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Rethinking Social Action through Music

Geoffrey Baker

Part II

7. Possibilities of Transformation

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You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.
Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate all the Brutes

It’s the critics who drive improvement. It’s the critics who are the true optimists.
Jaron Lanier, in The Social Dilemma

Fig. 31. Archive of Red de Escuelas de Música. CC BY.

1 The conductor Zubin Mehta was asked about music and peace-building. He replied:

Look, six years ago I went with the Bavarian State Orchestra to Kashmir, where Hindus and Muslims sat down together for the first time to listen to music. And they smiled listening to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Just imagine, that was my dream fulfilled. But it’s clear that it didn’t help resolve the conflict. No, my dream of peace through music has not been realized. (Chavarría 2019)

2Daniel Barenboim took a realistic view of the successes and limitations of his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra project. He was proud of its achievements, but he also denied that it was a “utopia” or “an orchestra for peace,” stating baldly: “we cannot do that” ( “20 Jahre” 2019).

3Such a balance of aspiration and realism is less apparent in the field of SATM. The tone is set by El Sistema’s head conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, who proclaimed in 2017: “With these instruments and this music, we can change the world, and we are doing it” (Swed 2017). In interviews, too, he eschews the caution that his fellow conductors display, upholding instead a utopian vision of El Sistema and music more broadly.

4Yet the gap between rhetoric and reality is glaring. The backdrop to Dudamel’s heart-warming statement was his “country on the verge of economic collapse, an increasingly authoritarian government generating a possible constitutional crisis and perpetual demonstrations that could lead to a full-scale revolution” (ibid.). El Sistema is the world’s longest and largest SATM experiment, yet far from changing the world, it has seen its home country fall apart around it. In 2019, Dudamel lectured at Princeton University about “music as freedom”;1 back home in Venezuela, El Sistema musicians were obliged to perform at the disputed inauguration of the corrupt, authoritarian President Maduro, the latest in a long line of political subjections and humiliations. Where was their freedom?

5The community musician Dave Camlin writes:

We’ve had these debates for a long time now in terms of music as a force for introducing social change or all of these things and yet it hasn’t necessarily resulted in those changes. I think it’s important that all of us working in the cultural sector are able to look really critically at our practices to say are we really making the difference that we think we are? (Camlin et al. 2020, 166).

6Looking at Venezuela, the heart of the field, is SATM really making the difference that it thinks it is?

From Grandiosity to Ambivalence: Reframing SATM

7The persistence of a utopian narrative in the face of such contradictory evidence points to illusion and rhetorical excess as characteristic features of El Sistema (Fink 2016). Dudamel’s public pronouncements exemplify a grandiosity that originated with El Sistema’s politician-orator-founder, Abreu, and spread across the field (e.g. Dobson 2016; Rimmer 2020). Here, counterweights such as the realism of Mehta or Barenboim are in short supply. Most programs display the usual ups and downs of music education and large institutions, yet the world has been presented with over-the-top claims about revelations and resurrections. Children from stable, aspirational, educationally committed families have been described as at-risk youths rescued from a life of crime, drugs, or prostitution; playing in a youth orchestra has become “playing for their lives” and “changing the world.” As with Medellín’s social urbanism, an interesting, attractive, but complex phenomenon with mixed results has been oversold as a miracle. Aspirations have been confused with achievements, and a blurring of institutional propaganda, advocacy, journalism, and even some one-sided research has produced a hyperbolic dominant narrative that is significantly divorced from reality.

8Rhetorical excess is not limited to SATM. As Waisman (2004) notes, romanticization and exaggeration of the power of European music in Latin America goes back to the accounts of Spanish missionaries in the sixteenth century, writing about their own supposedly glorious efforts to pacify and convert the indigenous population. Waisman argues that such narratives have been taken too literally by many, rather than being grasped for what they were: publicity for the authors and their religious orders. The parallels with SATM are not hard to spot.

9Turning back to the present, Kertz-Welzel (2016) analyses kitsch and romanticization in the field of CM. Mantie and Risk’s (2020) recent evaluation of youth folk music camps called Ethno-World recognized that the vast majority of participants enjoyed their experience, but it also underlined that many of the claims about the program were significantly overblown and demonstrated a lack of awareness of the wider field of music education practice and research. The researchers saw Ethno-World’s signature approach as “more of a convenient slogan or catch-phrase than an informed approach to the problems of teaching and learning” (10); and its claims of pedagogical innovation point to “a potentially disturbing naiveté about all that is currently known about music teaching, learning, and facilitation” (11). There are close parallels with SATM, in which Abreu’s catch-phrases have loomed large, age-old and indeed widely critiqued practices have been presented as novel, and much current knowledge about music education has been overlooked. Music learning can clearly be very enjoyable for the self-selecting group that chooses to pursue it in such voluntary programs; the problem concerns the grandiose claims that accompany it, which frequently do not stand up to scrutiny.

