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Rethinking Social Action through Music

Geoffrey Baker


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Music education is far more ambiguous morally than might be thought.
Richard Matthews, “Beyond Toleration—Facing the Others”

Everything I do in the Red, I do because I love this program… that’s why I’m always so agitated
Music school director

In less than three years Medellín will see something almost unimaginable: some two thousand children and youths from popular neighbourhoods will be members of a huge band. But a symphonic one. […] In the hands of the young people, the flutes, saxophones, violins, trumpets, clarinets, violoncellos, trombones, euphoniums, snares, bass drums, and cymbals will sound in unison to tell Medellín that a new era of music has begun in the city, their musical vocation has awoken, and their instruments have managed to unite what weapons tore apart.

  • 1 All translations by the author.

1Thus began a 1997 article entitled “Music schools: more civility and culture” (“Escuelas de Música” 1997, 6).1 Did music education manage “to unite what weapons tore apart” and bring civility and peace to Medellín, the most dangerous city on Earth?

2From the 1970s to the early 1990s, Colombia’s second city was home to Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, and it sat in the midst of a national conflict that had been bubbling for decades. It gained notoriety as the murder capital of the world. In the 1990s, aiming to reverse the city’s fortunes, the municipal and regional governments produced several strategic development plans that led to some striking urban policies, the best known of which, implemented by Mayors Sergio Fajardo (2004–07) and Alonso Salazar (2008–11), was labelled “social urbanism.” Many of the city’s iconic features date from this period. Library parks, designed by leading architects, were constructed in some of the city’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and cable cars appeared to carry people up the steep hillsides that led to them. Another novel transport solution, an outdoor escalator, put the violence-ravaged barrio of Comuna 13 on the tourist map.

  • 2 The Spanish term convivencia has more positive connotations than the English “coexistence.” It sugg (...)

3Alongside such attention-grabbing architectural and infrastructural projects, successive city governments invested in education and culture, which were seen as central pillars of urban transformation (“Medellín” n.d.). The year 1997 saw the opening of the first six schools of the Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín—the Network of Music Schools of Medellín—after the signing of two Municipal Accords the previous year. A third agreement in 1998 established citywide youth music ensembles, most notably a youth symphony orchestra. The Red grew quickly and came to encompass twenty-seven music schools, focusing primarily on classical music, funded by the city government, and serving around 5000 students. Most of the schools were located in barrios populares, or “popular neighbourhoods,” as low-to-middle income sectors are known. The Red was presented as a response to the acute problem of violent crime that such neighbourhoods faced; it defined itself as a social program, its goal to promote peaceful coexistence.2

4During this period of intensive urban development, Medellín’s murder rate fell dramatically—from 381 per 100,000 in 1991 to 20 in 2015. The city was also garlanded with many international awards, such as the World’s Most Innovative City, the World’s Smartest City, and the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize. Medellín became a global showpiece of urban renewal. Journalists and policy-makers from around the world began speaking of “the Medellín Miracle.”

5The Red, too, garnered international acclaim. From 2000, its ensembles began a series of overseas tours, the second of which culminated in a performance for the Pope at the Vatican. Foreign conductors and coaches visited the program regularly to work with the students. The Red enjoyed a boost in visibility a few years later as the international boom of Venezuela’s El Sistema, with its slogan of “social action through music” (SATM), led to global interest in Latin American youth orchestras. The Red became widely known as another SATM success story and an integral part of the Medellín Miracle.

6In 2012, I made my first visit to Medellín. I met up with figures in the city’s cultural scene and explored several neighbourhoods. I was impressed by the friendliness and dynamism of those whom I met, whose projects included not just the Red but also hip-hop schools, a record label and production company, and a “free culture” enterprise.

7I was in the midst of writing a book about El Sistema (Baker 2014). This program had gained global renown, attracting labels like “the Venezuelan musical miracle”; yet, over several years of research, I had discovered significant gaps between its public image and internal realities and a striking disjuncture with contemporary thinking on music education and social development. I was fascinated by Medellín after my brief visit to the city, but I also saw the Red and other cultural programs as addressing some of my concerns about the Venezuelan paradigm. Medellín and the Red found their way into the final part of the book, where I discussed advances in and alternatives to the Venezuelan model.

8The current book picks up from that point. It is a “post-El Sistema” project—not just in terms of my own trajectory, but also because it focuses on a program that has tried to move beyond the Venezuelan model, and it is based on research conducted during a period when El Sistema’s fortunes have waned significantly. Venezuela’s prolonged political and economic crisis has led to an exodus of students, performers, teachers, and conductors; the international tours have ceased; and the program’s weaknesses have been underscored by copious recent research (e.g. Logan 2015a; Pedroza 2015; Scripp 2016a, 2016b; Fink 2016; Logan 2016; Baker and Frega 2016; Baker and Frega 2018; Baker, Bull, and Taylor 2018; Baker 2018). However, as with other such “posts-,” this does not mean that the original term is buried and forgotten. On the contrary, El Sistema hangs over this book as it hangs over the field of SATM. For all its recent travails, it continues to be the dominant model and main reference point for SATM internationally. It has been copied in dozens of countries around the world, and many of the issues in the wider field can be traced back to Venezuela. Any serious conversation about SATM needs to include El Sistema.

9While this book was always intended as a sequel to my previous one, it turned out to be more closely connected than I had initially imagined. I learnt that El Sistema was not only an inspiration for but also a direct formative influence on the Red: their founders worked closely together, and teachers from the Venezuelan program travelled regularly to Medellín during the first half-dozen years. The Red was profoundly shaped by El Sistema, giving the latter a more prominent role in this book than I had originally anticipated.

10I formulated a research project focusing on three issues. Firstly, I wanted to continue thinking about social development through music education. My research in Venezuela had revealed a program with serious flaws, but were the problems specific to that institution or were they inherent in the model? Could SATM work better elsewhere? I had seen Medellín as a ray of hope after all the problems that I had discovered in Venezuela, but would my initial impressions hold up under closer inspection?

11Secondly, I wanted to devote more attention to SATM and citizenship education. I had previously argued that, despite the frequent linking of El Sistema with this term, the program generally produced loyal subjects, trained to obey authority, rather than citizens, educated to participate in democratic processes (Baker 2016a). Since the Red is managed by Medellín’s Ministry of Civic Culture and emphasizes citizenly values in its official vision, exploring more deeply the possibilities of SATM as citizenship education seemed a logical focus for my new research.

12Thirdly, I wondered what part music education might have played in Medellín’s process of urban renewal. Social urbanism included significant investment in education and culture, and journalistic and popular accounts of a city transformed often highlighted artistic projects. What might research reveal about the role of the Red in the Medellín Miracle and about the effectiveness of SATM? And what might critical debates around social urbanism tell us about socially oriented music education?

Social Action through Music

13I define SATM as a field centred in Latin America, where the largest and best-known examples are located, but with strong cultural and ideological ties to Europe and with a global reach, since El Sistema has served as an inspiration around the world. SATM consists of music education programs with a number of characteristics. They identify social action (or a related term, such as social inclusion) as the primary or at least an important goal. They place large ensembles at the centre of learning—often but not always the orchestra. Classical music originally took pride of place and, while there has been some diversification in terms of repertoire, in many instances it still does. SATM is usually more intensive than most extra-curricular music programs (El Sistema’s intermediate and advanced students often attend daily for several hours or more), and participation is free (or more rarely, at low cost). In Latin America, programs are often intermediate to large in size, reaching thousands of participants, rather than the millions who might (in theory) be exposed to school music or the dozens or hundreds in a community music program; but SATM programs in the global North are frequently smaller.

14The origins of the label SATM are obscure, but it appears to date from the mid-1990s. It was popularized by El Sistema but may have been borrowed from a smaller Brazilian program of the same name (Baker 2014). It is also associated with El Sistema’s funding by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB): it adorns the program’s Caracas headquarters, built with an IDB loan. The term was not widely used in Medellín, but it is an appropriate one for a program that was shaped by El Sistema, was created around the time the label emerged, and prioritized a social objective. Also, the Red, like El Sistema, was supported by the IDB in its first phase.

