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Rethinking Social Action through Music

Geoffrey Baker

Part I

1. Creating, Redirecting, and Reforming the Red

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1 Miraflores, 20 November 2017

2On a sunny Monday morning in November, the Red’s school directors and teachers gathered in the sparse, functional hall of the Miraflores music school. The exposed concrete is characteristic of Medellín’s recent public buildings, and I came to think of it as the architectural style of social urbanism. Today’s meeting was a special one. The social team welcomed the attendees and explained that they were going to lead an exercise of critical reflection on the Red’s past, with the aim of constructing proposals for the future.

3The Red’s historical imaginary revolved around its five general directors over the previous twenty years. Consequently, the staff were divided up into five groups according to the leadership period in which they had joined. I accompanied the group representing the first phase. There were more than two-dozen employees from this period, which had ended thirteen years earlier. I listened to them reminisce about this formative time in the Red and in their own lives; most had been students at that point and went on to join the program as teachers later on. Eventually a representative of each group was invited to stand up, summarize their account of their period, and outline their proposals.

4This timeline exercise illustrated the importance of history telling in the Red. Its history was a constant if background presence: the program was conceptualized as consisting of five periods, and staff and advanced students regularly referred back, whether nostalgically or critically, to earlier ones. In conversations, features of the program were regularly associated with the five general directors. The social team’s exercise was designed to bring this subtext to the surface and make it a topic of open discussion, with the hope of turning private nostalgia and criticisms into a public process of collective construction.

  • 1 This chapter is one-sided in the sense that it only presents successive managements looking backwar (...)

5This chapter constructs a similar timeline, if one with a slightly different emphasis and purpose. The Red’s exercise was designed to bring the program’s “ghosts” out into the light of day, to shed light on the past and the staff’s feelings about it, and thence to look towards the future. My intention is to take one step back and consider the history of the Red through the lens of internal processes of self-critique and change, of which this exercise was just one example. Like the timeline exercise, this chapter constructs and analyses a history in several parts, with the ultimate objective of fostering positive change; but here, the focus remains on the Red’s management. It is not the history of the Red but rather a history, one that narrates the Red as a series of changes of leadership. It emphasizes the critical reflections on and transformations in the program that occurred at each stage, told from the perspective of the leaders and managers who made them. There are many other stories to tell, but I will leave alternative perspectives and the balance they provide for later chapters.1

6After outlining the processes from the 1990s until 2017, I focus in more detail on the period from 2017–19, during which I undertook my fieldwork. Here I will provide a more ethnographic account of management-led critique and change. A new leadership team was appointed between my initial reconnaissance trip in 2016 and the start of my fieldwork in 2017, and my fieldwork consequently coincided with one of the more intensified periods of reflection and transformation in the Red’s history, reinforcing my initial intention to focus on these issues.

Fig. 2. Timeline and institutional affiliations of the Red. Diagram by the author. CC BY. For a larger version of this diagram, please visit​timeline-of-the-red/​.

The Red in Brief

7The Red that I came to know had much in common with the Red of the early days. It was divided into thirteen schools for orchestral stringed instruments and thirteen for symphonic winds. A more recent addition was the Colombian music school at Pedregal, which focused on traditional stringed instruments. Each school had its own ensembles, most prominently chamber orchestras or symphonic bands of different levels. From 1998, the Red also had “integrated ensembles” that brought together students from across the program. The crown jewel was the youth symphony orchestra, but the number of ensembles had steadily increased to include two training orchestras (beginner and intermediate), three choirs, two popular music ensembles, two tango ensembles, and a symphonic band. The number of students had also risen steadily over time to around 5000, with an age range of 7 to 25. Many of the older participants also studied at university, in some cases pursuing a music degree.

8Students could take lessons in either the morning or the afternoon, depending on the schedule of their primary or secondary school. While the program had begun with a somewhat informal approach, it eventually developed quite a detailed curriculum of multiple cycles and levels. Students might learn their instrument individually or in small groups, and in the second cycle they also took classes such as theory, choir, and corporal expression (movement exercises derived from dance and theatre). They also took part in the school ensembles. These groups tended to rehearse in the early evenings, while the integrated ensembles gathered on Saturdays. The program was committed to regular showcase performances; both school and integrated ensembles performed in theatres, parks, and squares across the city.

Fig. 3. Corporal expression. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

9Two of the schools were located in high-income neighbourhoods, and the rest in middle- or low-income barrios. A few were situated in areas of heightened violence and, at moments during my fieldwork, either had to close briefly or included some students who were unable to reach the school for classes. Others had been moved from such areas over the course of the Red’s history and were now sited in more tranquil (though not affluent) zones.

10The Red’s physical aspect had changed over time because many schools operated out of rented buildings and a number had moved at least once. In some cases they had moved quite far from their original site. Some schools were eventually housed in library parks or other new constructions and thus boasted enviable facilities. Others continued to function out of rented buildings, even houses, and suffered from problems including a lack of space, soundproofing, or ventilation. During my fieldwork the Red had no headquarters, meaning that managers and meetings were peripatetic and often gathered in ordinary classrooms—a sign of a program with few delusions of grandeur.

Creating the Red: Juan Guillermo Ocampo

11According to the Red’s founder, Juan Guillermo Ocampo, the prehistory of the program began in 1988, when he started a company called Amadeus Foundation to serve the city’s classical music sector, selling scores, books, instruments, and strings. This was a response to “the city’s cultural shortcomings, above all in the area of music.” Ocampo also began offering music appreciation classes in some of the city’s popular neighbourhoods, using both musicians and videos. This was the first time that classical music went up to those barrios, he said, and despite negative preconceptions of the genre, there was considerable interest. In 1990, he organized a concert, Merry Christmas Antioquia, involving hundreds of musicians, as part of an attempt to broker a truce between rival gangs in the barrios of Aranjuez and Castilla. (Antioquia is the province of which Medellín is the capital.) Ocampo recalled one gang leader saying: “I want the first sound my children hear to be a violin and not a machine gun.” This is also the time when the famous slogan, “a child who takes up an instrument will never take up a weapon,” first emerged, and when Ocampo decided that children in these barrios should have their own schools providing music education for free. He was struck by the contrast between the moribund state of classical music in the city centre and these barrio events, where there was such receptivity to the music. He felt the urge to invert the standard dynamic: rather than expecting the public to go to an orchestra, to take the orchestra to the public.

  • 2 Amadeus Fundación (amadeusfund), “El momento de la música”, Instagram, 7 March 2019, (...)

12However, Medellín’s shortcomings only worsened when the city’s main professional orchestra, the Antioquia Symphony, closed in 1991. The city barely had a classical music scene at this point: it was producing few musicians, there was little funding, and the audience was small. There was virtually no market, meaning that Ocampo’s company, Amadeus, struggled. Yet for Ocampo, the death of the orchestra simply underlined the need for a revolution: to take classical music to the people. In 1993, he bought a special projector at a music fair in Germany, as well as a screen and a public address system, and he set up “El momento de la música,” a free, outdoor event every Friday in a park, where he projected a video of classical music and explained it to the audience.2 Families would go and eat a picnic as they watched the show. For Ocampo, the popularity of this event disproved the commonplace idea that classical music was not appealing to the Medellín public.

13The Red emerged from these various strands: Ocampo’s music appreciation efforts, his interest and work in the barrios, and the cultural vacuum left by the collapse of the Antioquia Symphony. He wanted to give children in poorer neighbourhoods the chance not just to listen to music but also to make it. His goal was social, he said: he was not interested in producing professional musicians. The Red was about transforming lives and values; music was the tool for this work. He believed that music education should be demanding and have high artistic aspirations, since this was the key to seducing young people into a love of music that opened up the possibility of transformation. He was interested in changing their conceptions of what was possible for them in life and wanted to see them put their lives on the line for music, in a big concert, rather than for a criminal gang.

  • 3 Amadeus Fundación (amadeusfund), Instagram, 8 March 2019, (...)

14Ocampo stated that he did not know about El Sistema when he dreamt up the Red. Indeed, the 1997 article with which this book began made no mention of it, citing instead an agreement with an organization and a conductor from Madrid. However, Ocampo made contact with José Antonio Abreu around the time that the Red was starting up, and he then travelled to Venezuela and met with El Sistema’s founder repeatedly. He remembered thinking, why reinvent the wheel? Abreu agreed to provide help, and during the first phase of the Red, El Sistema teachers led by Rubén Cova—whom Ocampo described as his “soul brother”—travelled regularly to Medellín to provide seminarios (intensive workshops) for the Colombian students, even using the same repertoire as in Venezuela. Cova was present at the first rehearsal of the Red’s symphony orchestra, and Ocampo appears in a 2000 photo with his arm around Abreu.3 In practice, then, the Red and El Sistema were joined at the hip almost from the start.

15The first phase of the Red was one of rapid construction and growth. 1996 saw the first municipal accords, 1997 the opening of the first six schools, 1998 the further municipal accord that established the choirs and orchestras, and 2000 the first international tour (to Ecuador). By that point, another fourteen schools had opened. The program also established itself at the heart of Medellín’s urban ceremony, for example performing at the opening of the new Museum of Antioquia in 2000 in the presence of Fernando Botero. The world-famous painter and Medellín native was so impressed that he made a significant donation of instruments to the Red. By 2004, seven years after the first schools opened, the program had undertaken five international tours and was only one short of its eventual full house of twenty-seven schools.

  • 4 For evidence of media interest, see El libro (2015) and Amadeus Fundación’s Instagram page, amadeus (...)

16This period was remembered by many alumni as the golden years of the program. They constructed something new and unexpected out of nothing, with high levels of discipline, commitment, and hard work. The experience of performing on major stages overseas was one that they could never have imagined and would never forget. This boom period was made possible by Ocampo’s charisma and oratorical skill (which I experienced first-hand during our four-hour interview), which enabled him to convince the authorities, the young musicians, and their families to believe in his utopian project. His magnetic personality only served to augment the considerable media interest in this “rags to musical riches” story.4

17However, not everyone was convinced by Ocampo. He described himself as an outsider engaged in a titanic struggle with the city’s cultural establishment, which first saw him as a threat and then went after him and his resources. He aroused suspicions and distrust in some quarters. In 2003, as the Red experienced its greatest triumph in the presence of the Pope at the Vatican, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) opened an investigation into the contract between the city government and the Red, 60 % of which was funded by the bank, after it received complaints about alleged irregularities ( “El BID” 2003). Eventually the contract was resumed, but on 21 January 2005, the newspaper El Tiempo published an article entitled “Apostle of Medellín’s child musicians imprisoned in the US” ( “Preso” 2005). After being arrested on arrival at Miami airport on 25 November 2004, Ocampo was charged and convicted of membership of a money-laundering ring known as The Organization, which had “washed” more than $19 million for the Cali Cartel. According to his brother, Ocampo’s arrest was part of a campaign against him and his project. Whatever the truth, Ocampo spent the next few years in jail.

Changing Direction: Marta Eugenia Arango

182005 thus saw a major upheaval in the Red. After Ocampo’s arrest, the IDB withdrew its support, and the municipal government handed over the administration and operation of the music schools to the University of Antioquia. The university appointed a new general director, Marta Eugenia Arango, a sociologist and educationalist who had been the head of its continuing education division and had run a program to train and certify directors of municipal bands. However, the government left the management of the integrated ensembles in the hands of Amadeus. (They too were taken over by the university in 2010.) The following year, Arango produced a comprehensive diagnosis entitled “Present and future of the Red: Foundations for a change of direction” (Arango 2006). This report was the summary of a year of observation and reflection, and it combined critical analysis of the existing program with proposals for future changes. It was the first concrete example of a process that has continued ever since.