10Rhetorical excess appears to be a feature of the wider field of music education and learning, then, but it is nonetheless particularly pronounced in SATM, and it is not just an ornamental feature of this field; it is integral to the model, the fuel on which it runs. Ocampo motivated students by instilling them with the sense that they were on a mission to transform the world through music. Abreu’s perorations about music overcoming poverty and violence might have been founded on wishful thinking, but they inspired national and international movements. Grandiose language, big dreams, and extravagant promises kept these programs in motion, generating the commitment to continue, the funds and new participants to expand, and the media attention to build energy.

11Major SATM programs usually have a communications officer or team. El Sistema has a very active press office. Much of the information that circulates publicly about SATM starts life as marketing materials produced by communications professionals. Their job is to generate a simple, appealing story and spread it via the mainstream and social media. This process contributes to the general tendency towards exaggerating positives and minimizing negatives in discourse on SATM. Public communications often describe intentions as achievements and over-egg the pudding in ways that may not reflect the views of more thoughtful staff. When a press article about the Red’s 2018 tour was presented in a management meeting, the leaders groaned at its talk of the program “rescuing” children—a discourse that they could not abide. Communications may not even reflect the views of the person who wrote them. One communications officer in Medellín told me: I often ask myself if I am a liar. She recognized that her job was to promote an idealized vision of the Red that glossed over less convenient truths.

12Not all writing on SATM is so romanticized. As we have seen, critical reports on the Red date back to 2006; in the case of El Sistema, to 1997 (Baker and Frega 2018). In the former, the Red’s own musical staff described the program’s objective as overly utopian and more of a cliché than a realistic goal. In the latter, most El Sistema interviewees were disillusioned by the contradictions between stated values and actual practices. Not only did they question whether the program even attempted to pursue its social objectives, but they also accused it of fomenting behaviour and attitudes that ran contrary to those aims. The gaps between theory and practice with SATM have thus been known to participants and researchers alike for many years, and they have been put into writing. However, all these reports were internal, so the number of people outside the organizations who knew was minimal. What was missing during these years was not critical analysis but rather its dissemination. Those who produced the critiques were experts in music education in Latin America and social scientists embedded in the Red— in other words, individuals who were highly qualified and knew the realities well. But they had no public platform. In contrast, institutional propaganda, advocacy, and idealistic media commentary had free rein in the public sphere, propagated by program leaders, famous musicians, journalists, and other big players in the classical music sector, most of whom were more distant from the realities but had a story they wanted to tell and a pulpit from which to do so.

13Today, there is a mass of critical research in public circulation; there is a major quantitative study of El Sistema that reveals clearly the flimsiness of its theory of change; there is even research that directly analyses the rhetorical excess (e.g. Pedroza 2015; Fink 2016; Dobson 2016). Yet the dominant narrative has hardly changed at all. Only a few music journalists have departed from the official story, and fewer still have delved into the research. Most institutional depictions have not changed one iota. This is not a matter of lack of evidence; it is about a collective refusal to engage with it. By the time critical research began to be published—not discovering unknown problems, but rather rediscovering known ones—it was too late. A global SATM edifice had been constructed by this point, and rhetorical excess was the glue that held it together. As Rimmer (2020) suggests, too many powerful constituencies stood to benefit from the success story for a more realistic account to gain more than a toehold: El Sistema had become “too big to fail.”

14Rhetorical excess has served not just as a barrier to public discussion and understanding, but also as a brake on progress. El Sistema itself is a crowning example: stuck in a 1970s time-warp, becalmed by its own self-mythologization, and blinkered by hubris thanks to the adulation of outsiders. Idealism has also led to the perpetuation and spread of problems as the field has grown. Thanks to El Sistema, there has been a resurgence of five-hundred-year-old narratives of salvation through music that have been problematized by music education scholars (e.g. Gould 2007; Vaugeois 2007; Spruce 2017). The propagation of an inflated story of its achievements only makes it harder for Venezuela and other postcolonial contexts to put such colonialist conceptions of music education behind them.

15Rhetorical excess cannot be put down as simply a bit of innocuous hot air, then. As Easterly (2006, 18) notes, “the new fondness for utopia is not just harmless inspirational rhetoric”; rather, it has pernicious effects on development. Taking SATM’s hot air at face value has led many to reproduce problematic practices, shun critical thinking, hold unrealistic expectations, and resist change. The field’s exaggerated claims are also shaping policies on music and social action around the globe. In 2018, the UN and IDB promoted El Sistema as “a model of social inclusion for the world,” on the shakiest of grounds. In 2019, Mexico announced the creation of a national ESI program, despite the IDB’s 2017 study that revealed that El Sistema failed to reach the poor and had negligible social effects, and despite a highly critical journalistic investigation of the Mexican program’s ESI predecessor, Esperanza Azteca (García Bermejo 2018). Hot air defeated research and became the foundation of a national program. When rhetorical excess becomes enshrined as national or international policy, there is reason to be concerned.