15Musically and pedagogically speaking, SATM owes considerable allegiance to older practices and philosophies of music education of European origin (including ones that date back to the Spanish Conquest), and it shows parallels with the Suzuki method. It therefore sits somewhere between conventional collective music education and newer fields such as community music (CM) and music education for social change. Its practices are closer to the former, while its aims or claims are similar to the latter.

16As such, SATM can be approached from a variety of points of view. Since its model is similar to that of youth orchestras and bands around the globe, music education research can shed considerable light on its strengths and limitations. I took this approach in my previous book, and as many of the issues are broadly the same across the SATM field, I will not repeat those arguments or the literature on which they are based here. Research on social justice in music education (SJME), which has seen considerable growth in recent years, would seem another logical vantage point. However, SATM occupies an ambiguous, liminal position with respect to this area of research, as with its practice. In terms of social aims, there are apparent points of contact, yet SATM also embodies many conventional practices and aspirations that this field critiques, above all a focus on large ensembles and classical music performance, and so it is far from a favoured model in SJME research. The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education (Benedict et al. 2015) devotes just one of its forty-two chapters to El Sistema, and the perspective therein is distinctly ambivalent (Shieh 2015). There are occasional references to the approach and practices that it incarnates in other chapters, but they are strikingly critical (e.g. McCarthy 2015; Kelly-McHale and Abril 2015; Matthews 2015). Gaztambide-Fernández and Rose (2015) critique the Venezuelan model directly, and their analysis lays bare just how far it lies from contemporary thinking on SJME. This disjuncture is also evident in the terminology: El Sistema does not refer to social justice but rather to social action and social inclusion, which are ideologically distinct.

17Both the overlap and the tensions may be illuminated by considering the twin aims of the handbook. The blurb on its dust jacket begins:

Music education has historically had a tense relationship with social justice. On the one hand, educators concerned with music practices have long preoccupied themselves with ideas of open participation and the potentially transformative capacity that musical interaction fosters. On the other hand, they have often done so while promoting and privileging a particular set of musical practices, traditions, and forms of musical knowledge, which has in turn alienated and even excluded many children from music education opportunities.

18The book examines both sides of the equation: it echoes SATM in exploring “social justice in action,” but whereas SATM has historically focused on the end result (social action through music), this handbook is equally concerned with the means (social justice in music), so it also explores “cycles of injustice that might be perpetuated by music pedagogy.” (Indeed, a central implication of the book is that there can be no social justice through music education without social justice in music education.) This twin aim not only distinguishes SJME from SATM, but it also highlights the latter as an ambiguous model: simultaneously a potential route to justice and site of injustice. El Sistema and its practices feature in both sections of the book, evoked as both an example of social justice in action and an object of criticism; Shieh’s chapter alone, even though it appears in the section “Social justice in practice,” raises critical questions about El Sistema’s social justice credentials, going so far as to describe the program’s conception of poverty as “grotesque” (2015, 574). So while one might look at the book’s title and logically conclude that SATM fell either inside or outside this field of study, neither is entirely true: it straddles the boundary, somewhat uncomfortably.

  • 3 See, however, Krönig (2019) for a complicating view of CM.

19Similarly, there have been some efforts to draw together SATM with the field of community music (CM), but The Oxford Handbook of Community Music (Bartleet and Higgins 2018a) barely mentions El Sistema, and many of the values that CM embodies and upholds run directly contrary to the Venezuelan program. While El Sistema was founded by the conservative politician and economist José Antonio Abreu, a minister of state who was a right-hand man of several presidents, Bartleet and Higgins (2018b) see the roots of CM in the UK counter-culture era of the late 1960s and 1970s, and Price (2018, x) writes of the field’s “punk ethic” in the 1980s. While Abreu consorted with the architects of neoliberalism in Venezuela, CM emerged from the socialist-leaning community arts scene. Boeskov (2019, 114) characterizes CM as non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian, and “operating from outside or on the margins of the established, the authorized, the legitimate and dominant culture”—a description that could hardly be further from El Sistema, which came to operate out of the Office of the President. If CM upholds cultural democracy, SATM embodies the opposing notion of democratization of culture. SATM looks less like CM’s sibling than its neoliberal alter-ego.3

20The picture from the research field is thus somewhat paradoxical. El Sistema is probably the best-known example of socially oriented music education among the general public, and it is the most widely reported in the media, which has frequently presented it as a miracle story; yet it plays only a minor role in cornerstone texts in the academic field and analyses of its approach are often unflattering. More positive accounts of socially oriented music education in such sources are generally focused on practices and values (such as bottom-up, non-formal, or creative) that are strikingly different from SATM.

21SATM has spawned its own sub-field of research, running in parallel to—and sometimes blissful ignorance of—the fields cited above. The problematic nature of this sub-field is evident in a literature review (Creech et al. 2016) that is both a valuable resource and a potential minefield: professional, peer-reviewed research is mixed with student dissertations and non-academic advocacy without any sort of quality control, which makes it an excellent starting point for further research in responsible hands but has enabled others to present a distorted vision of relevant scholarship. Nevertheless, there are two broad points that can be derived from this literature review and from surveying more recent publications: firstly, writing on SATM is extremely varied, some would say polarized, embracing positions ranging from fervent advocacy to trenchant criticism; and secondly, there is an increasing amount of peer-reviewed scholarship at the critical end of the spectrum (in addition to the sources above, see e.g. Allan et al. 2010; Baker 2015a; Bull 2016; Dobson 2016; Rosabal-Coto 2016; Kuuse, Lindgren, and Skåreus 2016; Baker 2016b; Baker 2016c; Hopkins, Provenzano, and Spencer 2017; Rimmer 2018; Rimmer 2020). SATM has generally been presented to the world as a stunning success, worthy of extensive emulation; but from the perspective of research, matters look considerably more complicated.

Ambiguity and Ambivalence

22There is a major current of research that focuses on the positive potential of music, exemplified by Susan Hallam’s (2010) landmark article “The power of music.” I align myself with a different current, one centred on ambivalence about music and the ambiguity of its effects. This is not to question the value of the former but rather to suggest that it only tells part of the story and there is nothing inherently beneficent about music. The words “ambiguous” and “ambivalent” point to contradictory characteristics, feelings, and interpretations. When applied to music, they evoke conflicting aspects, contrasting effects, and mixed views.

23Belfiore and Bennett (2008) demonstrate that for most of the history of Western civilization, music and the arts have been subjected to contradictory interpretations; there are both positive and negative traditions, going back nearly 2500 years. The negative tradition, beginning with Plato, saw the arts as a source of corruption and distraction and as having potentially damaging effects on individuals and society. Belfiore (2012) argues that historically this perspective carried significant weight, and the positive stance arose mainly as a reaction against the influence and popularity of the negative view. For example, Aristotle’s attempt to salvage the mimetic arts was a response to Plato’s condemnation. However, as Belfiore and Bennett note, the negative tradition has been almost entirely displaced by the positive one since the 1980s as the need to argue for arts subsidy in terms of social and economic benefits has taken hold. Invoking the negative tradition today is near heresy. Nevertheless, for most of the last 2500 years, human beings have not regarded the arts as necessarily a positive social force.

24There is a growing academic literature that focuses on such ambiguity in music, including in “musical-social work” (Ansdell 2014, 193) like SATM. Hesmondhalgh (2013) centres ambivalence to the extent that his book Why Music Matters is labelled a “manifesto for a more ambivalent music sociology” by Bull (2019, xviii), whose research on class and control in classical music education is another exemplar of this genre. In CM, Boeskov’s (2019) PhD thesis is subtitled “Exploring ambiguous musical practice in a Palestinian refugee camp,” while Kertz-Welzel (2016, 116) notes: “The ambiguity of community music is a well-known problem.” Matthews (2015, 238) opens his essay on SJME with the statement: “Music education is far more ambiguous morally than might be thought.” Boia and Boal-Palheiros (2017) highlight ambivalence, complexity, and contradiction in their study of the Portuguese El Sistema-inspired program Orquestra Geração.

