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.