16Many SATM programs now operate within challenging funding contexts in which there are losers as well as winners. Esperanza Azteca, for example, drew funding away from other, existing music programs. Salinas’s youth orchestra program received large sums of public money while state culture budgets were slashed. The Mexican investigation reported: “The flourishing of the Esperanza Azteca Children’s Orchestras and Choirs […] has gone hand in hand with the cancellation of theatre, music, dance and film festivals, the disappearance of symphonic orchestras, and the struggle for survival by community culture programs.” As its headline put it pithily: “Culture suffocates; the Azteca orchestras flourish.” In Harmony El Sistema England received considerable investment at a time when music education funding generally was being cut by nearly a third in England (Bull 2016), and it did so on questionable grounds (Rimmer 2020); Sistema Scotland has flourished against a similarly concerning backdrop (Baker 2017). The excessively optimistic discourse of SATM may therefore have implications for the wider field of music education, potentially diverting resources and/or attention away from other programs, including those that may be more effective, efficient, equitable, or culturally relevant. In Mexico, as in Venezuela, it impacted negatively on other arts as well by monopolizing resources. As Spruce (2017, 723) argues in an article devoted partly to the UK’s Sistema programs, “the appropriation of social justice to sustain political agendas or normative discourses within and beyond music education has had the effect of veiling or silencing more radical and potentially disruptive paradigms of music education and social justice.”

17In short, SATM’s rhetorical excess has serious practical consequences. It also raises ethical issues. Is it ethical to claim that a program founded to provide professional training and widen access to classical music is in fact a social program? To advocate for investment of social funds in orchestral training on the grounds that it is socially transformational without good evidence? To ignore significant counter-evidence? To consume funds that could be used for other social programs that are proven to work or other musical programs with a good track record? Is SATM’s triumph at the expense of existing music education and cultural programs, as in Mexico, really something to celebrate?

18Development experts recognize that major societal issues are often complex, “wicked problems” (Ramalingam 2013, 265). Furthermore, it is “morally objectionable for the planner to treat a wicked problem as though it were a tame one, […] or to refuse to recognize the inherent wickedness of social problems” (Rittel and Weber, cited in ibid., 269). Yet many of SATM’s favourite lines— “from the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he is no longer poor”; “a child who takes up an instrument will never take up a weapon”; “orchestras and choirs are incredibly effective instruments against violence”—are the epitome of treating wicked problems as though they were tame ones. A simple, universal formula like creating an orchestra is not only unlikely to be a solution, but it may also impede more realistic efforts at social change; it could even, as some research on development and SATM suggests, make the problems worse. Utopian thinking may “contribute to concealing and naturalizing the power relations upholding the status quo. Disregarding how musicking involves constraining as well as transgressive features may thereby reinforce rather than transform the marginalizing structures that music making supposedly can contest” (Boeskov 2019, 191). The idea of applying a single approach across different places and cultures is widely criticized in scholarship on culture and development (e.g. Thompson 2009). Claiming that orchestras will miraculously resolve complex social problems like poverty and violence is a travesty of musical-social work, and it muddies understanding of music education and social change. Rhetorical excess is not something to be shrugged off as a harmless quirk.

19Whether we look at Kashmir, the Middle East or Venezuela, the justification for a highly optimistic view of the social power of orchestras is thin—as even famous conductors like Mehta and Barenboim admitted. The struggles in the first two contexts are no closer to resolution, while Venezuela has declined precipitously. Critical research on SATM mounts by the year, and some of the field’s foundational tenets look distinctly problematic in the light of recent scholarship on music education, social justice, and development. In Medellín, the other municipal arts education programs had left behind technical training and magical thinking years earlier.

20There is therefore a wealth of reasons to embrace a more ambivalent approach to SATM. Systematic critique may be a hard sell to the music world at large, which has much more use for a “power of music” narrative, but it is necessary step. El Sistema has been one of the most widely reported, promoted, and imitated music education initiatives of the twenty-first century, and it is the cornerstone of a SATM field that now incorporates hundreds of thousands of students in dozens of countries around the world. Gaining a deeper understanding of this field is therefore an important endeavour in its own right. Yet as Erik Olin Wright and Ruth Wright suggest, the importance of critical diagnosis goes beyond the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake: it is the first step in emancipatory or social justice research, which aims to disrupt a problematic status quo and open the door to better alternatives (Wright 2019). Critical research is a foundation stone for the possibilities of transformation.

21If the consequences of grandiosity may be quite deleterious, taking a more ambivalent stance may be a source of positive change. It is only through facing up to flaws that they can be seriously addressed. Critiquing the disjuncture between myths and realities has liberatory potential: it may catalyze exploration and experimentation, rather than the reproduction of flawed ideas and methods. It may encourage a search for new approaches to SATM that accord more closely with research in this field. There is now more than enough evidence from studies of SATM and related fields to suggest that there is considerable room for improvement in terms of both music education and social action. The fastest route to such improvement is critical questioning and public debate, not grandiose, idealistic rhetoric.

