clear proof that attending a classical music school is more perilous for a child than joining a youth swim team, the boy scouts or a church youth group. That is to say, there are many widely accepted youth activities that have several, if not all, of the characteristics common to classical music education that Ian describes in his articles.

    3) South American/Latin American Music

    How does the following fit into your assertion that El Sistema plays very little Latin American music?

    When the SBSO came to New York in 2012 I attended one of their concerts. The program was primarily Latin American music.

    During this time members of the orchestra visited our music program to hear our kids play and coach them. They made a strong impression of being genuinely warm and generous people. They were absolutely amazing as musical coaches – they had the kids smiling and laughing while doing some very focused and productive rehearsing. Their patience, creativity, spontaneity and interest in the kids ideas about the music created an environment perfectly conducive to a dynamic learning experience. (BTW – How does this fit into your view that El Sitema clings to “total adherence to some of the most authoritarian and cruel ‘disciplinary’ approaches to musical education rooted in nineteenth century Europe” ? How could musicians like these possibly be produced from such a brutal education system?)

    They did not have their instruments with them, but the kids offered their own instruments for them to play. Off the cuff and without music they played an excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile from his first string quartet and then some very rousing and virtuosic Venezuelan folk music which they improvised on.

    From what I could dig up on, the SBSO (SBYO) has recorded orchestral works by the following Latin American composers. These recordings date back to 1993, apparently their first label recordings (on Dorian). It appears that a majority, or at least a very significant number of their recordings are Latin American compositions, many of which were published before 2000.

    Venezuelan composers

    Juan Bautista Plaza
    Inocente Carreño
    Antonio Estévez
    Evencio Castellanos
    Aldemaro Romero

    Cuban composers

    Julián Orbón
    Orlando Jacinto Garcia
    Alejandro Garcia Caturla

    Mexican composers

    Javier Alvarez
    Silvestre Revueltas
    Arturo Márquez
    Eugenio Toussaint
    Carlos Chavez
    José Pablo Moncayo

    Brazilian composers

    Heitor Villa-Lobos
    Camargo Guarieri
    Marlos Nobre
    Oscar Lorenzo Fernández

    Argentinian composers

    Alberto Ginastera

    From FESNOJIV’s 2001 document, ““Sequential Organisation of Repertoires for Youth Orchestras,” many compositions by following Latin American composers are listed as core repertoire of their musical curriculum:

    Orchestral repertoire

    Gonzalo Castellanos
    Alberto Ginastera
    Aldemaro Romero
    Carlos Chavez
    Pablo Mancayo
    Silvestre Revueltas
    Osvaldo de Lacerda

    Orchestral Venezuelan popular music repertoire

    Rafael Miguel Lopez
    Juan de Dios Galavis
    Juan Batista Agero
    Juan Pablo Ceballos
    Rafael Andrade
    Pedro Pablo Caldera
    Antonio Carrillo
    Simon Wohnsiedler
    Jose Antonio Naranjo
    Jose Maria Jimenez
    Alirio Abreu
    Perdo Elias Gutierrez
    Adelys Freitez
    Jacinto Freitez Silva
    Jose Nemecio Godoy
    Jose Angel Rodriguez L.
    Simon Diaz
    Moises Moliero

    • I think it’s rather indicative that 95% of your most recent response to a post about sexual abuse concerns the issue of whether or not El Sistema plays Venezuelan music, and the other 5% is nitpicking of a kind that, even as a professional nitpicker, I find simply a diversion from the serious issue at hand.

      Would my findings be any less serious if you provided evidence that youth swimming had a systemic problem with sexual abuse? From the work of Ian and others, there is good reason to think that specialist classical music schools present problematic features in this regard. If other institutions do too, that does not make the issue of sexual abuse in classical music schools any less significant, or the connection between their conditions/dynamics and the abuse any less worthy of attention. Also, the difference between El Sistema and the other examples here is that it has achieved global fame as a “social project” aimed at creating positive social change.

      To reply to the other part of your post, you draw on two brief personal experiences, I draw on a year of full-time research in Venezuela and three more years of more intermittent research. You draw on a FESNOJIV document (i.e. what they say they do), I draw on extensive time on the ground within FESNOJIV (i.e. what they actually do) and interviews with Venezuelan experts (composers, musicologists, etc).

      Your discography is certainly interesting, and I talk about this briefly in my book. How much of this repertoire has been recorded since Dudamel shot to fame in 2004? When I looked into this a couple of years back, the answer was very little except for the CD of party pieces, tellingly entitled “Fiesta.” Now place that alongside the series of CDs of canonical European repertoire recorded by Dudamel.

      El Sistema has a few old warhorses in its repertoire by the very old/dead composers that you list. But, as I said before, CONTEMPORARY Venezuelan composers have been almost entirely sidelined, with a couple of exceptions. I ask again: Where are the composers in residence in Sistema núcleos? How many premieres of Venezuelan pieces has the Simón Bolívar orchestra performed on its global tours in the last 10 years?

      If you’re genuinely interested in this question, I recommend that you read the article by Venezuelan professor of composition Emilio Mendoza, LA COMPOSICIÓN EN VENEZUELA: ¿PROFESIÓN EN PELIGRO DE EXTINCIÓN? (Composition in Venezuela: A Profession in Danger of Extinction?) The whole thing is very revealing, but here’s one stat:

      El promedio de inserción de piezas venezolanas en el repertorio de una
      selección de orquestas sinfónicas del país fue calculado en una tesis de postgrado de Wilmer
      Flores en 13% con la Margariteña de Carreño tomándose la mayor parte de este porcentaje.