  • 4 A special issue of Music and Arts in Action on contradiction, ambivalence, and complexity in El Sis (...)

25If there is a body of work that addresses this topic directly, there is much more that sheds indirect light on it, revealing contradictory processes and effects and illustrating the complexity of practice and research in fields such as SATM (e.g. Sarazin 2017; Rimmer 2018; Fairbanks 2019), CM (e.g. Krönig 2019; Ansdell et al. 2020), music education (e.g. Bradley 2009; Bull 2019), participatory arts (e.g. Thompson 2009; Daykin et al. 2020), and cultural policy and planning (e.g. Belfiore 2002, 2009; Belfiore and Bennett 2010; Lees and Melhuish 2015; Stevenson 2017).4 As Bowman (2009a, 11) argues: “Music and music education are not unconditional goods. They can harm as well as heal… . [I]ntended results on one level may be undesirable on another.” Elsewhere, he writes (2009b, 125–26): “Music’s performative and participatory power has both a potentially dark side and a progressive one.”

26Gaztambide-Fernández (2013, 214) argues that “claims about the power of the arts to inspire, to liberate, or to transform tend to obscure both the complexities and the possibilities that lurk within experiences with the arts in education.” Cultural practices

are constituted through that very complexity: the ballet is beautiful not despite but because many young dancers starve themselves to look the part; the orchestra sounds magnificent not despite but because of the militaristic regimes that rule how many musicians are trained; we need to embrace such complexity and foment an understanding of the arts in education through a more robust language that does not require that all worthy experiences involving symbolic creativity be defined a priori as both good and predictable.

27If the El Sistema boom has seen classical music touted as a tool for social inclusion, Gioia (2018) explores its exclusionary uses as a deterrent aimed at stigmatized social groups, or

a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds. […] So our metaphor for music’s power must change from panacea to punishment, from unifying to separating force, as its purpose slips from aesthetic or spiritual ennoblement into economic relocation. Mozart has traded in a career as doctor for the soul to become an eviction agent for the poor.

28In the same vein, Cheng (2019, 47) notes that classical music is used in public spaces to repel “the homeless, the would-be criminals, black and brown youths, and other people who are presumably up to no good”—ironically, the same social constituency that SATM is supposed to redeem, according to its official narrative.

29The “power of music” ideology has been critiqued from various angles. Clarke (2018) highlights music’s relational character, which sheds doubt on the appropriateness of speaking about music as though it were a thing that possessed power and underlines that its effects can never be taken for granted. In his critique of the “rhetoric of effects,” Gaztambide-Fernández (2013) argues that “the arts don’t do anything”; rather, artistic forms are something that people do. Cobo Dorado (2015) and Henley (2018) suggest that in the field of music education, it is pedagogy rather than music that potentially—though not necessarily— generates desirable social effects. Odendaal et al. (2019) argue that the findings of neuroscientific studies of music’s impact are often exaggerated in their “translation” to mainstream and social media, while Sala and Gobet (2020) roundly refute the dominant argument about the cognitive effects of music education.

30Other academic fields provide further reasons not to assume the efficacy of any social intervention. Ambivalence over the theories, practices, and effects of development have long been standard fare among scholars (e.g. Ferguson 1994; Escobar 1995). Easterly (2006) critiques utopianism in development, while Cornwall and Eade (2010) display a healthy scepticism towards the field’s “buzzwords and fuzzwords.” Ramalingam’s (2013) milestone book on development and complexity theory, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, serves as a valuable example, particularly since much music-making, too, exists “on the edge of chaos” and might be thought of as a complex adaptive system. As such, it can have varied effects and produce unintended consequences, which makes either predicting or proving its social impact very difficult. As Ramalingam argues, blueprints and “best practices” may work at some times and places but not others. “Obvious” solutions can turn out to be counterproductive in practice. The question of whether foreign aid really works has proven unanswerable, but, in some cases, it has made matters worse for the poor and vulnerable. Ramalingam describes it as “less a global welfare system and more a global postcode lottery with few handpicked winners and many, many more losers” (8). His insistence on complexity serves as a warning against the over-simplification of music’s social effects.

31Scholarship on public art and cultural policy, too, reveals scepticism and fully-fledged debates about the potential of artistic interventions— even the best intentioned—to have mixed or downright negative impacts and problematic unintended consequences. There has been much discussion of “artwashing”—projects that may have laudable elements, but which are conceived as cover for other (usually economic) objectives and may contribute to problematic dynamics such as gentrification. Some argue that culture has become a favoured area for sticking-plaster solutions to the damaging social and economic effects of neoliberal policies (e.g. Logan 2016).

32Of particular relevance to SATM, scholarship on after-school programs reveals an equally ambiguous picture. It might be assumed that such programs have a positive impact on youth outcomes, but many studies have found no or even negative effects (e.g. Gottfredson et al. 2010; Taheri and Welsh 2015; Bernatzky and Cid 2018). Urban cultural planning generates feel-good language and there is widespread belief in its value, but the evidence for its efficacy is mixed and it rarely achieves the ambitions set for it (Stevenson 2017). In short, many experts in a range of fields adjacent to SATM take nothing for granted and approach common assumptions about the impact of social and artistic interventions with some scepticism.

33An ambivalent approach to music may derive from any number of sources, including scholarship and personal experience. In my case, it comes primarily from my own historical and ethnographic research. I spent many years studying Latin American musicians (past and present) as liminal figures, embroiled in complex negotiations over power (Baker 2008; 2011). I have also undertaken two years of fieldwork on SATM, as well as a decade of complementary and online research, giving me ample opportunity to witness its complexity first-hand. In Medellín, many people expressed a mixture of fondness and concern about the Red. I witnessed elation and arguments, tears of joy and tears of sadness. In El Sistema and among the first generation of Red students (who were overseen by Venezuelans), I repeatedly encountered a love-hate relationship with music education: as Cheng (2019) puts it, quite a few loved music till it hurt. The intensity of these programs led to intense experiences for participants at a formative and impressionable age. Yet alongside the stories of socializing and enjoyment were others about excessively long hours, authoritarian conductors, and abrasive teachers. For some, SATM was both magical and abusive at the same time. As Gaztambide-Fernández writes, joy and suffering were bound up together in a mutually constitutive relationship.

  • 5 On the music profession and poor mental and physical health, see “HMUK” (2017) and Lebrecht (2017); (...)
  • 6 On poor pay and precarity, see “ArtsPay” (2019); Loar (2019).

34However, one does not need to do fieldwork or pore over archives or scholarly tomes to question the positive narrative about music. There is plenty of evidence closer to hand. While there is an impressive body of research on music’s beneficial effects on health and wellbeing, the music profession is also associated with a high incidence of mental and physical health problems.5 Precarity, low pay, and overwork are commonplace in the performing arts professions.6 Classical music is often the focus of exalted claims about its ennobling powers, and SATM rests on a narrative about classical music education as a route to personal salvation, yet such stories elide pervasive allegations of endemic sexual harassment and abuse in specialist music schools and conservatoires (e.g. Pace 2015; Krafeld 2017; Newey 2020) and revelations about the misdeeds of some of the field’s most illustrious figures. Teraud (2018) notes that “classical music has always enabled bad behaviour,” while Lebrecht’s (2018) article on “sex, lies and conductors” examines “the sordid underbelly of conducting where sex is considered a perk of the job.” As such articles imply, contradiction is nothing new: Reverend Haweis extolled the uplifting effects of great music in his enormously popular 1871 book Music and Morals; he also had an illegitimate daughter by one of his parishioners (Bull 2019). As Geir Johansen asked at the Social Impact of Making Music conference in London in 2017, tongue only partly in cheek: if music is so transformative, how come musicians aren’t better people?