  • 2 Gelb (2004) argues that embracing ambiguity was an essential characteristic of the genius of Leonar (...)

22Ambivalence does not mean disengagement or destruction; it is not a creed of negativity. It can underpin constructive action; the ambivalent researcher may become “a facilitator or a catalyst to change” (Ander-Egg 1990, 36). As Sloboda (2019) notes, “true learning often only follows failure, and understanding why.” Ambivalence encourages us to take questions like teamwork and student voice more seriously, rather than assuming that they will take care of themselves. Embracing ambiguity is not about denying music’s positive potential—it is about fulfilling that potential.2

23The history of the Red illustrates this point. For the first eight years, the program adopted an El Sistema-esque approach of preferring action to reflection. However, reports in 2006 and 2008 revealed that many problems had accumulated as a result. Their findings underline that musical activity needs to be accompanied by critical research and reflection if SATM is to achieve its social goals. Furthermore, this documentation and analysis of problems formed the cornerstone of efforts to transform the program.

24Critical research—an ambivalent ethnomusicology or sociology of music education—thus has a vital role to play in rethinking and remaking SATM. All too often in the SATM field, researchers have been asked or happy to play the role of handmaiden, blurring the line between research and advocacy. The reverse of this coin is that critical researchers have been painted as the enemy, to be ignored or dismissed. Some branches of the SATM field have a Manichean, “with us or against us” view of scholarship and critique. However, the Red showed that there is another way. Since 2006, the program has hired social professionals to ask difficult questions, not to pat program leaders and staff on the back and tell them what they want to hear. The social team has sometimes been seen as a thorn in the side, whether by staff or students or even the leaders themselves, yet a dozen years later it is still there. When I arrived at the program, I was treated as a colleague and a potential ally in a process of self-critique and change that the program had already begun. I did not have to pledge loyalty, sign up to any mission, or adulate any leader. With an openness entirely fitting for a public institution, the Red threw open its doors, and we worked together from then on. It was salutary to find that practice and critical research could go hand in hand.

25In the light of this experience, and also briefer exchanges with representatives of other programs, I believe that it is eminently possible for SATM and critical scholars to work together productively. This does not mean that the researcher has to curb their critical faculties. On the contrary, I propose that an important role for scholars should be to embrace what Belfiore labels “an anti-bullshit research ethos,” and to engage with complexity in SATM in a similar way that Belfiore and Ramalingam have done with respect to the social impact of the arts and overseas aid. Such an approach has a deep historical foundation: the social impact of the arts has been a topic for critical interrogation for more than two millennia (Belfiore and Bennett 2008). Scholars are uniquely placed to explore such issues, since higher education institutions can still support work that pursues deeper understanding and not just utilitarian goals.

26Music scholars sometimes advocate for a particular topic, perhaps suggesting that the importance of a composer, work, scene, genre, or artist has been insufficiently appreciated. In the case of SATM, however, with support abounding among funders, the music industry, and the media, and general beliefs often excessively optimistic, academics have a role to play in injecting a note of caution and realism. It is not a route to popularity, but it is an important role for music scholars in an age of post-truth. Indeed, the bigger the claims, the more necessary this role. As Reimerink (2018, 194) argues: “Medellín’s social urbanism is internationally regarded as a ‘success story’ in urban transformation, which makes critical research on its accomplishments all the more urgent.” Urban researchers have critically scrutinized the Medellín Miracle from many angles; they have banished the promotional bullshit and replaced it with sophisticated critiques. Research on stories of musical miracles should be no different. This “anti-bullshit research ethos” should also have a public element: after all, the general public would expect to be told about the drawbacks and side effects of a public health program or aid project, so why not of musical-social work? Why should music be exempt from serious scrutiny, divorced from advocacy motives? It is in the public interest to debate the pros and cons of existing models and the possibilities for improvement, particularly in contexts where SATM programs are publicly funded.

27Taking the goals of SATM seriously and investigating ways to achieve them more effectively is a constructive step. Whether it is seen as such depends on programs and their representatives. If they are firmly wedded to a particular practice, ideology, or music education brand, then a critical researcher may appear as an antagonist. But if they are committed to critical reflection and change, as the Red was, then the same researcher may appear as an ally who might contribute to internal processes, and at that point the possibilities for collaboration between practice and research begin to flower. If their central question is “how could it work better?”, then stepping back from a miracle story to a more realistic assessment may be seen not as disparagement but rather a contribution. If arts education is treated as a means of social control and reproduction, then critical scholarship has no place at the table; however, if it is “a vehicle for transformation, reflection, and critique,” as Giraldo put it (Vallejo Ramírez 2017), then SATM practitioners and critical scholars may dine happily together.