19There are a number of important themes that emerge from Arango’s report and our two interviews. She regarded the Red’s parallels with El Sistema with suspicion. She criticized the personalization of both organizations, in which the leader used public money to finance a personal mission, and took most decisions and plaudits himself. Photos of Ocampo (some even spoke of “altars”) were said to be more in evidence in the music schools than symbols of the city government that funded the program. Arango ordered the removal of the photos, a symbolic move that spoke of her principal desire: to forge a genuinely public program, by as well as for the citizenry. Regarding the prominent role of parents’ associations in the first phase, she argued that she did not want students’ families to make pastries, organize raffles, paint the schools, and generally sustain the Red when resources were lacking, thereby taking on what was really an obligation of the state; she wanted them to participate as citizens and exercise their civic rights by overseeing the Red, ensuring that resources were being used properly and employees were doing their job. The Red was not “free” but rather funded out of their taxes, and so it was their right and responsibility to supervise it. One of her principal aims was thus to change the parents’ conception of and participation in the program in order to make it a truly public enterprise, and her report proposed “a massive campaign of citizenship education for the families and neighbours of the schools, in order to generate processes of empowerment and participation that are conducive to genuine co-management of the program” (32).

20Revealing her sociological training, Arango criticized what she perceived as vertical and charitable dynamics in the Red, which projected an image of poor, hungry children from desperate barrios in need of alms. She perceived the Red’s public face as showing the city and the students in the worst possible light, instrumentalizing the situation in the barrios to provoke pity and raise funds. In Arango’s analysis, the Red had generated a tension: on paper, the program was supposed to generate peaceful coexistence and citizen empowerment, but in reality, its image-construction (colloquially termed “poverty porn” in the aid sector) undermined the Red’s social aims. In contrast, she emphasized the strength and dignity of the participants, who were building something to share with the world, and she pursued a more horizontal model in the program’s international agreements. Arango brought in foreign musicians to participate in an international band congress (from 2010) and a festival of chamber music (from 2011). The latter, Festicámara, was led by the US conductor Scott Yoo, who collaborated with the Red for several years.

21Arango observed a generalized lack of reflection among staff about what it meant to construct coexistence through music. So her team began to look more closely at the curriculum and ask in which moments coexistence was strengthened. They tried to make both staff and students more conscious of the program’s existing social processes; but they also critiqued the generalized belief that coexistence was an automatic consequence of collective music-making, and took an important step to reinforce the program’s social impact. The Red had previously provided work experience for trainee psychologists, but Arango replaced them with professionals and introduced a psychosocial dimension. In this way, the Red’s social action split into two branches: collective music-making and psychosocial accompaniment.

22The emphasis thus shifted from attending to specific psychological issues among individual participants to organizing collective activities like workshops, aimed at constructing notions of peaceful coexistence and citizen participation among the student body and staff. For example, the program began to deal openly with issues of gender and sexuality, which had been largely left unspoken in the first phase. Parents were also included in such pedagogical processes. The Red began to teach them about participatory budgeting, which allowed them to apply for public funds to strengthen the Red’s projection in the barrios.

23In our interviews, Arango came across as a believer in the power of music, but one aware of gaps between theory and practice and room for improvement. She did not propose a radical rethink of the relationship between the musical and the social sides of the Red, but rather efforts to be more explicit about social processes and to fortify them via psychosocial support. However, the document that she authored in 2006 reveals a more ambivalent view. There is a brief but potent reference to “a big weakness in the program […] that of overencouraging individual musical achievements, producing arrogant behaviours in the adolescents” (13). This point is elaborated in a section on the social component of the curriculum, which centres on the Red’s primary objective, promoting coexistence:

in the everyday workings of the program one can observe a certain deviation from this social achievement and/or goal, since a high percentage of the advanced students who participate in the principal orchestra and/or choir, who have also had the opportunity to perform on national and international stages, develop arrogant attitudes as regards their knowledge, with displays of exclusion towards their peers and— more worrying still—disrespect towards the teaching and administrative staff of the program. (17)

24Furthermore, after eight years of functioning, supervised by El Sistema, the Red had no activities or strategies for reflecting on and tackling such issues: nothing directed at building coexistence, conflict resolution, ethical reflection, democratic participation, or valuing difference. Arango proposed that the Red’s various constituencies should construct guidelines for coexistence and collective agreements for dealing with internal conflicts, and that the program should offer talks and workshops on these topics.

25Arango aimed a more consistent critique at the administrative side of the Red. A consequence of personalization, in her eyes, was limited attention to planning or strategy; Ocampo had simply kept everything in his head and told the employees what to do. She perceived the program as chaotic and uneven, and her priority was to bring administrative order and thereby construct a new organizational culture. A hands-on leader, she would visit schools without warning to see if the teachers turned up on time, and would phone them up if they did not (which was regularly the case). She was determined to identify those who failed to lead by example: those who talked about music inculcating values such as discipline and responsibility but did not act accordingly. Other changes included contracting teachers to the university, which meant a significant salary increase; providing proper training, equipment, and uniforms for the school secretaries; and improving the program’s local and national communications strategy.

26From an educational perspective, Arango noted that the Red did not have a unified, documented pedagogical model; instead, staff mixed elements from various approaches, often without a clear understanding of which method they were using or why. The first concrete proposal of her report was to create a pedagogical model for the Red, to document it, and to spread it to all the schools over the coming years. The second was to do the same with the curriculum. In 2007, the program launched an annual National Seminar of Music Pedagogies and Didactics, and in 2010 it began a comprehensive reconstruction of the curriculum into cycles and levels—important steps towards a formalization of the program.

  • 5 Although tango is of Argentinean origin, it has a long and prominent history in Medellín.

27On a cultural note, Arango started a process of reflection on why the Red placed such emphasis on symphonic music, given that Colombia is a country of municipal bands. She noted the absence of plucked strings—so prominent in Colombian music—and a general tendency to marginalize popular music. She was in no way averse to classical music, which she saw as providing an excellent base for musical training, but she felt that the Red could not ignore national traditions. Consequently, the Red created the Youth Symphonic Band in 2008, under the direction of the Belgian Frank De Vuyst, and the Popular Music Ensemble and Tango Orchestra in 2009.5 Arango was also surprised to find that the Red declared itself to be a symphonic project without any further explanation of its rationale in its documentary materials. Her report noted that the contribution of the symphonic format to the social and musical objectives of the program was unclear. She raised the question of whether the Red’s schools should, in future, open up to music and music education in all their varieties, becoming centres of musical activity and personal development without qualification of genre or format.

28Arango’s view of her predecessor was ambivalent. She critiqued many aspects of the institution that she had inherited, yet she also recognized Ocampo’s role in creating an important program for the city and the sense of loyalty he had engendered in students, staff, and families. She saw him as similar to Abreu, much influenced by the Venezuelan leader, and as having tried to do similar things in Medellín. She, in contrast, had no relationship with El Sistema. She made overtures at the start but was rebuffed (possibly because of Rubén Cova’s close relationship with Ocampo and Amadeus).

29In sum, the transition from Ocampo to Arango constituted a major shift in institutional culture. Ocampo was universally recognized as a charismatic leader and motivator whose obvious passion for the Red inspired others to believe and opened the way for the program. Arango was also perceived as a strong character, but much more of an administrator than the dreamer Ocampo. The social team summed up this shift: “It could be said that the first phase of the program was ruled more by passion and love, the second by institutional and economic factors (organization and systematization)” ( “Informe” 2017a, 38).

The Social Turn: Rocío Jiménez

30It is necessary to interrupt the story of the Red as a succession of general directors in order to make room for an individual who was just as influential in the trajectory of the program. Rocío Jiménez, a psychologist, was appointed by Arango in 2006 to take charge of the social side of the Red, and she remained in post for a decade— throughout the tenure not just of Arango but also of her two successors. She began by providing psychological attention to individual students, but as she was joined by other team members, her approach shifted to a psychosocial one, which led her to work with all the Red’s constituencies via workshops and training sessions. Rather than waiting for matters to go wrong before intervening, the idea was now to nip negative dynamics in the bud.

31Jiménez first encountered the Red in 1997, when she did some consulting work in relation to the program’s application for support from the IDB. She recalled two contrasting sides to this initial experience: the enchanting music-making, and the shouting of the conductor. From the outset, then, she saw that the coin had two sides: great potential, but also fierce discipline. When she began to work for the Red a decade later, she was struck that many elements ran counter to the original proposal that she had seen. She had no doubt about the positive potential of music education, but she also grasped that a program of this kind could be quite problematic. She set out to close the gap between theory and practice.

32Jímenez was critical of the Red both as an institution and as an expression of classical music culture. She disliked the way that it became an all-consuming obsession for some students and staff, leading to unhealthy dynamics such as dependency, stasis, and trauma upon reaching the age limit and being obliged to leave. “There is life outside the Red!,” she asserted. She fought to clear Sundays of rehearsals, insisting on the importance of leisure and family time. There were issues concerning gender, ranging from the assignment of instruments according to gender stereotypes, to unhealthy relationships between teachers and students. Competition was intense: the Red was supposed to focus on coexistence and collaboration, but she found rivalries everywhere (between directors, schools, ensembles, and students), as well as egotism and bullying. She was unconvinced by the Red’s social claims: all that musicians care about is that the ensembles sound good, she said, the rest is secondary for them. Star students were allowed to behave however they wanted because conductors needed their services.

33The hierarchical dynamics of classical music, the arbitrary power wielded by figures of authority, and the normalcy of conductors dominating the students all concerned Jiménez. She saw the pyramidal structure of the Red as both the source and the means of reproduction of the program’s discontents. In response, she led the project of constructing collectively a “Manual for Coexistence.” For Jiménez, the manual was key to giving students a greater voice and teaching them to defend their rights, including against infringements by staff. It was intended to create procedures and ensure that students knew about them; to make it easier for them to speak up and complain; to make directors and conductors more accountable; and to combat rule by whim. It was also aimed at maintaining the power of the collective without sacrificing the individual.

34Jiménez described the Red as potentially the most powerful political program she had ever seen (in the sense of constructing political subjectivity among participants). For her, its transformational potential lay not in playing the violin or sitting in an orchestra rehearsal, but rather in the social and political processes that it could generate. But this meant giving students more of a voice. What she encountered in practice were students with no say, at the whim of adults, wheeled out by the city government to provide an attractive soundtrack to urban activities. She viewed the Red as a contradiction: how could it serve as a site for education in democracy when its dynamics were so autocratic? The Manual for Coexistence, according to Jiménez, was the foundation for realizing the political potential of the Red. Constructing and using the manual was supposed to be where students learnt to assume and use their voice—a prime example of and catalyst for SATM. “Empowerment” was the word that she kept returning to— and it was to be found (or not) primarily in the Red’s organizational dynamics rather than its musical activities. By focusing too much on sounding good, she felt, the Red had limited students’ empowerment and constrained their political voice in society.

The Social Team’s Diagnosis

  • 6 The social team had different names over the course of its history, but I will often use “social te (...)

35The need for a thorough overhaul of the Red’s approach to its social mission become even clearer in internal diagnostic reports produced by Jiménez’s team.6 The first one dates from 2008, a year after the team’s constitution, and constitutes its opening gambit ( “Informe” 2008). Drawing on group interviews with all the Red’s constituencies, this document lays bare the complexities and tensions within the program, fleshing out Arango’s critique two years earlier.

36The responses of the students, made under conditions of anonymity, revealed considerable evidence of social problems within the Red. They acknowledged dynamics such as fights, gossiping, disrespect, insulting jokes, older students dominating younger ones, and “a lot of rivalry and jealousy between the woodwind/brass and strings and between instruments” (6). The social team identified a range of problems among the participants including poor communication, little acceptance of difference, the formation of cliques, symbolic violence (sarcasm, mockery, aggression, nicknames, exclusion), and stigmatization and discrimination on the basis of where a student lived or how they dressed or spoke. The report concluded:

it is common to find imaginaries and rivalries that contradict the goal of the Red to “generate civic coexistence through music,” exemplified by phrases such as “the thing is that the strings think they’re the best, as though they were from another level, another class, they think that they play real music”; “the [wind] bands are like a pub band, a bunch of rowdy, excitable guys who just play popular music”; “the kids from Las Playas and El Poblado are untouchable, people say they’re really arrogant”; “the kids from Moravia are delinquents, give them a snack and they’re all over it; the kids from Miraflores or 12 de Octubre are kind of ruffians.” (7)

37The students also criticized the school directors and teachers, citing arbitrariness and lack of clarity in the exercising of rules and exclusion from decision-making processes. They urged the Red “to care about them as people and not just as musicians” (7).