35If recognition of music’s ambiguity has led to considerable ambivalence on the part of scholars, the same is not true of the music sector, or at least of its public face. As Belfiore and Bennett (2008, 192–93) note, “understanding the claims for the power of the arts involves the engagement with some highly complex intellectual issues. However, public pronouncements about the value or impact of the arts rarely reflect this complexity and tend to fall back instead on a somewhat ritualistic use of the ‘rhetoric of transformation.’” Cheng’s (2019) study offers one explanation: the “musical mystique,” as he calls it, which has an enduring hold, even over those who should know better. We should be tired of correlations between a love of classical music and ethical personhood, he suggests, but the regularity with which the trump card of classical-music-loving Nazis has to be brought out underlines the pervasiveness and persistence of the fantasy of music as an ennobling force. Cheng argues that this is not a simple matter of knowledge or ignorance: rather, the musical mystique is enticing—a siren song.

36SATM illustrates Belfiore and Bennett’s point, and its rhetoric of transformation undoubtedly reflects Cheng’s “musical mystique,” but it also has more expedient roots. The concept of SATM was seized upon in Venezuela in the mid-1990s because of its utility as a funding lever; it was the key to El Sistema’s expansion. As Spruce (2017, 721) notes, “discourses are not always as they seem—self-evident and neutral—but function as the means by which hegemonic groups sustain their influence and interests.” El Sistema’s international diffusion at least partly reflects these origins. If it has attracted idealists, it has also become—in some hands—a business, a professional lifeline, or a marketing strategy. Fairbanks (2019, 13), former director of a US Sistema program, has written about his growing doubts over “whether Sistema programmes were truly about empowering marginalised youth, or whether they might be more accurately described as ventures in musical entrepreneurship, with ‘social justice’ being exploited as means for obtaining vast amounts of funding.”7 An artist management agency run by former El Sistema employees promises: “WE WILL MAKE A SOCIAL IMPACT ON EVERY PLACE OUR ARTISTS PERFORM.”8 Such a statement is an absurdity from the perspective of research on the social impact of the arts, but it makes sense from the point of view of distinguishing one’s product in a crowded marketplace. The rhetoric of transformation is a currency, and the stronger and simpler its message, the more it is worth.

37There are other pressures and incentives that lead away from complex questions and towards over-simplification. In the UK, at least, arts practitioners—like academics—are increasingly ruled by a social impact agenda when it comes to securing funding, which hardly favours modesty. Many of us are obliged to play a game that rewards overclaiming with respect to impact, and many of us need a simplified sales pitch to explain to others the value of what we do.

38Then there is the “ideas industry” (Drezner 2017), in which public intellectuals have been displaced by “thought leaders” with an evangelical desire to proselytize their views and change the world. Simple “big ideas” are the most valuable commodity in this “marketplace of ideas,” while criticism and complexity—the bedrocks of academic research—are a lesser currency. What sells are often ideas that appear true because they cohere with the way people expect the world to be—simple, predictable, linear. SATM rests on the idea that the orchestra is, in Gustavo Dudamel’s words, “a model for an ideal global society” (Lee 2012). In reality the professional orchestral world is no bed of roses. Were collective music-making as powerful and beneficial as is sometimes claimed, one would expect orchestral musicians to be some of the happiest and healthiest people on earth, but there is a body of academic research and anecdotal evidence to suggest otherwise (see Baker 2014; Dickenson 2019). Nevertheless, the youth orchestra as a model of social harmony and inclusion is one of these “big ideas” that feels right, and it was consolidated by the heart of the ideas industry: TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). Abreu was awarded a TED prize in 2009; his talk on El Sistema was watched by over a million viewers; and he spent his prize on El Sistema advocacy in the US, founding the Abreu Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory.9

39Celebrities, journalists, and documentary makers, too, have brought SATM to a wide and avid audience. El Sistema has been promoted by the likes of Simon Rattle, Plácido Domingo, and Claudio Abbado, and eulogized in widely disseminated films such as Tocar y Luchar (2006) and El Sistema: Music to Change Life (2009). But such parties are usually more interested in dramatic stories of salvation and redemption through the power of music than in digging into more complex realities. The simplified “rhetoric of transformation” provides much better copy for books, articles, films, liner notes, and concert programs than the practical and philosophical challenges of music and social change that many researchers know so well.

40However, research is not immune to such tendencies. Bartleet and Higgins (2018, 11) allude to “overly sentimentalized notions of community music in the literature [as well as] in broader public advocacy campaigns for musical participation.” Some quantitative evaluations of SATM have relied on future projections of social impact based on simplistic models of human behaviour and optimistic financial calculations (Logan 2015b; Scruggs 2015), or have used questionable methodologies to analyse existing achievements (Baker, Bull, and Taylor 2018), and most avoid more than the most fleeting reference to the growing critical literature on SATM; they appear to be designed more for securing funding than for identifying critical issues. Qualitative research, meanwhile, can easily go astray if the researcher is insufficiently experienced, fails to ask the right questions or look in the right places, or is not attuned to music’s ambiguity. A particular strength of Cheng’s study is his acknowledgment of “a battle between the sucker and skeptic who dance within each of us” (2019, 39)—scholars such as himself included. He admits, “without shame or guilt, my susceptibility to the musical mystique. I can verbalize […] why this mystique can be problematic and even dangerous. But it hardly means my mind and body are now impenetrable by lines of dangerous thinking” (232). Some research on SATM bears out these words.

41Over-simplified and exaggerated stories about SATM thus come at us from all sides. Advocacy, marketing, big ideas, media narratives, celebrity endorsements, and program evaluations all have their value and their place in the world, but none of them are a simple mirror of SATM’s realities. Some accounts are shaped to maximize appeal to readers and viewers, while others aim to promote a program, a sector, or an art form. Most well-known narratives of SATM have their origins in efforts to mobilize support from funders, politicians, institutions, the public, and participants themselves. They project “aspirations, justifications, and claims that help to build external interest and visibility, in particular among potential supporters some distance from the project” (Howell 2017, 240).


42Critical research is important in order to counteract this tendency towards over-simplification and exaggeration and to reveal music’s ambiguity and complexity. This step is necessary for SATM for two reasons: gaining a more realistic perspective, understanding how SATM actually operates rather than what it aspires to do, will improve knowledge about the field; and highlighting complexity may provoke more discussion, debate, and experimentation, and thus improve practice within the field. Critical research enables us to understand the past and present of SATM more deeply and to look towards a better future.

43Jorgensen (2001) likens the philosopher of music education to a building inspector who evaluates a construction. In other words, critical scrutiny—while it may not always be welcomed or valued by the builders—is a necessary task, and it may also be generative and even emancipatory. Recognizing problems is an essential first step towards searching for solutions in music education (Bates 2018), while critique may support “the larger project of aligning paradigms of cultural activism with their utopic potential” (Ndaliko 2016, 12). The UK’s FailSpace research project focuses on the productive potential of studying failure in the cultural sector, arguing that honesty is important for improvement and “learning from failure should be an integral part of the process of making and implementing cultural projects and policies.”10 (It also notes that such honesty about failure “is not always welcome in formal evaluation processes, which tend to focus on celebratory facts and figures about a project’s success and conceal or brush-off negative outcomes or issues.”) There may be good reasons to focus on positives (raising the stock of music education, securing funding, boosting self-esteem), but idealistic, sentimental, or kitsch (Kertz-Welzel 2016) portrayals of SATM that exaggerate benefits, elide ambiguities, and minimalize problems increase the probability of an education shaped by illusory beliefs rather than rigorous thinking on socially oriented music education. In this sense, utopian perspectives may actually be counterproductive, by obscuring rather than illuminating the complex issues that SATM raises and thereby slowing down necessary reform. The history of El Sistema illustrates the deleterious effect of excessive adulation and banishment of criticism.

44The value of critique has been grasped more widely in CM than SATM. Bartleet and Higgins (2018b, 7), for example, “recognize the need for deeper and more critical reflection on the underlying processes and assumptions of community music initiatives,” stating that “it is inadequate to simply say ‘something miraculous happens’ in community music.” Dave Camlin concurs: “it’s important that all of us working in the cultural sector are able to look really critically at our practices” (Camlin et al. 2020, 166).