28My views had led to my excommunication by much of the El Sistema field several years earlier, but here, in an emblematic SATM program, they were unremarkable. The Red’s social team had little time for “music bullshit.” At meetings and in private conversations, I was often on the same page as the Red’s senior staff. They treated me as an analyst of SATM’s problems and supporter of progressive solutions rather than an enemy. They even offered me a job. In turn, I sent an advanced draft of this book to three senior figures (past and present) and invited them to provide critical feedback before the text was finalized. A few other SATM programs have stretched out a hand, like NEOJIBA, Orquestra nas Escolas (Brazil), and Symphony for Life (Australia). In 2019, I was invited to join the scientific committee of Démos (France). Dialogue and collaboration are possible if program leaders desire it.

29My experience in the Red questioned commonplace binaries in SATM such as insider versus outsider, practice versus research, and advocacy versus critique. Many other individuals, too, crossed these imaginary boundaries. The social team were critical researchers who were insiders; and there were music educators who were engaged in research. Franco, the pedagogical coordinator, often insisted that research should be an integral part of music education: a curiosity or exploratory ethos that went hand in hand with music learning. Medellín’s visual arts network provides a neighbouring example of critical thinking and practice working well together—indeed, of practice stemming from critical research.

30Most importantly, the critical re-evaluation of the Red from 2005 onwards was led by its own employees, and two of the architects of this process from 2017–19 were musicians. A critical ethos became part of the Red, not something alien or opposed to it, and debate took place not between insiders and outsiders, advocates and critics, but between supporters of contrasting approaches within the program. The central point of this book has been that if the Red turned out to be more complex in reality than public perceptions of SATM would allow, this was an internal diagnosis. The program’s management were both advocates and critics of the Red, and they showed little interest in the rose-tinted views of observers with little knowledge of the Red’s challenges. I hope that uncovering these dynamics will contribute in some way to breaking down some of the barriers and imagined dichotomies that constrained the circulation of knowledge in SATM during the 2010s.

31El Sistema’s major problems were first unearthed by Latin American researchers in 1997. A growing body of research on related programs reveals that some of these issues have been found elsewhere in the SATM field. Now we can see that the Red displays a comparable picture. How much more evidence is needed? How many times do researchers need to find similar issues in different parts of the field before they are taken seriously? Following the example of the Red, it is time to move beyond the miracle stories and salvation narratives that have dominated public understanding and to pursue more critical discussions and nuanced, innovative visions of socially oriented music education. Both practitioners and researchers are already engaged in this process, but too often apart. When programs recognize the issues and embrace critical reflection and change, researchers can contribute by helping to deconstruct the dominant myth of SATM and to reconstruct something better in its place.

From Access to Action: Rethinking SATM

32The final element of the equation of emancipatory research is possibilities of transformation. This chapter has focused so far on the possibilities for transforming the discourse of SATM and renewing the relationship between practice and critical research. Let us turn now to possible transformations in SATM itself and reimagine it from a place of ambivalence and critique.

33The primary aim of this book has been descriptive rather than prescriptive—to present and analyse processes of internal criticism, debate, and change that have been underway for many years within the Red, and to compare them to the cornerstone of the field, El Sistema. As an ethnographer of music education, I see my role as to observe and diagnose rather than prescribe: to try to ask the right questions rather than provide the right answers, as Ramalingam suggests. There is already a large literature on what high-quality socially engaged music education looks or might look like. Also, I heed Ramalingam’s warnings about the dangers of blueprints. Answers may be different in every context, so they must be sought by music educators, social workers, policymakers, and other professionals on the ground. In my experience, those who want to translate critical thinking into practice are perfectly capable of doing so without being given instructions by researchers. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

34I will attempt to reconcile these two somewhat contradictory aims— to imagine possibilities of transformation, but without prescribing solutions—by offering a series of questions or prompts. They are an invitation to reflect rather than a recipe; questions for the reader’s consideration rather than steps to follow. They point to something deeper than quick fixes or immediate answers: a new mindset, one attuned to an evolving world rather than remaining bound to the prescriptions of the twentieth century. As Lecolion Washington stated in the previous chapter: “You can’t just change your tactics, you need to change your thinking.”

35These questions encourage the reader to imagine a Latin American, socially driven, emancipatory, realist, sustainable SATM. This is not idle dreaming: all its elements are being explored today by music educators, artists, researchers, and thinkers in Latin America and around the globe. What is needed is a broadening and deepening of such efforts within SATM, the backing of national and international funders and umbrella bodies, and, above all, the will to put critical questions at the top of the agenda and to reimagine SATM for the 2020s and beyond.

What Might a Latin American SATM Look Like?