38If the students presented a strikingly negative portrait, the parents were overwhelmingly positive. They spoke of their pride in their children, their admiration for and gratitude to the staff, and the happiness and positive changes that they perceived in their offspring. Some called the Red a blessing and even a miracle. The fact that they drew polar opposite conclusions to their own children and the social team raises fascinating questions about any attempt to characterize or evaluate a program of this kind.

39The teachers’ views fell somewhere in the middle. They expressed considerable doubts about their capacity to deal with social problems. The opening paragraph of the report alludes to “the anxieties, worries, and frustrations” that the teachers experienced and “the impotence that stems from receiving multiple demands to solve social or family problems, to which, they state, they lack the means to give adequate responses” (3). Further on, summarizing teachers’ responses, the report states: “The objective is very good and attractive, but rather ambitious and utopian. They could go some way towards achieving it […] but they wonder, how far does the social responsibility of the Red go?” (14). Underpinning these doubts are others about their training and skills: “they feel overwhelmed and lacking important tools when it comes to working on issues relating to values and to helping achieve what they consider the program’s ‘ambitious’ social objective” (17). Consequently, “some express concern about the gaps that they recognize in their education, for example in psychology, which would allow them to understand social phenomena better and to deal constructively with situations that arise with the students” (14). Responses to these gaps reveal contradictory views. Many teachers felt that they needed specialized training (for example, in pedagogy, psychology, and conflict resolution) in order to deal with the Red’s social objectives and challenges. Yet there was also a widespread view that fulfilling the social aim was the job of the teachers of corporal expression, not music, and responses to a question about promoting non-violent attitudes were summarized as: “we musicians are trained specifically in that subject [i.e. music]; a psychological approach is a matter for a specialist in that area” (15).

40There was a general perception that while the Red supposedly prioritized social goals, its practices were in reality geared around musical outcomes, even at the cost of social ones. Again summarizing teachers’ responses, the report notes that “they perceive distance and inconsistency between the theory and the practice” (17), and it continues: “The objective of the program has gone off course, the social is supposed to be more important than the musical but it does not work in that way, since there has been more concern with demanding musical results; the social has been forgotten by the leadership of the Red and the demands have become purely musical” (14).

41Many teachers expressed angst about the evaluations known as “pedagogical displays” (which they called “anti-pedagogical”), since they believed that the social focus was lost in these spaces: “a kid can play an instrument badly but socialize much better, but this isn’t evaluated and it’s not visible in the display” (14). Hence, ten of the fifteen focus groups stated that they focused on the musical aspect in their daily routine, since this is where the program expected to see results. In short, the music teachers did not portray their work as a miraculous social balm; on the contrary, their responses placed numerous question marks over SATM.

42This picture was reaffirmed by the school directors. They too argued that the program’s social objective was overly ambitious, and that their schools could offer options but could not be responsible for the behaviour of students. They recognized that their skills were predominantly musical rather than social, and they were wary of utopian aims, which they saw as going beyond their capacities and responsibilities and more of a cliché than a realistic goal. However, there was marked disagreement over the value of the program’s official objective: for some it was the essence of the Red, while for others “the inclusion of the social in the objective is the way to obtain economic resources, as is the case when they focus on a particularly vulnerable population” (22). There was more agreement on the dissonance of a program that was supposedly social in emphasis and yet which only evaluated musical results, had no social indicators beyond size, and paid little attention to the issue of dropouts. They called on the leadership to take the social processes in the schools more seriously—for example, by evaluating social results as well—and to provide them with more relevant tools: “There is limited understanding of concepts such as discipline, respect, rigour, solidarity, which are part of the Red’s objective; we should go more deeply into what each of these concepts implies and how they can be generated and strengthened” (23).

43Some directors highlighted a contradiction between education shaped by the needs of the professional arts world and the Red’s social goal. They suggested that such education generated unhealthy competition, tension, and pressure. They regarded its expectations of excellence and low tolerance of mistakes as an obstacle to realizing the program’s social aims.

  • 7 “Taller sentido de pertenencia: bandas y orquestas.”

44Later social team reports substantiated this picture. A 2010 PowerPoint provides a long list of problems in the Red as reported by students.7 The first point on the first slide details “Problems of coexistence,” which include disrespect, intolerance, arrogance, lack of unity and teamwork, personal conflicts and physical fights, cliques, divisions, bad atmosphere and behaviour, competition and rivalry, and dropping out as a result of mockery, rumours, and mistreatment. The students reported conflicts between their musical and school studies leading to poor academic performance; tensions with their families over the Red; and dissatisfaction with the program’s pedagogy and relations between students and staff.

45A subsequent report ( “Informe” 2012) focused on the integrated ensembles. The social team reflected on the slippage between social objectives and realities:

It is important to underline that the notion that has taken hold in the Red concerning the immediate, spontaneous effect and impact of music education on socio-affective development and the construction of social links and bonds, automatically producing education in values like respect for difference, solidarity, gratitude, equity, tolerance, etc. as the student population comes together in the schools and integrated ensembles, has given rise in recent years to a lack of purposefulness in the pursuit of the Red’s objective of coexistence. However, it is obvious and acknowledged by coordinators, directors, assistants, and students, that there is a lack of knowledge and closeness among the students; the existence of cliques; arrogant and mocking attitudes among soloists; rivalries between schools, wind and string ensembles, and instrument groups; and distance, isolation, and difficulties in the socialization and integration of new arrivals in the schools and ensembles.

46The issue of rivalry and competition—both between ensembles and within them—features prominently and repeatedly. The social team organized a workshop to try to heal the divisions between the string and wind sections in one ensemble.

47A later report returned to this issue and gave further details of one example that emerged in a workshop with the main orchestras (“Intervención” 2013):

it was clear that there was a kind of undervaluing or pejorative vision of the violas, and similarly with the wind instruments, which were regarded […] as responsible for the mistakes and problems in rehearsals, which did not flow smoothly as a result. This revelation points to the need for deeper analysis of the real or imaginary hierarchies that may be at work and being reproduced in the ensembles, generating discontent, discrimination, and exclusion.

48This report underlined that collective music-making did not necessarily produce social bonding: “Although the members of the ensemble have already spent more than five months coming together for rehearsals up to three times a week and for many hours, [the nature of] their interactions meant that they could barely tell each other apart and did not know each others’ names.” In the light of such reports, it is little wonder the leaders felt that the Red needed a change of direction.

The City Government Takes Charge: Shirley Zuluaga

49Arango’s successor, Shirley Zuluaga, had the shortest tenure of its leaders, spending just a year in post. She introduced some significant practical changes but was arguably most notable for what she represented: an appointment by the city government, meaning greater municipal control over the Red. If 2005 had seen the government take over the music schools from Amadeus, it had handed over decision-making and operative responsibilities to the University of Antioquia, which chose Arango as general director. But after Aníbal Gaviria was elected mayor in 2012, the city government decided to take a more hands-on approach, which included appointing the Red’s leaders from then onwards. As one insider told me, the new government wanted to do more than just hand over funds to the university; it wanted control and recognition. The changes in this and subsequent phases of the Red are related to this closer connection between the program and the Ministry of Civic Culture.

50Zuluaga had been involved in the design of Medellín’s Cultural Development Plan 2011–20, and her appointment reflected the culture ministry’s desire to bring the Red more into line with the city’s cultural policy. Also, the ministry felt that the program was overly defined by its operator (the University of Antioquia) and the external alliances that it had formed. The government was keen to strengthen the Red as a public program of the city of Medellín.

  • 8 Pseudonym.

51Zuluaga’s term, like Arango’s, began with a critical assessment of the current state of the Red. I draw here on interviews with Zuluaga and a senior official in the culture ministry at the time, Sonia Pérez.8 From here on, I continue with a personalization of the Red’s history around the figure of the general director, reflecting both the way the history is told by most actors and the relative simplicity that this personalization brings to its retelling. But the leaders’ opinions and actions should be understood as more of a collective construction, developed through dialogue both “upwards” (with ministry officials) and “downwards” (with the Red’s management team). After 2013, the story becomes more about senior management and less about a single, dominant figure. For example, Zuluaga took over as leader but Arango’s team remained in place, so the change of direction was neither abrupt nor absolute.

52Like Arango before her, Zuluaga stressed the notions of publicness and of participants as citizens with rights but also responsibilities. They received a music education paid for by public money, but with it came the responsibility to behave as examples in their communities. The Red began to work on the latter aspect more: for example, participants had the right to use transport provided by the Red, but they also had a duty to do so responsibly. The new leadership aimed to fortify a general consciousness of the Red as a public service and of what this signified.

53The culture ministry regarded psychosocial accompaniment as an important element of programs aimed at young people from popular barrios, hence it strengthened this side of the Red. The team had been reduced to just Jiménez by the time of transition, so two new members were added. The new leadership felt that there was still too much attention directed at individuals, so it renewed an emphasis on psychosocial rather than psychological support: on collective wellbeing, group exercises, social confluence and coexistence, and education in values and citizenship. Where individual treatment was required, there was now a move to look to pathways and professional services offered by the government rather than the Red. For example, if a student had drug problems, it was no longer considered a responsibility of the Red to find a solution. Rather, this was viewed as specialized, time-consuming work that reduced the program’s capacity to serve the student body as a whole and was therefore best carried out by relevant professionals employed by the government.

54Changes were introduced to the pedagogical displays that each school put on annually for the management. These had taken on the character of collective examinations, but the new leadership decided to make them more educational and less judgmental. The psychosocial team was brought into the process to provide more focus on the human component. As Zuluaga noted, many staff had received training in which social skills were not valued as highly as musical ones. The leadership emphasized that the discipline that musical training demands should never contradict the social and human aspects of the program.

55The renewed emphasis on the psychosocial component went hand in hand with a critique that the Red had increasingly become a pseudo-conservatoire rather than a program of citizen education through music. The leadership insisted that the Red needed to be clear that it was not intended to offer formal music education but rather a community program through music; there were other routes to becoming a professional musician in Medellín. As such, it needed to grant more importance to the social side. According to the culture ministry, the students saw themselves as proto-professional musicians and were treated as such by the university, contradicting the intention behind the Red. This critique was explained to staff and advanced students in the main ensembles, and also to international collaborators such as Scott Yoo. This adjustment of focus had a mixed reception; some were more interested in musical quality, and Yoo was one who stopped working with the Red at this point.

56There was still concern over a certain charitable character to the Red. Pérez, the former ministry official, connected this aspect to the program’s external links. She believed that when foreigners came from afar, holding out possibilities of a donated instrument or travel or study overseas, or simply offering their interest and concern, it encouraged participants to portray their life and circumstances in a dramatic way in order to capture attention and generate sympathy. In her eyes, this charitable dynamic perpetuated an unequal relationship. Part of the drive to incorporate the Red more fully into the city government was to move away from perceptions of its students as sad cases in need of aid, towards ones of citizens exercising their rights. The Red was supposed to dignify participants, said Pérez, not re-victimize them.

57A number of changes were consistent with a period of greater government scrutiny and control of the program. More attention was paid to the training and qualifications of teachers, and while this made for more development opportunities, there was also a process of “normalization” (insisting that staff have a professional qualification), which meant unwelcome changes (such as salary reductions) for some and departure for others. Efficiency in the use of public resources was a priority for the new government at this time, so Zuluaga re-examined the program’s major costs such as transport.