  • 11 Keynote address, 4th SIMM-posium on the Social Impact of Making Music, Bogotá, 26 July 2019.
  • 12 Jonathan Andrew Govias,

45The community musician and scholar Gillian Howell has emphasized that, within the field of music and peace-building, the order of good intentions is usually an illusion that gives way in practice to disjunctures and unexpected complexities.11 For example, she examines (together with Solveig Korum) a long-term Norwegian project for peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka in which a large investment in music produced a disappointing return, since idealistic intentions and optimistic rhetoric were underpinned by vague, uncritical ideas about the inherent power of music to transform society rather than a detailed, articulated, evidenced theory of change (Korum and Howell 2020). The gaps between official accounts of the cultural sector and what really takes place is also a central focus of FailSpace, which emphasizes the value of acknowledging such gaps in order to foster improvement. Public portrayals of SATM, however, are unduly shaped by the illusory narrative of order and tend to avoid the disjunctures. The gaps are not hidden: take the example of Jonathan Govias, who has documented his journey from guru of the El Sistema-inspired field to arch-critic ( “apostle to apostate,” as he puts it) in great detail on his widely-read blog.12 Or the Venezuelan violinist Luigi Mazzocchi, whose somewhat similar trajectory and painstaking critique of El Sistema, his alma mater, were documented by the music education researcher Lawrence Scripp (2016a, 2016b). Yet the public defection of such prominent figures has failed to shift the dominant narrative of SATM in North America. Ambiguity, ambivalence, and complexity are widespread in this sector, but they are rarely countenanced in public discourse.

46Indeed, an ambivalent stance often raises hackles in the mission-driven SATM field. In development studies, in which there is a much longer and wider tradition of critical thinking, ambivalence is more of a mainstream position. Ndaliko’s (2016, 10) statement that “beneath the utopic idealism of charity as a selfless act of service, doing good is in fact an industry […] in dire need of scrutiny” would raise few eyebrows in the fields of development or aid. The arts, however, often form an exception, as Ndaliko goes on to argue:

the universalist humanist appeal of art and creativity allows otherwise rational organizations and individuals to endorse […] projects whose equivalents would be ludicrous if proposed in the fields of economics, governance, or medicine. But because it is about creativity rather than more quantifiable matters, the whistleblowers join the cheerleaders in celebrating “art” as a set of inherently positive practices and products. (15)

47Ndaliko notes that it is particularly hard to acknowledge the value of critical thinking on culture in challenging contexts because art “often becomes a kind of moral oasis that shifts focus away from critical scrutiny of the conditions of its production to sentimental celebration of its very existence” (12). But if we truly believe that music is a potential driver of social change and deserves to be taken seriously as such, then we need to be willing to apply “the same level of rigor to studying cultural activities as is routinely applied to issues of economics, government, development, and structural aid” (15). As decades of research on development have shown, it is not enough for one’s heart to be in the right place.

48This does not just mean evaluating policies in order to determine their effectiveness; it also means broader and deeper critique. It is not enough to know whether a program achieves certain goals; it is also necessary to interrogate the validity of those goals and consider cultural, political, philosophical, and ethical questions that they raise (see Belfiore and Bennett 2010; Baker, Bull, and Taylor 2018). As Bartleet and Higgins (2018, 7) argue, we need a “more nuanced approach [that] focuses on understanding the changes that are taking place rather than simply proving them; the latter can so often happen in advocacy-driven research or in evaluative research undertaken to respond to funding-body requirements.”

49The urgency of critical thinking in the SATM field is in part a reflection of the zeal with which it has been avoided by El Sistema. SATM’s figurehead program has always been action-focused and had little time for reflection, self-criticism, or debate. Its founder’s catchphrases— “rest comes with eternal rest”; “double rehearsal today”—illustrate his driven character. Foreign visitors to Venezuela who tried to probe more deeply met evasiveness (Agrech 2018) or a brick wall. As Marco Frei (2011) noted, “anyone who asks critical questions of El Sistema in Venezuela will make no friends. If you ask the creative director and founder Abreu to talk about problems in El Sistema, he looks irritated. ‘Problems?’ he asked with a questioning glance through thick glasses. ‘We grow, grow, grow.’”

Self-Critique, Change, and Conflict

50After I made a short reconnaissance trip to Medellín in 2016, the Red went through a change of leadership. When I arrived in 2017 to begin my fieldwork, the program had a new general director, and it was in a slightly tense state of transition and anticipation. At our first meeting, program leaders articulated a self-critique of the Red’s history and a vision of change. It immediately became clear that there were interesting movements under way. Crucially, as my research unfolded, I found that some of the most critical opinions about the Red came from past and present figures at management level. Leading figures were not afraid to reflect critically and at length in meetings and written reports on the program’s shortcomings. In some respects, the Red’s management was closer to the ambivalence of music scholars than to the relentless optimism so commonplace in the SATM field’s public face.

51On the one hand, this meant that my critical perspective on SATM found a natural home. As I began my research, I slotted into an institution in which analysis and ambivalence were relatively normal. On the other hand, I soon became less interested in critique than self-critique. My own critical perspective, which had been so necessary when faced with El Sistema’s self-congratulation, could take a back seat when the Red’s employees (and students) offered so many trenchant views of their own.

52Boeskov (2019, 9) identifies his research as “part of a burgeoning self-critical movement within the field of community music,” and he suggests that “one of its central tasks is to contribute to moving the field beyond simplistic and romantic views of music’s transformative powers, to deal with the complex, contradictory, and ambiguous outcomes of participatory music making.” When such a self-critical movement is articulated in print, it becomes more visible. But when it is not, as in the case of the Red, then it remains largely unknown to the outside world and does not register in public discussion or even academic research. I see my role here primarily as bringing the Red’s self-critiques out into the open and thereby contributing to a self-critical movement within SATM more broadly.

53SATM as a potential catalyst of social change is a major topic of this book, but even more central is change within SATM. Continuity is a hallmark of El Sistema, which was led by José Antonio Abreu for its first forty-three years and retained a remarkable consistency of practice over that time. In contrast, the Red has been through five changes of leader in twenty-three years, with accompanying shifts in practice and philosophy, making it an excellent case study of the multiplicity of approaches that may be covered by the label of SATM. Its changes make for much to explore: their nature, their causes, their effects, and the responses they provoked. These changes distanced the Red from El Sistema, inviting a relational perspective: how did it diverge from the Venezuelan model? What can we learn from this process?

54Change is an important yet under-researched topic within SATM. Studies of SATM have tended to be synchronic and thus to present SATM programs as relatively static and consistent. Evolution over time has not been analysed in any depth. The present book takes a diachronic approach and places the emphasis on transformations and their effects.

55In my previous book I argued that El Sistema was riddled with problems and in urgent need of rethinking. A number of years later, there have been signs of movement from some corners of the SATM field. The shift from discussions about adoption versus adaptation to the widespread usage of the label “El Sistema-inspired” (ESI) gestures (if subtly) to a certain distancing from Venezuelan practices. Anecdotally, approaches within this field appear to have diversified; if some programs still venerate the Venezuelan model, others seem to borrow little beyond its name today. El Sistema was created in 1975 and looked back, both practically and ideologically, to earlier centuries. It became internationally fashionable in 2007, but educational thinking had changed significantly in the meantime and its approach has been much questioned since. It was only a matter of time before SATM engaged with more contemporary ideas.

56Yet the explicit alignment of so many programs with El Sistema has limited the space for full, open, critical discussion of the fault lines in the Venezuelan model that necessitate change. Many have been willing to discuss how El Sistema might be adapted to other national contexts; but few have dared to suggest publicly that El Sistema needs to be transformed because it is flawed and out of alignment with current ideas about music education and social change. Institutional alliances and political sensitivities mean that public discussion of change, when it occurs, generally takes the form of offering a solution without naming the problem.

57The field thus shows a paradoxical mixture of change and coyness about it, with some programs simultaneously praising El Sistema as a miraculous success and, with rather less fanfare, altering its formula. If positive transformation of SATM is to flow unimpeded, there is a pressing need for more information, analysis, and open debate around where, how, and why it has changed to date; what the achievements, challenges, and failures of such processes have been; and how it might change further in future.