36The twentieth-century version of SATM was born in 1975, but it looked back to 1875 and even 1575. It is a shining example of what Boaventura de Souza Santos (2018, 1) calls “the imperial South”: “the epistemological little Europes that are to be found and are often dominant in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.” Its focus was widening access to classical music, and it was built and revolved largely around European repertoire, methods, and ideologies. Tours to and visits from Europe were the highlight. Despite sporadic efforts at diversity, it had little room for the culture of indigenous or African-descended populations and thus echoed Europe’s “musical conquest” of the Americas in the sixteenth century (Turrent 1993). Yet most of Latin America’s emblematic musical genres, like tango, samba, cumbia, and son, emerged from the poorest and most marginalized sectors of society, where such populations were concentrated. It is high time to abandon the orthodox SATM view of such sectors as cultural deserts in need of a transfer of European art from their social superiors, and to fully embrace the reality that they have historically been the most powerful source of cultural richness and innovation in the Americas. Some decolonial rethinking and reform is already underway, but it could be developed much more deeply and widely in the SATM field. There is room for much more debate about the limitations as well as the contributions of a European approach to music education in Latin America and the horizons opened up by an epistemological shift of the kind envisaged by Shifres and Gonnet (2015).

37Can we imagine a SATM based not on European Jesuit or conservatoire models but on the region’s own distinctive contributions? One that drew not on a conception of music education as social ordering and control, but rather on Latin American traditions of communal celebration, familial musicking, or the inseparability of music and dance? One that looked to Salvador or Santiago rather than Salzburg? Fung (2018) proposes a philosophy of music education based on ancient Chinese thought; can we imagine a Latin American equivalent?

38Keil’s “Paideia Con Salsa” and AfroReggae’s batidania offer examples of Afro-diasporic approaches to cultural education and artistic citizenship (see Chapter 5). There are many other Latin American cultural forms with similar potential, such as capoeira (Candusso 2008) or samba de roda. Their great advantage is that the social aspect is an integral and vital part of the musical culture. Many such forms evolved as ways to strengthen the social fabric within marginalized communities. The social element is neither a discursive layer on top nor a distraction from the music. In this light, it seems more than a little ironic that the orchestra—a European musical organization in which the social experience of participants was historically of minimal concern—should have become the paradigmatic model for SATM in Latin America. The paradox only increases if we consider classical music’s historical self-construction as autonomous from the social (Born 2010; Bull 2019). What is the logic for choosing such a genre as the vehicle for social action, rather than one in which the musical and social have always been closely interwoven?

39The contrast between SATM and theatre in Latin America is highly revealing. The 1970s saw both the creation of El Sistema, the brainchild of a conservative Venezuelan economist, and the consolidation of the Theatre of the Oppressed, which Augusto Boal based on the ideas of the radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Boal’s program, founded on critical analysis of society, revolutionized drama education around the world. Abreu’s, founded on disciplining participants, has also been internationally influential, but it has been more of a counter-revolution in music education (Baker 2016b), and its lack of a method leaves significant question marks over what precisely is being transferred to other contexts beyond the name (Frega and Limongi 2019).

  • 3 See, for example, “Re-directing: Directing in the Twenty-first Century”, International Conference, (...)

40More recently, theatre has seen considerable self-critique and experimentation with regard to the figure of the director.3 SATM, in contrast, remains conductor-centric, and El Sistema has served as both a production line of maestros and a bastion of conventional thinking about musical leadership. One might have expected radical experiments from a youth program in the middle of a political revolution, but the opposite has been the case. It is revealing that the modestly progressive ideas about music education explored by the Red in 2017–19, which will be familiar to many readers with expertise in this field, were contentious within the program and a departure from the norm in Latin American SATM. Strip away the rhetoric and orthodox SATM presents an old and familiar ideology: a musician is someone who plays an orchestral instrument; playing in a large ensemble is the primary goal of music education; the presentation of well-known repertoire in a public concert is both the aim and the measure of the process. SATM has seen the re-transmission of a very old European ideology around the world, lightly filtered through a Latin American lens. This is one reason why El Sistema has been adopted so easily, quickly, and widely by dominant institutions: it is instantly recognizable and understandable to those steeped in that ideology.

41But what might a Music of the Oppressed look like? What sort of contribution might it make to music education around the world? Might it, like Boal’s method, upend traditions rather than upholding them? Might it catalyze new ideas and practices rather than reviving or consolidating old ones?

  • 4 I am not simply advocating for a nationalist approach to SATM, though it might be justified in a co (...)

42Latin America is the focus of this book and my main area of interest, but readers from other parts of the world, particularly outside Europe, might transpose this question to their context. Is a Eurocentric model the best choice for SATM? What alternatives might there be? Could other forms of SATM based on national or regional philosophies be imagined?4

What Might a SATM Look Like That Prioritized the Social?

43Can we imagine a SATM that starts not from an established musical practice and takes the social as a means of justifying, funding, reproducing, marketing, and disseminating it, but rather from social goals and looks for the music-making (of whatever kind) that is best suited to achieving them? One that puts music at the service of the social rather than the social at the service of the musical?

44Hess (2019) provides a good example of this kind of inversion. Her pedagogical model derives from listening to and reflecting on activist-musicians. She asked what such musicians did and what music for social change looked like, and then considered what kind of music education might lead to that goal. The resulting proposal is for a new kind of music education modelled on music for social change, not an old form of music education framed within a social discourse. Starting from the desired social goal, rather than from the training of professional musicians, could revolutionize SATM.