58Musically speaking, this was a period of intensified performance activity. Zuluaga launched an initiative called “Jueves de nota,” which saw Red ensembles taking over public buildings such as libraries one Thursday a month. The aim was to provide a focus for the schools, to give the Red more visibility in the city, and also to make connections with other public institutions and programs. Ensembles also performed in city parks at the weekends and took part in major events such as festivals. Some staff recalled this as the busiest moment in the Red’s history, as well as the time when the program became tethered more tightly to the city’s political machinery.

Humanizing the Red: Ana Cecilia Restrepo

59With a background in dance, the next general director, Ana Cecilia Restrepo, was familiar with the broad cultural issues around a program such as the Red, if not with the details of musical training. She was appointed by the culture ministry in 2014 to replace Zuluaga and continue the work that the latter had begun, so this change of leadership displays more continuities than ruptures. Since Zuluaga only spent a year in the post, her reforms were still at a relatively early stage. Restrepo’s tenure saw the extension of critiques and reforms that had originated in the ministry with the change of government in 2012. Here I draw on interviews with Restrepo and three other individuals at the management level of the program. As with Zuluaga, directions and decisions were negotiated with the ministry and other managers, rather than reflecting simply an individual vision.

60The new leadership insisted once again that the Red should fulfil its mission and put the social first. The program was funded by the Ministry of Civic Culture as a program to promote coexistence and citizenship, so music should be the means towards such ends. Yet behind the inspiring rhetoric, the program still followed a conventional approach of focusing on musical training and preparing the more skilled and committed students for a professional future; the social benefits were largely assumed and relegated to the background.

61As one manager put it, Medellín could not provide a musical career for more than a fraction of those who were studying in the Red, so it made much more sense to focus on the social angle. That was the part that all participants were going to use long-term, hence the leadership wanted to take it more seriously. But another manager noted that many teachers in the arts preferred to focus on artistic matters and found discussion of social issues less interesting, and they would rather separate out the social, leaving it to specialists, so that they could get on with teaching children how to make art. The new leadership thus perceived a gap between theory (social action through music) and practice (the tendency towards separating the music and social sides in the Red), which it was determined to address. It argued that social action should be visible in the musical activities and not just corporal expression classes, psychological consultations, or psychosocial workshops. Now the aim was to infuse the social into the musical by bringing a socio-affective element into the music curriculum and examining the sociality of music learning.

62The new leadership also looked critically at the integrated ensembles. Since they brought together students from across the city, they had considerable social potential. However, they tended to be led by conductors who were more interested in musical quality, and both students and teachers saw them as the musical pinnacle of the program, leaving the social relegated to the margins. These ensembles were thus where tensions between musical and social goals were particularly in evidence. There was a sense that these ensembles could be a much more interesting social laboratory if they allowed more time for integration rather than prioritizing musical outcomes, and if they were led by more individuals with broad skills, diverse musical interests, and commitment to social processes rather than to producing polished performances and/or developing their own conducting career.

63The emphasis on musical results meant that the ensembles had historically rehearsed all weekend, but under Restrepo this was reduced to a single day. The new leadership was concerned that the Red might be damaging the students’ social relationships with non-musicians, particularly with their families. They saw a contradiction between the program’s social claims and its encouragement of parents and children to wash their hands of each other for the whole weekend. As one school director put it, this was a turning point, when “people began to think that music wasn’t everything, that there was also family life to think about.”

64As part of this turn towards the social and the renewed efforts to realize the program’s aims more fully, the management pushed back against costly events and activities such as high-profile concerts, international guest conductors, and foreign tours, arguing that they spent lots of precious money and did little to promote social action. How could such expenditure be justified at the top of pyramid when the Red struggled with resource problems at the base, such as the supply and maintenance of instruments and accessories?

65Once again, there was criticism of a perceived confusion between social action and charity: a tendency to equate “social” with “the poor,” and to assume that participants needed to be given everything in order for them to participate. As with leaders going back to Arango, there was an emphasis instead on the Red as a space for claiming and exercising rights, one in which commitment and co-responsibility were required and students were constructed as active participants rather than passive recipients. One manager argued that the Red’s vision should be to offer an equitable music education across the city rather than a paternalistic salvation narrative.

66During this period, a critique of the Red’s classical emphasis was articulated more clearly. While the most obvious focus was on repertoire, and the response was a push towards more Colombian music, there was also a critical perspective on the conservatism of classical music education and its resistance to change. That this was a matter of a conceptual shift, rather than personal preference for one repertoire or another, was underlined to me by Pérez, the city cultural official, who criticized the atmosphere and dynamics of the Red and questioned the suitability of classical music education for such a social program. She felt that a spark of joy was missing: “in music, in the search for perfection, for technical skill, something very striking happens within the individual… like that loss of enjoyment in the search for perfection.” She was shocked to find young musicians being made to do press-ups if they made a mistake, yet she saw this as congruent with the insistence of classical music training on technical perfection, which “generates certain rigidities that aren’t what a project like the Red needs.” She was not simply anti-classical music, acknowledging that “what symphonic music does is very beautiful, because what it does is make the kids sound together, in a society that struggles to sound together—the metaphor is very powerful.” She saw it as “the search for harmony in a society that still can’t find it,” but she continued, “yet it can’t be based on the perfection of the artist—it needs to be based on enjoyment.”

67At a more ideological level, she identified the Red as “a colonial phenomenon… it’s perpetuating a colonial dynamic.” She identified the higher status of orchestral musicians in relation to their popular counterparts in Medellín as evidence that “the colonial spirit is still strong” and that the city still had a lot of work to do to “embrace our own identity.” This view was echoed by one of the Red’s senior managers: “In these kinds of programs, in this city, we are sending a very colonialist message, about venerating a music that we don’t make, that we don’t appropriate.” Pérez’s critique also had a practical angle. She was concerned that the Red created false expectations: the more it resembled a conservatoire, the more it encouraged students to imagine classical music as their future. Yet this field was very limited in Medellín, which had only two professional orchestras and a modest audience. There were many more opportunities for salsa and rock musicians in the city.

68Critiques of the focus on classical formats and repertoire by the Red’s leadership were allied to broader arguments concerning curriculum, pedagogy, and the general ethos of conventional music education: “There are elements in musical training that really work against attempts to be inclusive, emancipatory, to grant rights rather than denying them, and not to incite abuses of power.” The leadership felt that the Red needed more humanity and empathy, particularly in the integrated ensembles; the way that many of its teachers were trained removed the human aspect and focused on technique, and so music education became all about “playing, playing, playing.” Creativity was another concern. It was prominent in the first-year music initiation program, but once the children received their instruments, it declined dramatically and the focus shifted squarely to performance. The leadership saw other arts education programs in the city teaching contemporary styles or taking a problem-based approach to learning. Despite the original intention of a non-formal program, the Red looked rigid, formal, and conventional in comparison.

The Colombian Turn: Juan Fernando Giraldo

69El Poblado, 19 July 2019

70As the Red’s newly elected student representatives arrived at the music school in El Poblado for their first meeting, they were greeted by a small ensemble performing traditional, improvisatory pipe and drum music from the Colombian coast. This “ceremony” was performed by Juan Fernando Giraldo (the Red’s general director), Luis Fernando Franco (the pedagogical director), the head of the Moravia school, and two teachers. For the meeting itself, they were joined by other senior figures in the program. The leaders began with some short, informal speeches to the students. The Red had historically regarded playing music as participation, said Giraldo, but the leadership now wanted to move participation to another level: as well as making pedagogical changes, they also intended to give students more of a role in decision-making, hence the creation of this committee of representatives. The Red had traditionally been adult-centric, he said, simply imparting knowledge from teachers to learners; but now it was going to take greater account of the students’ voices, interests, and experiences.

71A city official posed a political question to the students: who does the Red belong to? What does it mean to say that the Red is a public program? It meant that it belonged to them, not to the government. Franco spoke of their desire to engage more with open pedagogies, neurodiversity, and creativity, as part of a push to make the program more profoundly inclusive and innovative. The leaders finished by underlining that these new directions were not simply a matter of personal preference but rather connected to local cultural policy (the city’s ten-year Cultural Development Plan) and international currents in music education (the program had recently received a visit from its Brazilian counterpart Projeto Guri and sent representatives to soak up ideas at the Latin American music education conference FLADEM).

72After the meeting, the social team led the students in a variety of group bonding exercises in the school, starting discussions about their possible roles and responsibilities. The students summarized their views on posters that were then stuck up on the walls of the hall. The session ended with the students putting on comedic sketches about their perceptions of the discussions, complete with props, wigs, and costumes.

73This meeting summarized many of the new directions of the Red from 2017 onwards, when Giraldo was appointed as general director. The musical ritual with which it began was no mere ornament: it articulated the leaders’ cultural philosophy. The Red had professional musicians in charge for the first time, and they publicly performed the Red’s new direction as well as describing it.

New Directions in 2017–18

74Giraldo explained to me on my first day of fieldwork that his priority was identity and diversity. Giraldo and Franco, the pedagogical coordinator, are musicians with a strong interest in Colombian popular music. They critiqued the narrowness of the Red’s offering, in comparison with the breadth of styles in the city, and the somewhat limited reflection of local or national identity, as evidenced by the program’s historical preference for European classical music and the symphony orchestra. They argued that the diversity of the city’s population demanded musical diversification by the Red, and they imagined a program that was tied less to a conservatoire-style curriculum and pedagogy and more to local musical realities. As Giraldo said in a media interview, “we’ve already explored and reflected on the violin, a European tradition, on the cello, the flute, so why not produce and research what we are, what we want to be?” (Vallejo Ramírez 2017).

75As we listened to a rehearsal together on my first day, Giraldo criticized the ensemble sotto voce for lacking swing in the popular repertoire; the notes were there, he said, but the timing and feel were not. His response was to encourage a greater focus not just on Colombian repertoire but also on the technical and stylistic aspects of this music, promoting the study of traditional Colombian percussion, plucked strings, and clarinet. More conceptually, the leaders were concerned about a perpetuation of a colonialist, Eurocentric mindset and hierarchization of culture that had defined music education in Colombia for centuries. Consequently, they advocated for a horizontal relationship between Colombian music, other popular musics, and the European symphonic tradition, imagining an intercultural Red built on dialogue and mutual learning between genres and styles.

76A second critique focused on the Red’s historical focus on performance and its relative neglect of creation and reflection. The leaders were concerned by the narrowing of activities after the ludic first-year musical initiation program. Older students tended to be more confident with melodies, while their rhythmic and harmonic knowledge was usually weaker. The leadership’s response was to create a rhythmic-harmonic laboratory, initially as a pilot program in three schools, to strengthen these aspects of the curriculum. One benefit of studying harmony is that it opens a door to musical creation. Many students, and even many of their teachers, were afraid to play without written music in front of them. The leaders believed it was essential for the program to confront this fear of spontaneous invention and self-expression. Giraldo is a jazz saxophonist, while Franco is a composer. Unsurprisingly, then, boosting creativity was a central focus of their vision. They organized intensive workshops on improvisation with both teachers and students, and pushed teachers to incorporate more creative activities in their lessons. Franco also linked the new emphasis on creativity with the social objective of the Red: as well as diversifying the artistic side, it equipped students with a key skill for the fast-changing modern world. When the city government announced that it would fund a tour to the US in 2018, the leadership decided not to send one of the existing integrated ensembles (as had happened in the past) but rather to create a new hybrid ensemble of instruments and musicians from different genres. Cellos and oboes lined up alongside bandoneón, electric guitar, and Andean plucked strings. They rejected the standard model for tours by Latin American youth orchestras, which typically perform canonic European repertoire followed by some lighter, stylized Latin American pieces. The Red’s tour was designed as a pedagogical experience, with the focus mainly on the preparation process rather than the final product. For example, the rules and protocols for the tour were constructed during a collective exercise involving the social team and all participants, rather than simply handed down by adult leaders. The students had to think about the consequences of their actions and behaviours, rather than just being told what they could and could not do. The repertoire was all newly composed and the students played a major role, participating in creative workshops over a period of months under the supervision of adult composers and, in the later stages, Giraldo himself. The participants were split into two laboratories, one focusing on alternative media of sound production, the other on intercultural approaches to music. These laboratories involved many participatory exercises but also critical listening, making field recordings, and undertaking field trips (to a famous tango café and a salsa recording studio and radio station). The end result was a forty-five-minute sonic portrait of Medellín, seen through the eyes of the Red’s students and capturing the musical and auditory diversity of the city.