  3. richard says:

    My intent is not to create a “diversion from the serious issue at hand.” I’ve already addressed my respect for the concerns of child safety and sexual abuse. They are, of course, paramount.
    I agree that child protection should be painstakingly implemented and maintained in a classical music education program and any endeavor involving children for that matter.

    I think your line of thinking starts to go off the rails when you begin:
    “The knottiest question of all, however, is whether intensive classical music education is the most suitable focus for a program centered on vulnerable children and youths.”

    You’ve now moved from talking about the problematic common practice of classical music education in western conservatories to anything falling under the umbrella of classical music education. In my own personal experience of countless hours of discussion with professionals and work in the field of social change through music over the last six years, a significant amount of dialogue and work has focused on the problems of the traditional ways of teaching and developing and adopting new methods. A major concern in this work has been precisely what you point to as the main culprit – abuse of power. I know there is a strong movement music education movement here in NYC completely breaking with the very things you and Ian are pointing to as the inherent problems with traditional classical music education. These problems are inherent in traditional classical music education methods, but certainly not inherent in all classical music education initiatives. I think it would serve your argument well to acknowledge this. Otherwise you seem to be pointing to any education program that uses classical music content as inherently prone to sexual abuse problems. The methods are your target, not necessarily the content, unless you believe there is absolutely no safe way to engage in classical music education with children. Is this your assertion?

    re: my brief experience and your extensive research
    Here you point out the obvious. Of course I am not presenting my experiences or questions as someone who is a professional researcher and has done extensive fieldwork on this specific topic. But does that render my experiences and questions wholly irrelevant? I shared these anecdotes to pose a question to what I see as consistent through your critique of Venezuela’s El Sistema. All of your assertions and inquiries, whether backed with extensive research or self-admittedly based on thin to no research are diametrically opposed to any notion that El Sistema attains any measure of its mission.

    I consider myself a rational person, skeptical of all formal social systems, especially those as large as a national bureaucratic agency. My direct experiences concerning Sistema are mixed (both positive and negative experiences and discussions with Venezuelans, Brazilians and Americans beyond what I spoke of in my previous post), and Sistema certainly does not escape my skepticism and criticism. But understand, the fact that every single bit of research and data you report in your findings disparages El Sistema eventually starts to comes across as disingenuous.

    Did you speak with a single Venezuelan who felt their experience El Sistema was positive? I have. I have met those who have expressed it was both positive and negative. You argue that Sistema’s own message has been propagandist. I agree. I also think that your viewpoint suffers from the same one-sidedness. The irony is that you are undermining your own message with one of the very things you are criticizing Sistema for.

    I do believe you bring up extremely valid points and lines of inquiry. That’s why I read your blog and will probably buy your book (no matter how upset you get with me 😮 ) At the same time, your overall investigation comes off as lop-sided and that makes me question whether you are doing serious objective research or have simply found a controversial niche to make a name for yourself from. I hope it is obvious to you why many must be thinking this as well, whether you agree with it or not.

    In light of my own experiences and discussions with Venezuelans who have participated in Venezuela’s El Sistema, Yana Stainova’s “A Sonorous Silence: the Polyphonous Politics of Classical Music in the Youth Orchestras of Venezuela’s El Sistema” is a much more nuanced and illuminating viewpoint on Sistema.

    re: Latin American music

    Regardless of when it was recorded, the discography shows an extensive interest in El Sistema recording and disseminating Latin American music. Not sure anything else needs to be said here. As far as Sistema supporting living composers, I’ll take your word for it. The whole orchestral music world has been actively stifling serious living composers at least since John Cage. I think Sistema has had a unique opportunity to elevate the role of contemporary composers and composition in music education. I know of no evidence that shows they’ve seriously addressed this.

  4. Richard, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. I don’t have time to get much further into what’s already a long discussion. The section that Ian has excerpted comes 250 pages into the book, and the previous 250 pages inflect its meaning. If you buy the book, you can form your own opinion about that sentence.

    In the introduction to my book, I do recognise that the program has positive sides. But I have taken a decision that what the field needs is a counter-balance to the one-sided, rose-tinted view of El Sistema that is found in hundreds of articles, several documentaries, etc. Even with my book out there, the field will still be ridiculously unbalanced in favour of El Sistema.

    I’m sure that lots of people will hate me as a result, and if I wanted friends and/or money, I would have written a more academic version of Tricia Tunstall’s book. I already have a modest name in my field – my first book won an international prize, and was highly praised by every reviewer – and I was well aware that publishing this book was MUCH more likely to harm my reputation than bolster it. So if I’m in it for something, I’ve yet to work out what that is.

    That said, while I’ve been slated in public by Sistema fans over the last week, my inbox has been steadily filling up with private messages of support from current and former Sistema musicians, so my conscience is clear. It’s up to others what they do with the information in my book – they can ignore it, balance it out with the official narrative, pick and choose the bits they like… it’s all fine by me. But at least they have some other viewpoints to consider, at long last – the ones that are very hard to find out without knowledge, language skills, and excellent contacts. As I say in my book, I’m making no pretentions to writing THE truth, simply some truths.

    That’s it – I’m out of here. It’s been fun.

  5. richard says:


    Thanks for the dialogue. And for the record, I’m not a hater. I’m all for more discourse to better understand and direct thinking on these topics. I think your writing may be playing a significant role in this. Yep, it’s been fun.

  6. […] Geoff Baker on El Sistema: sexual and other abuse in an authoritarian, hierarchical, archaic music c… (15/11/14) […]

  7. […] Geoff Baker on El Sistema: sexual and other abuse in an authoritarian, hierarchical, archaic music c… (15/11/14) […]

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