45Delivering music education in more “social” ways may be a positive step (if the education is appropriate and high-quality), but more radical moves are eminently possible. For example, a music program that emphasizes a narrow range of genres might promote coexistence, if done well, but largely between likeminded people. A more ambitious approach would be to pursue cultural cohesion by catalyzing musical, cultural, and social exchanges between people with different musical interests and backgrounds. Hess notes: “As we consider what it might mean to teach for connection, introducing musics that allow students to encounter people beyond those with whom they typically interact, we create a mechanism for tangibly humanizing different groups” (78). This is precisely what the San Javier school project in Medellín did. There were other experiments in putting the social first during my fieldwork, such as Intermediaries of Civic Culture, the administrators’ away day, and the Afro laboratory, and they looked very different from orthodox SATM.

46SATM did not originate as a practice or method; it was a publicity label for widening access to conventional classical music training. As a member of the social team put it in 2018, the Red had spent two decades showing off its students in concerts, festivals, and tours, yet it did not have a distinctive educational model. After nearly half a century of operation, El Sistema has not produced unique, shareable methods or resources. SATM’s origins are as a speeded-up, intensified form of orchestral training. Recent adaptations in some places have toned down the intensity and extremes, but then the question becomes how SATM differs from mainstream music education—and the answer appears to be, not much. Although there have been a number of efforts to conceive of El Sistema as a distinctive method or pedagogical approach, research in Venezuela (Baker 2014; Frega and Limongi 2019), the US (Hopkins, Provenzano, and Spencer 2017; Fairbanks 2019), and the UK (Dobson 2016; Baker 2017) suggests that practice is often quite conventional. The challenge today, therefore, is not simply to rein in SATM’s excesses but also to construct a new model. An increasing number of progressive music educators understand that the issue of inclusion should revolve not around widening access to existing, exclusive spaces and practices but rather around creating new, inclusive ones.

47What, then, might a Latin American SATM method look like—a distinctive one, not a familiar one in unfamiliar surroundings, and one that could be explained to and shared with others? Not just group lessons but group pedagogy, carefully thought out and underpinned by research, driven by the distinctive possibilities offered by group learning rather than just an urge to massify (Cobo Dorado 2015)? One that did not simply mimic colonial or European pedagogies and limit diversity to the incorporation of local repertoires but rather constituted a Latin American, mestizo musical pedagogy (Serrati 2017)? One rooted in an epistemological shift and opening up a “meeting of knowledges” (Carvalho et al. 2016)?

48If the social objective is genuinely paramount, then SATM’s processes and outcomes should reflect this. Rather than modelling itself on the professional symphony orchestra, SATM might look to fields such as CM and music therapy, which offer many examples of putting the social first, or to highly participatory music traditions in which, as Turino (2016, 303) argues, “the success of an event is judged by the degree of participation achieved; the etiquette and quality of sociality is granted priority over the quality of the sound and motion produced.” Turino’s first specialism was the music of Peru; his vision thus offers another pointer to SATM in Latin America. CM, too, has seen considerable reflection on how artistic quality might be imagined differently in participatory as opposed to presentational arts (e.g. Bartleet and Higgins 2018). Kajikawa (2019, 169) details various musicians and musical projects that “value community as much as if not more than they aspire to aesthetic perfection. […] The work of these and other individuals and organizations suggests that there are other ways of appreciating the beauty of music that go beyond the technical dimensions of sound.” There are plenty of existing examples to which SATM might look in rethinking itself to prioritize the social.

49Another suggestive inversion is proposed by Henley and Higgins (2020), who propose redefining the terms excellence and inclusion. Instead of seeing excellence as a product and inclusion as a process, they flip the script. This approach makes good sense for SATM: it implies examining the educational process and the degree of inclusivity (rather than public performances) to determine program quality. It points to a way beyond the endless debates about excellence in older SATM programs like the Red, responding with the question: “excellence in what?”

  • 5 Salazar 2015; Mignolo and Walsh 2018; Smith and Silverman 2020.

50Intermediaries of Civic Culture hosted the program “Improv for life,” which explored systematically (and humorously) the lessons from improvised theatre for everyday life. What might “Music for life” look like? Music for living well (buen vivir or eudaimonia) rather than performing well?5

What Might an Emancipatory SATM Look Like?