Fig. 4. Archive of Red de Escuelas de Música. CC BY.

Fig. 5. Creating music for the US tour. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

Fig. 6. Creating music for the US tour. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

Fig. 7. Student-composed lyrics for the US tour. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

Fig. 8. Field trip to Salón Málaga tango café. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

Fig. 9. Field trip to Latina Stereo salsa recording studio and radio station. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

77In 2018, the social team was reconfigured as a territorial team, based on the diagnosis that the music schools were quite insular. Historically, they had provided spaces to retreat from the city’s violence. Many had little or no connection to other cultural groups or organizations in their neighbourhoods; they were like islands or bubbles in the city. The establishment of a territorial team was designed to help them connect to their surrounding area and collaborate with other musicians and cultural actors. The leaders wanted to reframe the Red as part of a wider musical and cultural ecosystem in the city, and to shift the model from a conventional music school to an interdisciplinary neighbourhood cultural centre.

78Behind this change was also an urge to listen more to the evolving city and the soundscapes of its neighbourhoods: Colombian music, tango, salsa, rock, hip-hop, and so on. The leadership reimagined the Red’s educational process as starting with an analysis of the local territory, via activities such as sonic cartography and barrio excursions. “We’re pursuing a Red that reads the territories and their sound-worlds,” said Giraldo (Vallejo Ramírez 2017). In one meeting, Giraldo described the city as “a living organism in constant movement and transformation, to which we have to adapt in order to generate relevant and consistent proposals […]. We are no longer in 1996 or 2005 […]. We must revitalize and enrich our model of music schools.”

79The aim was also to diversify and complexify the forms of connection with the territory: not just performing occasional concerts for the community but also learning about the community. The social team was concerned that students often just turned up and played at concerts without knowing much about the location or the reason for their presence. The team described the Red as failing to read its surroundings—as disconnected from the city (e.g. “Informe” 2017b). The goal was now to research, share, and collaborate in a two-way process of dialogue and exchange. Territorial activities were thus envisaged as pedagogical ones.

80A further critique concerned the lack of spaces for reflection and genuine participation. Students performed in large ensembles, but historically they had a limited role in reflective or decision-making processes; the degree and nature of their participation were therefore limited. Managers argued repeatedly that rather than playing instruments, the students were instruments: they had been instrumentalized by the program and its adult figures of authority. Leaders claimed that the Red had historically been adult- rather than student-centred: it had revolved around providing work for adult musicians and focused more on their needs, desires, and knowledge than those of the students.

81“This shouldn’t just be a program designed to do what adults think— we want to listen to the voices of our students,” said Giraldo (Vallejo Ramírez 2017). Therefore in 2018, the Red instituted a methodology of project-based learning (PBL). The intention was to move away from the conservatoire model of teachers depositing knowledge in students and towards co-construction. Each school and large ensemble developed a central project for the academic year, which was to be created in a participatory manner by students and staff together, rather than decided just by the director. This new approach rested on the belief that full participation required more than just playing music, and that students should play a larger role in proposing ideas, taking decisions, and choosing actions. The principal aim was to make the Red less top-down and put young people at the centre of the program, engaging in multiple activities rather than just playing their instruments and leaving the rest to the staff. The creation of the committee of student representatives was a step in this direction. As Giraldo put it, learning to construct collectively was a priority for Colombia, and therefore it should be a priority for a social program like the Red.

82PBL was where the strands of diversity, identity, creation, reflection, territory, and participation could (potentially) unite and flow into practice. Its adoption was an attempt to connect the Red’s artistic activities more deeply to the program’s context and multiple constituencies. It was the primary means for realizing the leadership’s vision of the Red as “spaces of collective, participatory, and inclusive construction, built on reflection, performance, research, and creation” ( “Propuesta” 2018, 8).

83These initiatives represented the latest stage in the shift that had begun in 2005 and gathered pace in 2013: loosening the Red’s ties with El Sistema’s orchestral training model and bringing it in line with the priorities of Medellín’s Ministry of Civic Culture and then the Cultural Development Plan 2011–20. (The latter focused on democratic cultural citizenship and emphasized the now-familiar themes of participation, inclusion, diversity, creativity, and critical reflection.) They also emerged from analysis of key questions by the Red’s new management. Considerable resources were devoted to this process: it was the main focus of the social team in 2017, and an array of consultants was hired in 2018 to bring in fresh perspectives. There was no complacency or resting on laurels. Rather, the emphasis was on identifying problems, generating new proposals, and enacting change. During the first year, the leadership undertook its diagnosis, and in the second and third years they took actions to address the issues described above (with varying degrees of success, as we shall see).

84There were other problems that were identified, but acted on only partially, if at all, during the period of my research, due to overload (the program’s hectic work rhythm and the sheer quantity of new strategies that the leadership wished to pursue) or the depth and complexity of the changes that they implied. For example, Franco articulated the management’s desire to increase the program’s inclusivity. It advanced on one front, creating a Laboratory of Neurodiversity and thus catering to more students of differing abilities; but in other ways inclusivity remained something of a good intention and a work in progress. Open pedagogies did not progress beyond an aspiration, sidelined by more pressing operational issues. At the first music-school performance that I attended during my first week in Medellín, Giraldo whispered to me ruefully: “look, there are hardly any black people here.” There was sensitivity to this issue at management level—the leaders were enthusiastic advocates of Afro-Colombian music—but the racial diversity of the program changed little. Only 2 % of students identified themselves as other than mestizo, while around 12 % of the city’s population was Afro-Colombian ( “Propuesta” 2018; Álvarez 2016). Some of the problems were so deep-rooted that they resisted quick solutions.

  • 9 For a critique of the pyramid model of music education in the UK context, see Lonie and Sandbrook ( (...)

85Another critique that remained largely at the conceptual level concerned the character of the Red (like many large SATM programs) as a pyramid.9 It had a broad base of beginners (in 2018, 57 % of students were in the first two years of study) and a narrow apex of advanced students. This raised some major questions, particularly for Franco, the pedagogical coordinator. Firstly, the apex was where musical quality was taken most seriously and was the part of the program that was visible to the outside world; as such, it consumed a disproportionate amount of the program’s resources. The leadership repeatedly expressed concern that the largest expenditure other than salaries went on transport for the integrated ensembles on Saturdays—activities in which only a minority of students were involved. They asked whether this was a fair or desirable use of limited funds. In contrast, only eight of the Red’s 150-odd teachers worked in the musical initiation program, where 35 % of the students were found. This disproportionate allocation of resources, effort, and attention to the musical activities of the most advanced students was an incongruent feature of what was supposed to be an inclusive social program. The management wanted to redress this imbalance, but they ran out of time.

86Secondly, the pyramid spoke to a high dropout rate. In 2018, there were 1860 students in the first year, 1147 in the second, and 707 in the third. As one manager put it, simply looking at the population pyramid tells you more about the program’s flaws than any amount of fieldwork. Two key issues were identified, both of them relating to the transition from Year 1 to Year 2: a significant increase in intensity (from one day a week to as many as three or four); and a major change of approach, as musical initiation was replaced by instrumental initiation. The unique selling point of SATM has long been to place orchestral instruments in students’ hands from early on in the learning process and to push children fast and hard. But for the Red’s pedagogical team, the high dropout rate indicated that the switch to this approach after Year 1 alienated many children, and the increased intensity was another off-putting factor (because of the potential for clashes with other extra-curricular activities and homework). They regarded the shift from Year 1 to Year 2 as too abrupt: the ludic aspect of the first-year classes went out of the window, and the children were now taught predominantly by maestros de instrumento—teachers who were trained as classical performers—in an atmosphere that the team characterized as “serious” and “keep quiet!” The management began to question whether a program like the Red really needed expert performers to teach children their first notes on an instrument, and to imagine hiring more pedagogues specialized in the early years of learning and fewer instrumentalists. This would have the added benefit of allowing more room for creative activities in the first phase of the program and not just via workshops with advanced students. However, such a shift would have constituted a challenge to the foundational practice and ideology of the Red, and it thus remained largely on paper during my fieldwork.

87The leadership dreamt of a program that was shaped less by its end point (large-ensemble performance) and more by its starting point (playful, creative activities). They would have liked musical initiation to be a genuine foundation for a more ludic program rather than a brief prelude to the non-sequitur of orchestral or band training. Some staff concurred, arguing that an earlier shift to introducing starter ensembles called pre-semilleros halfway through the first year of instrumental learning had been a negative development, putting pressure on teachers to impart the technical basics too quickly and curtailing the more relaxed, ludic aspects of the preparatory year.

88The leadership also critiqued the characterization of the schools by the needs of the program rather than the territories in which they were situated. There were thirteen string schools and thirteen wind schools, situated not because of local musical strengths or interests but because of a decision by the Red, which wanted to train string and wind players in equal numbers for its showcase ensembles. The leaders imagined schools that were more autonomous and distinctive, reflecting the socio-cultural characteristics of each barrio. But here, too, the rethinking pointed at changes that were impossibly radical for the Red at that time.

89A further critical conversation involved communications. The leadership was keen to move from a top-down approach to communications to a participatory one. It reimagined the program’s public face as an educational space where students would learn or improve communications skills, rather than a product delivered by adult professionals. The new idea was that schools and ensembles would be the principal actors, proposing and implementing their own publicity strategies with advice and support from the communications team. Rather than having a single, program-wide operation, the singularity of each school or ensemble project might be reflected in its communications. Accordingly, the new head of communications in 2018 told one ensemble: this is your project, and I’m here to help you develop your ideas about communications. However, like some other new initiatives, this plan was restricted in practice by limited resources and excessive workload.

PBL in Action: San Javier School

90The music school of San Javier developed a project called GC13, or Gira Comuna 13, which ran over two years. “Gira” means tour, and Comuna 13 is the school’s neighbourhood—an area particularly associated with Medellín’s dark history of violence. The project focused on taking the music students out into the surrounding territory and bringing the neighbourhood, and particularly some of its iconic musicians, into the music school. Students were to learn about and interact with other cultural actors and explore their relationship with community spaces. An underlying question was how the San Javier school might permeate and have a positive impact on the barrio. The school’s director, Andrés Felipe Laverde, emphasized to students that they were fortunate to study in the Red and had an obligation to their neighbourhood.

Fig. 10. GC13 Project, Armonía territorial, San Javier (2018). CC BY.

91The 2018 version was named “Armonía territorial” (territorial harmony). The music students went out to visit and perform in places such as the local library and fire station, and they made a point of going on foot so that their instruments and therefore the school were visible on the streets of the barrio. The project thus included both excursions and concerts, both local institutions and community spaces. The school also enacted “improvisajes” in public spaces. Improvisaje is a neologism that combines improvisar (to improvise) with paisaje (landscape), and thus connects sound and territory. The first one took place in the local cemetery and was dedicated to the victims of the urban war in Comuna 13. As Laverde explained, these improvised musical actions were intended to reclaim, resignify, and heal particular spaces in the barrio: “This isn’t just the corner where X was killed—this is also the corner where the kids from the music school played that wonderful piece.”

Fig. 11. GC13 Project, Armonía territorial, San Javier (2018). Archive of Red de Escuelas de Música. CC BY.

  • 10 Andrés Felipe Laverde, “Abya Yala—Únete Latinoamérica”, YouTube, 10 November 2017, https://www.yout (...)