58This book is predicated on the idea that change is taking place in some quarters of SATM, but information is limited; processes of reform have been insufficiently documented, analysed, and discussed in public. Its contribution is firstly to examine a specific case study of change in detail (in Part I), and secondly to consider the question of change in SATM more broadly (in Part II). I am not suggesting that the Red is the most advanced example of SATM; processes of reform have gone further in some places, though they have barely begun in others. I thus treat the Red as neither unique nor a model to simply follow (or avoid), but rather as a case study that illuminates the past and present of the SATM field and points to possible directions for its future. I believe its journey offers lessons—positive, negative, and everything in between— for others. In other words, I hold up the Red not as an example of the “right” way to do SATM, but rather as an example of rethinking SATM, of a constant search for renewal—and there is much we can learn from observing this process, whatever the results. This book is intended to serve as a catalyst for thinking and talking publicly about change and thereby to contribute to growth in SATM. The field’s shifts, however large or small they may be, need to be made more visible, audible, and comprehensible. At present public discourse revolves much less around new developments than around the triumph and supposed success of the old model, and this does not help the process or pace of change.

59The Red repays close attention as an example of a SATM organization that has rethought and renewed its practices repeatedly in order to give greater priority to its social objective and adapt to a changing context. It is also an example of a “middle-aged” program in Latin America: younger than the venerable El Sistema, but older than its offshoots in the global North. It has been running for long enough to have had to confront the issue of change, and it may be instructive for more recent ESI programs around the world to learn in detail about an older example of SATM’s development outside of Venezuela. During my time in Medellín, the Red pursued a sufficiently distinct line that it might be considered an alternative to El Sistema, or at least an alternative-in-progress. The problems and limitations of the Venezuelan model are now well known within the research field, so while this book adds to this critical literature, it is more focused on advances and transformations. I finished my previous book turning outwards from El Sistema’s problems to consider wider lessons and possible solutions, and that search lies at the heart of this book.

60When I was in the later stages of writing, COVID-19 struck, followed shortly afterwards by the resurgence of Black Lives Matter. Since my fieldwork was completed and the book’s outline already in place, I decided not to scatter references to these major developments throughout the text but rather to return to them in the Afterword, which brings the book up to date at the end of 2020. Yet 2020 moved change towards the top of the agenda in many areas of human life, including music education and SATM, and so it added a new degree of urgency to much of what is described and analyzed in these pages. I believe that fewer people will need convincing of the need for a serious discussion of change today than when I sat down to write in 2019.

61Self-critique and change, two central themes of this book, are bound up together. Changes in personnel since 2005 have led to internal critiques of the Red, to changes in (or attempts to change) the program, and to critiques of the (attempted) changes. This cyclical process has led, perhaps inevitably, to internal frictions and conflict. Indeed, it was only a matter of days after my arrival in Medellín to begin my fieldwork before the first clouds began to intrude on my sunny picture of the program. By the time I returned for a post-fieldwork follow-up visit two years later, the Red was in full crisis mode. Over this period, the processes of critical reflection and change that the program was undergoing provoked escalating tensions, debates, and disputes, and my focus on these processes led me also to explore their complex effects.

62Like change, internal critique and conflict have not been a focus of academic research on SATM. There are illuminating studies by former employees of ESI programs who have gone on to write critically about their experiences after they left (e.g. Dobson 2016; Godwin 2020). Fairbanks (2019), the former Sistema director, offers an in-depth account of his journey from enthusiasm and advocacy to significant doubts about his own work and the field more broadly. However, open critiques and self-critiques by current employees, and the tensions and debates they occasion within a program, are terra incognita in SATM scholarship. Yet they can be very revealing. Close scrutiny of these dynamics within the Red sees a somewhat monolithic, romantic view of SATM programs as harmonious and unified break down. The Red reveals itself as a multifaceted, internally differentiated field, in which contrasting philosophies and practices coexist but also compete, and as a set of different and, at times, opposing constituencies (management, school directors, ensemble conductors, teachers, students, parents, administrators, researchers), which articulated different and sometimes opposing views. The picture that emerges is more complex than the standard narrative of SATM and it illuminates some of the choices available to such programs and the possible consequences of those choices.

Representing the Red

63Such tensions and debates were of considerable importance to the program’s actors and ought to be of considerable importance to anyone interested in understanding SATM more deeply. As Ndaliko (2016, 19) argues, taking cultural development work seriously means being willing “to preserve some of the more uncomfortable conversations and negotiations that take place behind the scenes of the polished press releases and websites competing for support.” However, these uncomfortable debates do not define the Red or represent the whole of the program. I offer a realist take on SATM that contrasts with the idealist take of institutional publicity, advocacy, and the music industry, but I do not try to convey everything. My focus is not the Red of routine musical activities and everyday pleasures, but rather the Red of meetings and conversations in the corridors and coffee breaks. There is much else that could be studied and written, but that must be a task for others.

64The result is a fieldwork-based critical analysis of key issues rather than a standard descriptive ethnography. It is not an evaluation either; rather, it focuses on a long-term process of self-evaluation. The question driving it is not “is the Red a good thing?” but rather the one that preoccupied many of my interlocutors: “how could it work better?” My primary intention is to share the Red’s experiences with others around the world and shed light on central questions in SATM research and practice. Nevertheless, during my fieldwork, a number of current and former employees expressed interest in my perceptions of the Red. They were keen to know how a foreigner with experience of studying music and SATM elsewhere perceived their program. Senior figures responded positively to my invitation to read a draft of this text, welcoming an external critical perspective. Consequently, as well as conveying insiders’ views of the Red to the outside world, I also offer an outsider’s perspective on the Red for the consideration of the program itself and the cultural sector in Medellín more broadly, placing the Red’s key issues in the context of academic fields and studies that were not well-known within the program.

65Like many of my interlocutors, I could see that all was not rosy with the Red, and I believe that critical discussion is necessary; but, also like them, I feel an emotional attachment to the program and wish it success. Researching SATM properly requires a healthy dose of scepticism, yet I am not a sceptic in my everyday interactions with the Red, but rather something more like a critical friend. One school director told me: “Everything I do in the Red is because I love this program… that’s why I’m always so agitated.” He was one of the most critical voices in meetings, yet, as he explained in our interview, he criticized because he cared deeply about the program. I can identify with his mixture of attachment and critique and his desire to build the Red up, not pull it down.

66The Red was full of pleasures and sociability; the program’s staff undertook important and sometimes challenging work; and there were many moments when I was moved and inspired by the results. If such points take a back seat in this book, it is for two main reasons. Firstly, the training provided by the Red is quite conventional for music education in the Euro-American world, and therefore its positives need no explaining to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of this field. Such positives are widely discussed in the public sphere; the issues and debates, much less so. Secondly, I believe that an examination of the issues that preoccupied the employees and participants of the Red is ultimately more productive (if less comfortable) for the field than the celebration that has dominated public discourse. I am inspired by Ang’s (2011, 790) characterization of “intelligent knowledge” as “bound to be highly selective” if it is to lead to constructive action. My underpinning belief is that debate about SATM’s issues is more fruitful than a Panglossian vision.

67Bartleet and Higgins (2018, 8) argue that discomfort and tensions in CM “are quite possibly a sign of health and growth.” Much of what I analyse in this book might be thought of as growing pains, with all the contradictions that this term captures. If I am interested in the pains— the discomfort and the tensions—it is because I am interested in the growth.

68Some writers on SATM have advocated for a balanced, neutral, or objective approach. Rather than making such claims (which have been endlessly problematized by scholars), I take inspiration from currents such as emancipatory social science (Erik Olin Wright, cited in Wright 2019) and decolonial music education (Shifres and Rosabal-Coto 2018), in which researchers are not afraid to take a position—indeed, they regard it as positive. As Terry Eagleton (2004) argues, “intellectuals take sides,” because “in all the most pressing political conflicts which confront us, someone is going to have to win and someone to lose.” I also subscribe to musicologist Björn Heile’s (2020, 176) view:

I doubt that we can ever be value-free, neutral, and objective. More importantly, I haven’t got the slightest intention or inclination to be, and the very idea seems to me to misconstrue the nature of scholarship and the public function of musicology. I entered this profession out of my passion for music; renouncing that would amount to a betrayal of what I believe in. […] I also believe that the greatest scholarship and criticism is ultimately driven by passion for its subject—usually love, although sometimes scorn.