92The school collaborated with well-known rappers (C15, el AKA), vallenato and mariachi ensembles (Colombian and Mexican genres respectively), rock and pop musicians, and traditional Colombian music and dance groups. All performed together at a concert that finished with a song written by Laverde about Latin American unity and ancestral knowledge.10 The musicians performed it as a kind of bonding ritual for the audience, who were encouraged to hug their neighbours. Some musical elements were improvised on the night. The guest musicians were not simply drafted in for the performance, but also invited to the music school for a social and cultural exchange beforehand: as well as rehearsing for the concert, they talked about their music and their personal histories, explained their instruments and learnt about the students’, and shared food and drink.

93For 2019, the project was subtitled “Talentodos: Aprendiendo unidos.” Talentodos is another neologism, combining talento (talent) with todos (everyone), and encapsulating the idea that everyone is talented, rather than just a chosen few. The school focused on student creativity this year: students wrote songs themselves or chose music that they liked, and Laverde arranged the pieces for orchestra. As a result, the concert repertoire was entirely popular music. Laverde was classically trained and led a chamber orchestra in the school that only played classical repertoire, but the central project was led by the students’ interests and compositions. Creating space for song writing and not only instrumental performance turned the school’s activities into more than just a musical exercise: writing lyrics provided students with a valuable outlet for self-expression, and the results revealed much about them and their realities.

Fig. 12. Talentodos project, San Javier (2018). CC BY.

94For the director of a music school, Laverde showed an interesting mixture of passion and ambivalence about music. Whenever I visited him, he would always show me the music that he was arranging for the students, play me recordings of their compositions, and pull up videos of their recent performances. Yet even though he led the school’s orchestras, he did not want to play a conventional role— “I’m not a conductor,” he said, “I’m a motivator”—and he dismissed standard orchestral rehearsals as “the most boring thing in the world.” He mixed up his own rehearsals, handing over the baton to students, telling stories, making jokes, and sometimes even abandoning music for another activity. He believed that learning technique and repertoire was the least important thing that went on in the school; for him, it was a place for young people to go and share experiences and talk about their lives—a place where they might express more than at home. He was interested in the social bonding, not the musical product. For him, the purpose of the Red was to heal social wounds, which meant that students needed to express what was going on in their lives.

95Laverde made a short documentary to present the project, and the opening music was a rap song by El AKA, “¿Que es arte?” (What is art?).11 At one string orchestra rehearsal that I observed, he discussed the song with the students. El AKA was a friend and Laverde had invited him to come to the school and work with the students. Laverde held up the rapper and the questions raised by his chorus— “What is art if it doesn’t name the struggle? What is art if it doesn’t serve the community?”—as something for the school to reflect on and aspire to. He presented it as an example of socially committed art. This was not inclusion but rather interculturality in action. In the same rehearsal, they worked on a huayno (a traditional Andean genre) from Bolivia. Laverde began with a five-minute contextualization about colonialism, the silver mines of Potosí, and the extraction of resources from Bolivia to Europe in centuries past. He wanted the students to put themselves in the shoes of the silver miners and imagine their exploitation and deaths. This is their lament, he said, before they began to play. The choice of this huayno was not just about diversifying the repertoire; it was about naming the struggle, as El AKA put it, and the students making the struggle theirs.

96Laverde encouraged students to gain as much experience as possible beyond learning to play an instrument in the school: to explore other arts, other activities, other spaces in the barrio. How can you express yourself in music, he asked, if you don’t have anything to express? How can you play pieces about love or sadness or anger if you don’t have these experiences in your life? He wanted students to go out and learn about the world, not just play music the whole time.

97He also focused on strengthening bonds between students, families, and the community, and again, music was secondary—an excuse that brought people together rather than an activity to consume all the students’ time and attention. On Saturday mornings and during holidays, he would organize activity days in the school—making handicrafts, or learning about cinema, literature, or photography—or go out on an excursion in the barrio, for example visiting urban vegetable gardens. In 2019, they made a documentary about the history of the neighbourhood, filming important sites and interviewing older community members.

98Underpinning the projects was a critique of the Red, in which Laverde had previously been a student and a teacher and was now a director. “We’re in a comfortable place,” he said; “we need to discomfort ourselves.” He felt that the school had been somewhat closed off to the community in the past and was therefore little known; he wanted to open its doors, break down the idea of the Red as an exclusive island for a privileged few, and make the school take its place in the larger cultural movement of the barrio. Everyone wants to travel overseas, he said, yet they don’t even know their own neighbourhood well. His dissatisfaction with the Red’s old ways can be felt in notes he made for the project: “to unsettle ourselves in order to generate movement or chaos, leave our comfort zone, discover relationships, new forms and blueprints of thought, new processes, new ideas.” He proposed a “critical, open, flexible curriculum” and argued that “we cannot develop our work with our backs to reality.”

PBL: Other Projects

99GC13 is just one example of the dozens of projects that flourished across the Red in 2018–19, and it illustrates how management proposals about diversity, identity, creativity, territory, and participation crystallized into practice. PBL had the potential to bring all these strands together. San Javier was one of the schools where this potential was most fully realized, but many other schools and ensembles made interesting advances. There were projects focused on ecological issues, on local history, and on significant musicians and musical genres in the barrio. When I revisited the Red in 2019, the second year of the PBL strategy, I saw evidence of new connections to local culture, spaces, and organizations. This frequently involved an element of research, as students and staff mapped communities and their music, sought out knowledgeable figures and written information, and delved into the past as well as the present. A number of schools carried out a participatory social cartography exercise: students and their families drew maps of the barrio, marking on it places of positive and negative significance to them. In the words of one school director, the project thus sprang from the vision and desires of the community, as articulated by the community, rather than from what she imagined that the community needed. If the focus on territory was bearing fruit, then, so was that on participation: student committees and surveys of the desires and interests of participants and their families sprang up across the Red. A number of projects involved elements of artistic creation such as composition and improvisation as well as performance.

Fig. 13. Social cartography exercise. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

100As a consequence of these initiatives, traditional and popular music were more in evidence. Pockets of the Red moved beyond diversifying repertoire to engage with issues of popular style, technique, and pedagogy, and to connect with significant popular musicians in the local neighbourhood—for example, those who had helped to give the barrio a particular musical identity. Such was the case of the Benjamin Herrera school, which collaborated with important families of “tropical” musicians in the surrounding Barrio Antioquia. The 12 de Octubre school surveyed students and their families about their musical tastes. The former were most interested in rock and urban music, while the latter preferred Colombian and romantic music. They placed classical music in third and fifth place respectively. The school’s director then looked for allies in the local community (such as a rock group) that could help the students learn to play their favourite music.

101The shift to PBL led to some productive processes of self-examination and reflection, as schools took stock of what they were and where they wanted to go. The Independencias school, too, carried out a survey, not just of students’ musical tastes but also their perceptions of significant musical places in the barrio. Most named neither classical music nor their own music school; hip-hop was the genre that was cited most often. The director was struck that the students did not seem to recognize either their own music-making or their institution as important elements in the musical life of the neighbourhood. This exercise shed light on the much discussed disconnect between the Red and its territories, revealing a self-perception of the program and its music as somewhat peripheral to the barrio. The school resolved to forge new alliances and explore a greater variety of genres.

102The Pedregal school was created with a focus on Colombian music, but it also developed a student-led project about gender equity. Concerns from both girls and boys about gender relations in the school and surrounding neighbourhood led both students and staff into extended critical discussions of feminism and gender equality, and to settle eventually on gender equity as their preferred ideological formation. This was a novel way to approach the peace-building that is so central to the aims of social programs in Medellín such as the Red. Alongside more theoretical debates, the school took practical actions such as encouraging girls to take leadership roles and to play instruments such as percussion that are widely considered to be masculine, and putting a transgender student together with a boy from a conservative Christian family as stand partners. The latter exercise was a real challenge, the director confessed, but he was determined that the school should genuinely work on coexistence in concrete cases rather than simply repeat fine words.

103The school in the neighbourhood of Popular devised a project in conjunction with SATMED, the System of Early Warnings of Medellín, a government program devoted to protecting the rights of children and adolescents. The project sought to identify and counteract violations of rights (such as sexual abuse and gang activity) by naming and analysing them via collective conversations and workshops with specialists. They took their project to the highest level, performing in the chamber of the city council. On a simpler level, the school director organized a meeting with students and their families and asked them why they were in the Red and what they would like from it. It turned out that they wanted to play and listen to more varied repertoire, particularly more “everyday” styles like the music that they listened to at home and on the radio, and the families wanted to watch their children playing solos or duets and not just in a large ensemble. The director changed the format of the school’s concerts accordingly.

104The school project at La Milagrosa emerged from a collective cartography exercise, which involved identifying the community’s problems and concerns with relation to the surrounding territory and then discussing possible actions. The selling of drugs was the principal issue, so the school decided to focus on prevention of consumption among young people. The project entailed composing a musical about a mammoth who was faced with various temptations and risks but ended up making his way to the music school, where he found a more positive atmosphere and values. The following year, the school focused its project on a local fruit tree that had once been found widely in the neighbourhood but had now almost disappeared. One thread was ecological (working with a local seed bank and focusing on planting), while another was historical (students interviewing older inhabitants and comparing the past and present of the barrio).

105A number of projects were underpinned by critical reflection on social realities and the Red’s relationship to them. For example, the Alfonso López school decided to focus on the family, and particularly on students’ connections to their families and the wider community. There was acknowledgment that despite two decades of work, the Red had had rather limited effect in this barrio: it had not transformed families or the neighbourhood or the place of culture in the life of the community in any significant way. The school project did not focus on doing something radically new, but rather on aligning the practice of the Red more closely with its theory. This entailed both naming social goals and forging concrete strategies and actions in order to realize them, rather than assuming that the social effects would happen automatically as a consequence of learning music. This project illustrated the move towards more targeted social action that was part of the Red’s new philosophy.

Fig. 14. Alfonso López school project, outdoor rehearsal. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

Fig. 15. Alfonso López school project, outdoor rehearsal. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

Fig. 16. Alfonso López school project, “Family is…” Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

Fig. 17. Alfonso López school project, “Family, pillar of my dreams.” Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

106The Santa Fé school alighted on the theme of freedom—again, underpinned by a critique of the Red’s past. Freedom was explored through creation (improvisation, composition), expanding the repertoire (rock was an important focus), and highlighting important figures who symbolized music and freedom, such as Nina Simone. There were also discussions of the different forms that freedom takes. A huge poster with the word “freedom” at the top was stuck up in the foyer of the school, and students and staff contributed ideas over the course of the year on post-it notes.

Fig. 18. Santa Fé school project, “Rock, a song of freedom.” Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.

107In general, the shift to new ways of learning and working was more of a struggle for the integrated ensembles, which were the spaces most dedicated to high-level concert performance. One exception was the popular music ensemble, which already had a more progressive approach before the shifts of 2018. In rehearsals that I attended, the director created moments for collective reflection, and he urged the students to listen widely and research. He criticized a tendency among some musicians to skip over the listening and research parts and go straight to the score. He urged them to be thinkers as well as musicians, declaring that he was not interested in people who could only play the notes in front of them.

108The REMM (Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín) Ensemble emerged from the ashes of the hybrid ensemble that went on tour to the US in 2018. In its new incarnation in 2019, its emphasis was on putting students in charge of learning. They were encouraged to take decisions and occupy leadership roles. The ensemble was also framed as a space for acquiring twenty-first-century skills.

109Some of the most progressive initiatives took place in new ensembles that were given the title of “laboratories.” If introducing PBL was an attempt to reform the operation of existing structures (schools and integrated ensembles), the laboratories created new spaces for more radical ideas to flourish, circumventing rather than confronting the inertia that any large, longstanding institution generates. The Laboratory of Intercultural Creation was based on a critique of the idea of social inclusion, which its director described as trying to squeeze one social group into the worldview of another. This laboratory was underpinned by the more sophisticated philosophy of critical interculturality. It was designed as a space for getting to know oneself and interacting with others, and for creation, fantasy, and making mistakes, using not just music but also visual and plastic arts, literature, painting, and theatre. It also aimed to make both cultural and practical connections with local contexts; for example, the advanced students had a project called “Expanded School” that opened the doors of the laboratory to different forms of music-making in the surrounding territory. The Early Years Laboratory, meanwhile, took an interdisciplinary form: classes were led by a pair of teachers from two different art forms, so that a musician would be joined by a dancer, actor, or visual artist.

A New Vision of SATM

110There were a few discrete moments in 2017–18 when a different approach to SATM flourished for a day or two. These were activities in which the management was closely involved and the program was briefly liberated from its longstanding traditions by the involvement of visiting staff or unusual students. They gave fascinating glimpses of a reinvented SATM.

111One such event was the two-day “Afro laboratory” in October 2017. It brought together musicians from the Red and the Moravia cultural centre with Afro-Colombian dancers from the Red’s sister program, the Dance Network, to learn music and dance from Colombia’s Pacific coast. Two prominent Afro-Colombian musicians from the coastal Chocó region joined Giraldo as leaders of the workshop. Most of the dance students’ families were originally from Chocó as well, and with few Afro-Colombians in the Red, the event was an opportunity for the young musicians to learn more about their own city and its diverse inhabitants and cultures, as well as about music and dance from the coast. (One participant admitted that she had had little interaction with Afro-diasporic cultural expressions before, despite her school being located in a cultural centre that also housed capoeira and traditional percussion groups.)

112Alongside the artistic activities (which included the musicians learning to dance and vice versa), the event was marked by several eloquent and extended speeches by Giraldo and the invitees from Chocó, which were notable for their critiques of the Eurocentrism of music education in Colombia and their insistence on the importance of learning about the country’s diverse cultures. One of the Afro-Colombian guests made repeated references to colonialism, slavery, and domination, and he highlighted the country’s history of valorizing European knowledge and relegating indigenous and African culture to the margins. Giraldo proclaimed that the Red should invite more local master musicians like these, and not just foreign orchestra or band conductors.

113A couple of weeks later, Giraldo also led an away day for the Red’s administrative staff. The focus of the event was not administrative matters, though, but rather music. The staff spent the day playing musical games, trying out percussion instruments, writing songs in groups, jamming, and dancing, but also having lengthy and open discussions about music. Giraldo put his key topics (diversity, identity, interculturality) squarely on the table and encouraged the administrators to reflect on music and its relationship to their personal and emotional lives. Many talked about the role of music in their childhood, the genres they grew up around, the tastes and abilities of family members, and their favourite dance styles. The exercises allowed the administrators to emerge as individuals with rich musical lives. Almost all highlighted popular music, whether Colombian, Latin American, or North American. Why, then, asked Giraldo, is the Red so focused on classical music? He spoke to the administrators about cultural colonialism, the importance of horizontal dialogue between musics, and banishing an inherited sense of shame about local and national musics that has been so prominent in Colombian musical history. He also talked about music as a form of resistance and liberation.

114These days were opportunities for Giraldo to put into practice his new ideas and explore what really mattered to him, without the constraints of the Red’s traditions and expectations. The contrast with the program’s usual activities was striking. There was less emphasis on instrumental teaching and more on a broad range of activities (listening, talking, creating) and ways of learning (playful, corporeal). These events created more spaces for fun (there were games, dancing, and laughter throughout the away day) but also for serious discussion of cultural history and politics. Both events involved participants in two artforms (music and dance). In short, these days saw the Red serve up a more varied, balanced, and enjoyable cultural diet. They gave a glimpse of what SATM might look like if it tore up the old model of symphonic training and started again.

The Red in Comparative Perspective

  • 12 See Baker 2014; Araujo 2017; and my blog post “Abreu’s phantom PhD”, https://geoffbakermusic.wordpr (...)

115There were many parallels between the Red and El Sistema in the years around 2000. Both were founded by famously charismatic male leaders with an extraordinary capacity to inspire young people, their families, and funders. They shared a quasi-religious aspect, with a leader like a high priest and a cohort of devotees who were so committed and absorbed that the program almost became their life. Both Abreu and Ocampo were adored by their many fans. After a day of fieldwork, D. wrote to me: “The whole thing with Juan Guillermo [Ocampo] is a very emotional topic, it’s like the feeling that many people had who knew Abreu. A kind of hyper-intense idolatry. Everyone who knew [Ocampo] and talks about him cries when they tell me the story.” But critics characterized their programs as cults of personality. The newspaper headline that announced Ocampo’s fall— “apostle of Medellín’s child musicians imprisoned in the US”—captures the striking, paradoxical atmosphere of sanctity and scandal that surrounded these leaders.12 Both programs, behind rosy public narratives, displayed deep contradictions that stemmed directly from their founders, complex characters who were idolized by some and abhorred by others—a tension captured in the labelling of Abreu as “the Philanthropic Ogre” (Rivero 1994). The intensive seminars in Medellín led by Venezuelan teachers were characteristic El Sistema-style events: the young musicians were shut away morning, noon, and night for two weeks of boot-camp-style training, and emerged playing the same orchestral repertoire as in Venezuela. The Red was like an adopted son of El Sistema.

116The first phase saw the foundation of the program and a rapid-fire series of crowning achievements and successes. It also saw the construction of an almost mythical narrative about its founder and the power of music. Ocampo’s arrest and imprisonment were like The Fall, and the dramatic nature of this rupture led to a process of critical scrutiny and organizational change that has lasted to this day.

117The year 2005 saw an institutional break with El Sistema, as the Venezuelan program’s closeness to Ocampo and Amadeus seems to have precluded collaboration with the Red’s new management. But it also saw the beginnings of a more gradual separation at the levels of ideology and practice, rooted in successive internal investigations that shed critical light on the model and dynamics that had been developed in Medellín under El Sistema’s supervision. Arango’s 2006 report set out clearly, if briefly, a fundamental problem with the orthodox model of SATM: the Red aimed and claimed to generate peaceful coexistence yet in reality was found to encourage arrogance, exclusion, and disrespect in many of its most successful participants. This was a bombshell finding, and it was expressed not in an external report that could be ignored and quietly shelved, as had happened in El Sistema (Baker and Frega 2018), but rather in a foundational document written by the program’s leader. It struck at the heart of the orthodox SATM philosophy that positive social action results automatically from collective music education.

  • 13 The furore that erupted when the bassoonist Francesca Carpos conveyed the culture of the profession (...)

118The social team’s reports, meanwhile, underlined the gap between the orchestra as metaphor and reality. As Pérez, the municipal cultural official, noted, the metaphor is very powerful: “the kids sound together, in a society that struggles to sound together”; SATM is “the search for harmony in a society that still can’t find it.” Yet the social team found that sounding together was perfectly compatible with social discord. The tales of rivalries and hierarchies between players of different instruments will ring a bell with anyone familiar with orchestral culture, and they raise questions about the suitability of the symphony orchestra as a tool for peaceful coexistence.13 At the very least, they showed that the search for coexistence in the Red had a long way to go.

119Students and staff were ambivalent about the program’s social goals and indicated the prioritizing of musical results over social processes. Echoing earlier interviews with members of El Sistema (Baker and Frega 2018), testimonies from across the Red’s constituencies undermined claims—commonplace in SATM circles—that the pursuit of musical excellence is in itself an effective form of social action. In reality, the Red appeared to have as many social problems as any other large organization. The social team proposed an array of extra-musical strategies and interventions such as “coexistence away days” to deal with the problems, illustrating their conviction that music-making alone did not resolve such issues—indeed, it sometimes generated them. They argued that excessive belief in the power of music was not only misplaced but had also led to complacency, allowing social problems to flourish. These realist portraits of the ups and downs of SATM, the heterogeneity of opinions within a single program, and the tensions between theory and practice, provide a fascinating contrast with the dominant public narrative of SATM.

120These internal analyses, starting in 2006, formed the bedrock of a process of continual self-critique and reform that continues to this day. Over time, the Red drew steadily away from El Sistema. The repeated changes of director, and their selection from outside the organization, led to much more debate and adaptation in the Red than in the monolithic Venezuelan program, which remained under Abreu’s conservative thumb for forty-three years and was handed on to his protégé and chosen successor. These management changes in the Red allowed for self-evaluation and evolution. El Sistema, in contrast, developed unimpeded as a cult of personality, so reforms have tended to be small and slow. Growth, rather than change, was Abreu’s priority. Even after his death, the program has insisted on continuity with his vision; room to critique his philosophy has been non-existent.

121The timeline exercise with which this chapter began is a good example of the distance that opened up between the programs. Staff were encouraged to reflect publicly and critically on the Red’s past and to join in collective construction of the future. The social team deliberately opened up a space for multiple histories, contrasting visions, and thus a polyphonic and at times dissonant narrative. In contrast, El Sistema’s approach to history is obfuscatory: after forty-five years, no official record has been written, and key phases are shrouded in mystery. There has been much to shroud: for example, Abreu’s past as a close ally of Hugo Chávez’s political foes, or El Sistema’s discursive makeover as a social program in the mid-1990s, not to mention the question marks over Abreu’s personal history. There are no past regimes; the program’s history is presented as a seamless whole, a simple story of the single-minded pursuit of one man’s dream. An event like the timeline meeting would have been inconceivable in Abreu’s hermetic, hierarchical institution, whose ethos was summed up as “everyone needs to be fully in tune in order to achieve unison” (Borzacchini 2010, 7). The Red’s management argued that the Medellín of 2018 was not the Medellín of 1996, and that the program needed to change along with the city. El Sistema, however, remains bound to the original vision of its founder.

122If Abreu and his lieutenants struck a consistently idealistic, propagandistic tone, both internally and externally, Giraldo was refreshingly realistic and open about the Red’s defects and challenges, and he generally avoided utopian statements about the program or music as a model for society. He described music as “a complicated profession.” The program had highlights and lowlights, he said; it was neither a panacea nor a disaster. As he told a group of senior students, “the Red displays the full human comedy.”

123The Venezuelan program has played up the issue of poverty as a marketing strategy and selling point, and its success in attracting funding illustrates that this approach has been highly successful. In Medellín, however, there has been considerable and overt distaste for musical “poverty porn” since 2005. The Red has not gone down the path of carefully selecting individuals and dramatic anecdotes from the most deprived corners of the city in order to appeal to foreigners and funders, recognizing this approach as stigmatizing rather than empowering.

124The Red has also moved towards a critical approach to the notion of social inclusion, which has been the bedrock of El Sistema since the 2000s. In Venezuela, this notion has been conceived narrowly in economic terms—as opening the doors to those with few economic resources. Other kinds of exclusion, such as race- or gender-based, have been largely overlooked. The framework of social inclusion has served to perpetuate educational conservatism: the underlying presumption is that existing practice works but is simply insufficiently disseminated. The way to social inclusion, for El Sistema, is widening access, not transforming practice. Behind this discourse lies a high-performance program that relies on high-functioning young musicians, and while it has separate branches for children with major, diagnosed disabilities, the main program—with its demanding, intensive, conventional musical training—is exclusive to children with less pronounced or undiagnosed learning difficulties, and indeed to children who simply do not fit easily into that training mould. In the Red, however, there was a growing awareness that access is not the same as inclusivity: for example, the number of black students and participants with disabilities was low in the Red, even though there were no formal barriers to their involvement. Many staff felt uncomfortable that they did not have the training or tools to deal with children with common disabilities and disorders. By embracing the more critical concept of interculturality and invoking open pedagogies, the management both critiqued inclusion and aspired to a deeper form of inclusivity than just access to standard music education.