69The subtitle of Griffiths’s (1998) book on educational research for social justice is indicative: “getting off the fence.” She offers a vision of action-oriented educational research that “is not necessarily research about education or its processes. Rather, it is research which has an effect on education” (67). Accordingly, educational research for social justice is not balanced or neutral, but rather ethically and politically committed and clear about what it aims to achieve: improving the practices of education. Such an approach is commonplace among researchers in fields such as CM and SJME, who frequently “get off the fence.”

70Embracing ambiguity, ambivalence, and complexity should therefore not be confused with neutrality or sitting on the fence. It may in fact suggest a more disruptive approach, aimed at dominant but flawed ways of thinking and acting. Ramalingam (2013) provides a good example: complexity is his central theme, yet he is scathing of the conventional ways of the aid establishment.

71In short, this book is intended as a critical contribution to debates that I witnessed and participated in from 2017–19, and I do take sides. I am concerned by stasis and stagnation in orthodox SATM; I believe in progressive educational change; and I admired those figures in the Red who were willing to ask difficult questions and disrupt established ways of thinking and acting. I was encouraged to see movement around some of SATM’s deep-seated issues, and while, as someone who had taught music or music studies in education institutions for much of my adult life, I could sympathize with those who were unsettled by the process, I broadly supported the shifts that were proposed and attempted. This is a book about change in SATM, and it is a book that is committed to such change.

72What follows is therefore a perspective on SATM. It is constructed out of the perspectives of many others—musicians and researchers, in Medellín and around the world—but a central point of this book is that opinions varied considerably even within a single program at a particular moment in time. Thus I am not suggesting that this is the one and only way to view the subject, nor do I expect it to appeal to everyone. Viewing SATM through a critical lens is not to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, I hope that this perspective speaks to readers interested in critical thinking about SATM and positive change within the field.

Researching the Red

  • 13 The decision to remain anonymous is hers.

73I spent a year carrying out fieldwork in Medellín (2017–18), with a two-week reconnaissance trip in 2016 and a two-week follow-up in 2019. For several months, I was assisted by my wife, D.13 As a native Spanish speaker who both trained and taught in a Latin American SATM program, D. is an insider to this culture. This allowed her to make an instant connection with staff and students in the Red. Her participation greatly enriched the research, providing a distinctive perspective that allowed for triangulation with my own and frequently enabling observation in two places at once. During this time, I focused on the decision-making processes and responses among leaders and senior staff, while D. spent more time with students and teachers. The students’ voices are cited less frequently in this book, because of its focus on adult-led processes of change, but they were very much part of our observations and conversations.

74Long-term ethnographic fieldwork is an appropriate method for exploring the complexities and tensions of SATM in real life, beyond idealistic visions and mission statements. Fieldwork may serve as a reality check, slowly revealing the practice behind the theory, warts and all. Anderson (2011) and Mosse (2004) argue for the importance of ethnography for testing taken-for-granted assumptions and assertions in educational and development contexts respectively. The American Buddhist teacher Charlotte Joko Beck (1995, 175) writes about what she calls “Zen bullshit,” or a tendency “to toss around many fancy concepts.” She goes on: “It’s not that the statements are false. […] But if we stop there, we have turned our practice into an exercise of concepts, and we’ve lost awareness of what’s going on.” Critical ethnography, too, might be thought of as an attempt to go beyond an exercise of concepts and beliefs, beyond “buzzwords and fuzzwords” (Cornwall and Eade 2010), and be aware of what is actually going on. Constant critical attention is required lest one fall into “music bullshit”—repeating slogans and fine-sounding claims that miss the complexities of what is taking place in front of one’s eyes.

75Constant attention is also required because SATM programs and their contexts change over time. Consequently, their effects may also change. As Ramalingam (2013) points out, the fact that a particular action is effective in one place and time is no guarantee that it will work later or elsewhere. What worked in SATM in 1975 may no longer work in the 2020s; what worked in Venezuela may not work in the UK; in fact, what worked in one of the Red’s schools might not work in another.

76At first sight, SATM may present an entirely rosy aspect, and in a brief conversation with a stranger, employees and students will generally focus on the positives. Idealistic discourses are deeply embedded in the field. Students grow up surrounded by particular conceptions of music—literally, in the case of the Red, where posters announced the official vision of the program on the walls of every school. When the two parties do not know each other, interviews and formal conversations may therefore simply reveal the extent to which dominant discourses have been imbibed. But in long-term fieldwork, as trust builds and the researcher starts to understand key issues and probe more deeply, interlocutors often begin to reveal other sides to the story and contradictory opinions. Many eventually show a mix of enthusiasm and reservations that is quite normal within large institutions. Ambiguity and ambivalence emerge, then, from building relationships and conversations over time.

77Fieldwork also uncovers complexity and messiness. Some great ideas are realised partially or not at all. Some projects are artistic successes but social failures and vice versa. For external consumption, much of this detail vanishes as a cleaned-up, upbeat vision is conveyed. But if the ethnographer does their job properly, they will come to see other sides to the story.

78However, ethnography has its limitations, which are particularly apparent when it is applied to a voluntary project, since it carries a strong risk of survivorship bias. Those who join a program like the Red or El Sistema are a self-selecting population to begin with, and with many students dropping out within the first couple of years and a steady attrition rate after that, concentrating on observations and interviews with current participants, particularly more proficient and articulate ones, means considering only a narrow group that is well-suited and adapted to the program. Those who are less enthusiastic normally leave and their voices disappear. The greater visibility of successes than failures can lead to excessive optimism on the part of the researcher—something apparent when comparing some interview- or observation-based writing on El Sistema with the almost imperceptible social effects identified by quantitative studies (e.g. Alemán et al. 2017; Ilari et al. 2018). Without care, qualitative research on SATM can end up resembling a medical research trial that assesses the effectiveness of a cancer drug by interviewing the patients who are still alive five years after treatment. Unsurprisingly, it seems to work every time.

79It is important to take the opinions of current participants and staff seriously, while at the same time remembering that they represent only the survivors. Fieldwork thus needs to be combined with other methods if it is not to present an overly restricted vision of a program and overstate its potential as a motor of social development. If ethnography usually focuses on those who survive, organizations that want to improve need to focus on those who do not. Researchers should bear in mind that the game of SATM has losers as well as winners, and many never even get the chance to play; research that focuses on the positive experiences of the winners could hardly be described as balanced or neutral, and it may offer little to the other two groups.

80I adopted several strategies. Bell and Raffe (1991) argue that educational research on a specific project should also be comparative and historical, considering its relation to similar endeavours in the present and the past. (This is another area in which ethnographic studies of SATM have sometimes been weak.) I followed this route, drawing on my earlier research on El Sistema and Latin American music history. Another was simply to be conscious of and interested in the problem. Remembering that voices were missing made it easier to hear them. All current staff and students knew that participants dropped out, and they often knew why. It did not take much probing to see that the Red was not a program for everyone, raising questions about SATM’s central discourse of social inclusion.

81I also spent a lot of time in meetings. Long meetings—up to eight hours long. Management meetings, staff meetings, school meetings, social team meetings. Academics usually regard research leave as a precious opportunity to escape from such activities, but I saw myself as very fortunate to be given permission to attend them, and they provided an invaluable space for understanding the internal dynamics of the program. My research revolved around change, so I seized the opportunity to observe the generation of new ideas and discussion of old problems in real time, rather than having to rely on interpretations filtered for my consumption in interviews. In meetings, some of the Red’s “ghosts”—figures and issues from the past—emerged from the shadows. A final strategy was to read a number of internal documents, provided to me by senior employees (past and present). These written sources brought into clearer focus the principal issues that had occupied the Red for many years, allowed absent voices to sound, and added another dimension to my observations.

82The openness of the Red’s leaders was a research finding in its own right. I was somewhat astonished to find that general directors (past and present) not only spoke openly with me about problems and the need for change, but also gave me access to so many activities and materials. I am not so naïve as to think that I heard and saw everything, but the contrast with the opacity of El Sistema’s higher reaches was striking, and it pointed to a fundamental difference of ethos between the programs.