125The flaws in orthodox SATM’s claims of social inclusion are evident in the high dropout rates from El Sistema, the Red, and other SATM programs, revealing that this kind of music education does not appeal to many children. In the Red in 2018, nearly 40 % of students dropped out within a year; in El Sistema, 44 % of students who were offered a place failed to complete two semesters (Alemán et al. 2017). The Portuguese El Sistema-inspired Orquestra Geração experienced a dropout rate over the first two years ranging from 38–49 % (Mota and Teixeira Lopes 2017), and Sistema Aotearoa’s rate was 38 % (see Baker, Bull, and Taylor 2018). There are important questions to be asked about programs that include young people through music only to see many of them leave again soon afterwards. But dominant narratives of SATM usually focus on the musical achievements of a small number of older students and ignore the reality that many participants drop out within a year or two of starting. The many for whom SATM does not “work” simply disappear from view in publicity and media accounts. El Sistema historically deflected questions on this topic; for years, even the program’s biggest supporters were unable to elicit figures. Booth (2008, 4) noted that “a number of students leave around age 12 (percentages were not available… .).” Borzacchini (2010, 101) asked the then executive director Igor Lanz a straight question: “What is the percentage of children who leave the orchestras?” “One cannot talk about dropping out,” replied Lanz evasively. The truth came out in a 2017 evaluation (Alemán et al. 2017): the IDB could and did talk about students dropping out, in considerable numbers. This issue may have been avoided by El Sistema, but it was a prime concern for the Red’s pedagogical team in 2018.

126A similar deepening of reflection can be seen in the area of participation. El Sistema succeeded in getting many more young people to participate in classical music, but it failed to make classical music more participatory. The quality of the participation did not change, even if the quantity did; the basic values of conventional concert music remained in practice, even if the discourse turned more participatory halfway through its history. In the Red, though, from Arango onwards, participation became a topic for analysis and reform. Successive directors reflected on what participation really meant and how it might be boosted. Their conceptions of participation varied, but all understood that simply playing in an orchestra was not enough.

127It is also instructive to consider the parallels between the Red’s long internal process of self-critique and external research on the Venezuelan program and its offshoots. For example, Arango (2006, 10) wrote that the Red lacked a coherent and consistent pedagogical model, “despite presenting itself as an alternative proposal for education.” Ana Lucía Frega drew a similar conclusion after studying El Sistema as a consultant for the IDB in 1997 (Frega and Limongi 2019). There are also striking similarities between the Red’s internal reports and Eva Estrada’s (1997) evaluation of El Sistema for the IDB in the same year (see Baker and Frega 2018). Estrada found widespread disillusionment and “contradictions between the stated values and the actual practices of El Sistema” (1997, 6). Musicians accused the program of “fomenting behaviour and attitudes in the students that are contrary to those values” (13). Gaps between theory and practice were glaring. In the words of one musician: “the musical world could be as bad or worse than what you saw on the streets, I thought that a world of sensitive people would be something very attractive, very interesting, I had high expectations, and I saw a lot of cruelty, a lot of meanness, apathy, ignorance” (5). Its orchestras were presented as generating negative social dynamics such as competitiveness, favouritism, dishonesty, hypocrisy, and betrayal. One musician stated: “What I thought a musician must be isn’t the reality […] there is jealousy and a bloody battle to stand out.” The report also highlights the narrowness and poor quality of the training, described by one musician as “producing musicians like sausages” (21). A fundamental problem was that developing positive values was of lesser importance to the program than “merely ensuring that the repertoire is ready. The organization, the pedagogical style, and the administration of employees are based on making the orchestra sound” (23). El Sistema may have been reframed as a social program by this time, but in reality it was still all about the music.

128The similarities between Estrada’s evaluation of El Sistema and the Red’s internal reports would be uncanny had the Medellín program not operated as a satellite of the Venezuelan one. As it is, they reach similar conclusions because they describe the same model, illustrating that what emerged in both locations were not aberrations but rather inherent features. Where they differ significantly is in their reception: Estrada and Frega’s reports were ignored by Abreu, whereas the Red’s counterparts formed a cornerstone of efforts at reform.

129The evidence that the Red generated mixed responses and effects is matched by research on other SATM programs (e.g. Sarazin 2017; Rimmer 2018). The overlaps between the Red’s internal reports and my book on El Sistema are too many to list, but the presence of social problems such as competition, bullying, and hierarchization, and the frequent voicing of critical opinions by students and staff, stand out. Indeed, there was a certain element of déjà vu in my Medellín fieldwork. In 2014, I critiqued El Sistema’s construction of practical and philosophical separations between students and their surrounding social reality. In 2018, the Red created a territorial team to address precisely this issue. In 2014, after visiting a problem-based urban cartography project on the periphery of Medellín, I wondered “how could a music education project strive to offer a comparable experience?” (Baker 2014, 313). Four years later, the Red embarked on PBL. In 2014, I reflected on the narrowness of the conception of social inclusion in El Sistema and the importance of extending inclusivity to curriculum and pedagogy. The Red’s management was thinking along similar lines in 2018. I also critiqued the narrowness of the music education in orthodox SATM. In 2018, the Red made a concerted effort to broaden its offering in the Red beyond instrumental skills and ensemble performance. I raised questions about the dominance of classical music. The Red had been asking similar questions for years. My analysis of the absence of student voice, empowerment, genuine participation, reflection, and creativity found a clear echo in the efforts of successive Red managements and social teams.

130Management critiques in the Red thus reinforce and are reinforced by the academic literature on SATM. The Red’s process of self-critique and change underlines the point that has been gaining traction in the international research field in recent years: behind the grandiose, utopian rhetoric of SATM, the reality is usually more complicated. The findings from Medellín (and other programs) confirm that key issues identified in critical studies of El Sistema are not specific to that institution but are rather problems with the model itself. Comparison with international research, meanwhile, shows that the Red’s reform process should not be viewed as simply the whims of a series of senior managers in Medellín.

  • 14 Though see Dobson (2016), Fairbanks (2019), and Godwin (2020) for insiders’ analyses.

131The Red’s trajectory constitutes a significant challenge to SATM’s orthodoxy from the inside. There have been numerous critiques of SATM published since 2014, but mainly from the academic world.14 It is therefore highly significant to find similar perspectives emerging from within a major program. It is also noteworthy that these internal and external analyses developed in isolation from one another. The reports discussed in this chapter were written before any critical research on SATM was published, and since they were internal, they were unknown to SATM scholars. That both research strands arrived independently at similar conclusions is very suggestive. Similarly, the Red’s transformations in 2018 echoed my 2014 book in numerous ways, yet the program’s managers had not read my research. There are profound implications for the future course of debate about SATM: it will be much harder for critiques to be ignored or brushed off in future, as has often been the case to date.

  • 15 See, for example, special issues of Revista Internacional de Educación Musical (5: 1, 2017) and Act (...)

132The Red’s pursuit of diversity, identity, creativity, territory, and participation shows parallels not just with the critical literature on El Sistema but also with international scholarship more broadly. The Red distanced itself from El Sistema, but it drew closer to critical and reformist currents in research on music education and youth development. The Red’s recent priorities and initiatives look eminently familiar from the point of view of volumes such as The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education (2015) and The Oxford Handbook of Community Music (2018), with their emphasis on issues such as creativity, critical reflection, student voice, and place-based learning. Researchers of youth in Medellín, too, have argued passionately for centring such approaches in activities for young people (Jóvenes 2015). Leaders’ urge for the Red to transcend technical training and engage more directly with the social and cultural realities surrounding its schools is mirrored throughout Elliott el al.’s (2016) volume Artistic Citizenship and in Hess’s (2019) vision of music education for social change. Distaste for salvationism has been articulated by researchers of music education (Vaugeois 2007; McCarthy 2018) and CM (Howell 2017; Mantie 2018), who have understood it as reinforcing oppression and inequality. Concerns over Eurocentrism and the coloniality of the Red find a clear echo in the growing academic interest in decolonization and music education, particularly in Latin America.15 As far as I am aware, none of this international research was known within Red circles, yet the Medellín program seemed to be moving in a comparable direction.

133Observing critiques and reforms in Medellín through the lens of senior management tells us much about both the Red and its abandoned progenitor, El Sistema. Nevertheless, this narrative of crisis, self-examination, breaking away from the old model, and imagining more progressive alternatives tells only part of the story. The clue is in the repetition that I have deliberately conserved in this chapter in order to convey both my own experience of researching the program and an essential characteristic of its history. It was easy to grasp the new management’s critique when I arrived in 2017, but over the course of a year of fieldwork, as I interviewed former employees and read old documents, I came to realize that attempts to address these issues were not new but rather had been recurrent in the history of the Red. Since 2006, senior managers had been urging that the social side needed to be taken more seriously; that the Red was a public program and therefore ought to be more participatory; that it should distance itself from dynamics of pity and charity; that it should strive for greater musical diversity; that students should have more voice; and so on. That they were still doing so more than a decade later is a strong indication that self-critique was one thing, change another.

134This reiteration suggests that these were deep-rooted issues and real sticking points. There was some consensus at management level over problems in the orthodox model, but it was easier to identify them than to solve them. The repetitiveness of the critiques implies that such issues spring from this model of musical-social work and are therefore difficult to eliminate while maintaining it. It also points to the fact that critical analysis and reform efforts generated operational friction, tensions, counter-critiques, and resistance.


1 This chapter is one-sided in the sense that it only presents successive managements looking backwards and critiquing what went before. The former general directors did not always take a benevolent view of what came after them, but exploring those “reverse” critiques is beyond the scope of this study. The first general director draws the short straw here, with four successors looking back on his tenure without him having a right of reply. So I should underline that he had many devoted admirers among the first generation of Red students.

2 Amadeus Fundación (amadeusfund), “El momento de la música”, Instagram, 7 March 2019,

3 Amadeus Fundación (amadeusfund), Instagram, 8 March 2019, (first rehearsal); (Ocampo and Abreu).

4 For evidence of media interest, see El libro (2015) and Amadeus Fundación’s Instagram page, amadeusfund (

5 Although tango is of Argentinean origin, it has a long and prominent history in Medellín.

6 The social team had different names over the course of its history, but I will often use “social team” for the sake of simplicity.

7 “Taller sentido de pertenencia: bandas y orquestas.”

8 Pseudonym.

9 For a critique of the pyramid model of music education in the UK context, see Lonie and Sandbrook (2011).

10 Andrés Felipe Laverde, “Abya Yala—Únete Latinoamérica”, YouTube, 10 November 2017,

11 El AKA, “¿Qué es arte?”, YouTube, 30 May 2012,

12 See Baker 2014; Araujo 2017; and my blog post “Abreu’s phantom PhD”,

13 The furore that erupted when the bassoonist Francesca Carpos conveyed the culture of the professional symphony orchestra to students at the Royal Academy of Music illustrated just how complex and potentially controversial the dynamics of this ensemble actually are (see Rahim 2019).

14 Though see Dobson (2016), Fairbanks (2019), and Godwin (2020) for insiders’ analyses.

15 See, for example, special issues of Revista Internacional de Educación Musical (5: 1, 2017) and Action, Theory, and Criticism for Music Education (18: 3, 2019).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 2. Timeline and institutional affiliations of the Red. Diagram by the author. CC BY. For a larger version of this diagram, please visit​timeline-of-the-red/​.
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Légende Fig. 3. Corporal expression. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 4. Archive of Red de Escuelas de Música. CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 5. Creating music for the US tour. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 6. Creating music for the US tour. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 7. Student-composed lyrics for the US tour. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 8. Field trip to Salón Málaga tango café. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 9. Field trip to Latina Stereo salsa recording studio and radio station. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 10. GC13 Project, Armonía territorial, San Javier (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 11. GC13 Project, Armonía territorial, San Javier (2018). Archive of Red de Escuelas de Música. CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 12. Talentodos project, San Javier (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 13. Social cartography exercise. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 14. Alfonso López school project, outdoor rehearsal. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 15. Alfonso López school project, outdoor rehearsal. Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 16. Alfonso López school project, “Family is…” Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 17. Alfonso López school project, “Family, pillar of my dreams.” Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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Légende Fig. 18. Santa Fé school project, “Rock, a song of freedom.” Photo by the author (2018). CC BY.
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