83Thanks to the Red’s openness, I spent much of my fieldwork year behind the scenes, witnessing the frictions and frank discussions beneath the surface of official positions and public statements. I often attended the weekly meeting of the management board, and I spent a lot of time with the social team, sometimes accompanying them on trips to schools and ensembles. As my fieldwork progressed, it took on an increasing element of participation and collaboration as well as observation. In meetings, I was regularly asked my opinion or drawn into collective discussions, and I made comments or suggestions when it seemed appropriate; many private conversations had an element of exchange rather than simply a one-way flow of information. As a foreign professor of music with extensive research experience, I was of interest to some staff, and they often bounced ideas off me or solicited my views. This continual dialogue led the Red to offer me a consultancy position in 2018 (one that I was unfortunately unable to take up for contractual reasons). I also dusted off my clarinet and joined in workshops for teachers and students, and I took part in professional development seminars for staff. In short, I became a participant observer.

84I interviewed the Red’s first four general directors, in some cases more than once, and interacted extensively with the fifth, who was in charge during my fieldwork. I also had a conversation with the sixth, appointed in 2020, shortly before I finished this book. I carried out a large number of interviews with managers, staff, and students, but I also witnessed and took part in many discussions as I hung out with staff over lunch and in coffee breaks between meetings, and I had many informal, private conversations. Most interviews were undertaken under conditions of anonymity, and I will extend anonymization or pseudonymization to all actors, as is standard practice in academic studies of education, unless identifying the subject is unavoidable for the narrative to make sense (for example, in the case of the general directors) and their view is relatively uncontroversial, or their view or action was made publicly. Quotations that are referenced derive from internal reports; those that are not come from my own interviews and observations.

Structure of the Book

85Part I is organized in terms of four broad critical perspectives on the Red. The first chapter offers a brief history of the program through the lens of self-critique and change, followed by a closer description of the developments that took place during my fieldwork. Here, the dominant perspective is that of the Red’s management, and the focus is on their assessments of the program and the modifications they implemented as a result. In the second chapter, these developments are viewed primarily through the eyes of the Red’s music teachers and advanced students. Chapter 2 captures their critical responses to the changes outlined in Chapter 1 and the most prominent tensions and debates in the program. It explores a prominent dynamic of the Red for much of its history: resistance. Chapter 3 focuses on debates that were no less important but less conspicuous or urgent, and more conceptual. The emphasis shifts to centre the critical perspective of the Red’s social team. Finally, Chapter 4 is where I explore overarching issues that I considered important but were not much discussed in the Red—above all, the effectiveness of SATM and its relationship to urban renewal.

  • 14 This assertion derives from personal communications from employees of ESI programs in several count (...)

86Since open debate has historically been a foreign concept to El Sistema and some of its closest followers, the most substantial critical conversations on SATM have taken place outside programs: initiated by external researchers or commentators, and responded to (or not) by SATM representatives, spokespeople, and advocates.14 Critiques of SATM have thus centred on the researcher or observer’s perspective, if regularly drawing on the voices of participants and ex-participants (as in the case of my previous book). In the case of the Red, however, multiple changes of leadership have led to the juxtaposition and confrontation of different approaches, and thence to open and sometimes heated debate within the program. Accordingly, this book is structured in such a way as to prioritize the internal critiques by the management, staff, students, and social team. The central questions of the first three chapters were posed by the Red’s actors. I place my own questions last because I believe that the most interesting aspects of the Red’s history concern its self-questioning. My initial research questions guided my research and feature prominently in these pages, but I opted to structure the text less around them than around the Red’s own concerns.

87In reality, however, matters are less clear-cut. Much as I prioritize the views of others, my perspective inevitably shapes the first two chapters and I offer my own analysis in places. Also, drawing a clear line between viewpoints is impossible. The Red’s internal debates overlapped with my own prior research and opinions. It is especially challenging to separate my views from those of the social team, as there were many parallels to start with and we discussed key issues regularly over the course of the year. As a result, Chapter 3 intertwines the concerns of my interlocutors and my own, reflecting our interaction in Medellín. The outline above should thus be regarded as a broad intention and approach rather than a strict framework, with the objective being to convey a polyphonic critical debate within and around the Red that challenges a dichotomy of inside/advocacy versus outside/critique.

88The primary purpose of this book is to contribute to efforts to understand the challenges and possibilities of SATM. As such, it is more philosophical than practical, focused more on understanding than fixing. The practical contribution of such research is largely indirect; it aims to provide a conceptual foundation for changing practice rather than a set of instructions. I am inspired, again, by Ramalingam and his call for the aid sector to grapple with new ways of thinking rather than tweaking conventional practices. He portrays aid as a sphere of altruistic activity that has been compromised by a mixture of bold action and limited reflection—a critique that is highly pertinent to SATM’s history. His vision reverses the equation: it is marked by bolder thinking and more cautious action. It focuses on asking the right questions rather than providing the right answers. That said, I am also inspired by the vision of action-oriented educational research articulated by Griffiths and others. In Part II, I attempt to balance these two approaches. I heed both Ang’s (2011, 790) wariness of definitive or one-size-fits-all solutions and her aim to “provide pointers for action […], framing complex situations and messy problems in ways that will empower us to find pathways through them.” Consequently, Part II offers an overarching analysis of SATM with an eye on future reforms or revolutions—a sort of manifesto for rethinking and remaking SATM. But my aim is not to tell music educators, program leaders, and policy-makers what to do, but rather to provide questions and pointers that they can use to construct their own solutions.

89The organization of this book also takes inspiration from Ruth Wright’s (2019, 217) gloss on Erik Olin Wright’s vision of social justice oriented sociological research, or emancipatory social science, as focused on three essential tasks: “first, to elaborate a systematic diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists; second, to envision viable alternatives; and third, to understand the obstacles, possibilities and dilemmas of transformation.” Part I is devoted to the first task, while Part II tackles the second and third. The book ends with an Afterword that considers the Red’s most recent changes and the implications of 2020’s upheavals for SATM.

90There has been an explosion of musical-social work around the world in recent years, and while activities have taken a multiplicity of forms, common threads often emerge. As such, this book may appeal to readers interested in topics such as music education for social change/justice/inclusion, CM, and classical music education and culture. It also connects to fields such as ethnomusicology, the sociology of music, and urban studies, since many of the issues that arise are broad ones concerning music, society, politics, and the city. Above all, this book is directed at those who want to think more deeply about SATM, from whichever scholarly or professional perspective. It is built on the belief that many involved or interested in SATM may find value in exploring a specific case study in depth, probing the field’s possibilities and limitations, and considering how it might evolve in future.


1 All translations by the author.

2 The Spanish term convivencia has more positive connotations than the English “coexistence.” It suggests more than just tolerating others. There are hints of the English “conviviality.”

3 See, however, Krönig (2019) for a complicating view of CM.

4 A special issue of Music and Arts in Action on contradiction, ambivalence, and complexity in El Sistema and youth orchestras is also in preparation at the time of writing.

5 On the music profession and poor mental and physical health, see “HMUK” (2017) and Lebrecht (2017); on the orchestral profession and performance-related injuries, see “Los músicos salen” (2019).

6 On poor pay and precarity, see “ArtsPay” (2019); Loar (2019).

7 Spruce (2017, 720) also raises concerns that the term social justice “is reached for by groups and organisations as a means of justifying and promoting their approaches to music education and to gain political approbation and consequently privileged access to funding.”

8 Quatre Klammer, “About Us”,

9 José Antonio Abreu, “The El Sistema music revolution”, TED 2009,

10 FailSpace, “About”,

11 Keynote address, 4th SIMM-posium on the Social Impact of Making Music, Bogotá, 26 July 2019.

12 Jonathan Andrew Govias,

13 The decision to remain anonymous is hers.

14 This assertion derives from personal communications from employees of ESI programs in several countries, as well as my research in Venezuela. For published examples, see Dobson 2016 and García Bermejo 2020.


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