51Since the sixteenth century, European-style music education has been conceptualized as playing a role in pacifying and ordering Latin American society (Baker 2008; 2010). For the Spanish colonists, it was a tool of social control, and in the hands of Abreu, who led the mission model to a comeback in the 1970s, it remained as such to the end of his life. It is time to imagine a SATM that seeks to liberate rather than discipline; that sees youth in terms of potential and creativity rather than emptiness, deviancy, and disorientation; that imagines a different future. One that treats music education not as a tool for bending youth to social norms, but rather for reflecting on and, if necessary, questioning the status quo. One that follows the lead of Medellín’s youth researchers (Jóvenes 2015), or draws on Mouffe’s (2013) agonistic politics, Sachs Olsen’s (2019) socially engaged art, or Mould’s (2019) urban subversion. One that reimagines SATM not as a harmonizing technique of “the post-political city” but rather as “free spaces”: “nodes for experimentation with new urban possibilities […] where alternative forms of living, working, and expressing are experimented with, where new forms of social and political action are staged, where affective economies are reworked, […] where proper urban democratic politics emerge” (Swyngedouw 2007). One that sees social mobility as a collective rather than individual endeavour, seeking to improve entire communities rather than principally the lives of successful music students (Folkes 2021). One that embodies not a colonialist mission to save others but rather a decolonial or anti-oppressive quest to liberate everyone from systemic inequities that increase unhappiness and problems at all levels of society (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010).

52The Red’s social team dreamt of such a shift. Its 2017 report opened with a quotation by Alfredo Ghiso that concludes: “What is needed then is an education that liberates, not one that adapts, domesticates or subjugates” (“Informe” 2017a, 3). Later on, they quoted Fernando Savater: “Education is the only possibility of bloodless, non-violent, and profound revolution in our culture and our values” (184). They cited these figures in order to urge the program to do more.

53Hess (2019, 103) offers a concrete alternative to the individual deficit orientation of orthodox SATM: an activist music education that “creates a space for youth to connect their experiences to others’ experiences, challenge dominant narratives, and develop a systemic understanding of the forces that shape their lives.” Unlike orthodox SATM, it grants full value to students’ own lived experiences, seeks to connect them not just to likeminded individuals but also to others more removed from their realities, and encourages participants to challenge oppressive ideologies rather than discipline themselves. A rethought SATM might well take a non-formal or popular education approach, rather than a colonialist or human capital one (Maclean 2015): this would allow for closer connection with Latin American traditions of music learning and radical education, more space for artistic citizenship, and better psychosocial outcomes. As Ilari, Fesjian, and Habibi (2018, 8) note, “the effects of musical interventions on children’s social skills may be […] more robust in participatory forms of music-making […] than in formal learning programs, particularly those that tend to be of a hierarchical nature.” SATM might seek to transcend the ideology of large ensemble music-making as an expression of harmony, and consider the potential of music to explore and express dissonance.

What Might a Realist SATM Look Like?

54The orthodox version of SATM was built on a twentieth-century version of Romantic idealism, shared by its creators and many who have observed, filmed, written about, and advocated for it (Pedroza 2014; Fink 2016). In this book I have presented and argued for realist research. But what if realism did not stop there but extended to the programs themselves? What if SATM took seriously Adorno’s critique of idealism in music education and instead embraced a critical dimension that “consists in making visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate” (Mouffe 2013, 93)? For Adorno, argues Kertz-Welzel (2005, 7), “art has to be true and music should be a mirror for the real conditions of society. […] Music as social agent has to awaken people, has to raise consciousness concerning the alienation of human beings. Art has to challenge society and human beings in order to break through the power of suppression, alienation, and deification.” Accordingly, Kertz-Welzel (2011, 16) rejects idealism in favour of realism, as discussed in Chapter 6: “A teaching philosophy should not be based on pseudo-religious ideals such as healing the world or transforming human beings through music, but rather be more realistic and focused on students’ actual needs.” Such visions are not so different from that of the Red’s social team in 2017–19, which insisted that art should be a tool for naming and engaging with societal issues, not escaping from them.

55Research in development studies is often wary of panaceas, magic formulas, and grand, utopian designs (e.g. Scott 1998; Easterly 2006). Ramalingam (2013, 351) proposes:

in trying to bring about change, development actors need to focus less on attribution of impacts ( “we achieved this!”), but on the more modest and realistic goals of contribution to outcomes ( “here is how we helped change knowledge, attitudes, relationships and behaviours”), the impacts of which are largely determined by actors and factors outside of any given agency’s control.

56A realist SATM might eschew ideals of changing the world or vanquishing poverty or violence and focus instead (like Medellín’s visual arts network) on concrete, realistic urban and social interventions. Mouffe (2013, 102) holds up the example of a Barcelona museum informed by critical pedagogy that connected artists and artistic practices with social movements and local political struggles: “Several workshops were organized around topics such as precarious labour, borders and migrations, gentrification, new media and emancipatory policies.” There are echoes of Barrett’s (2018) work at the CLCS. A realist SATM might engage with Stephen Duncombe’s notion of an “ethical spectacle,” in which music is not an escape or a staging, but rather “members of social movements participate democratically in creating the spectacle” (Silverman and Elliott 2018, 380). It might distance itself from unethical, authoritarian spectacles of order and discipline that reproduce cultural and social hierarchies and put young people on display without giving them a voice.

57A realist SATM might eschew simplistic, linear models and draw instead on research on complexity by the likes of Ramalingam: “Complexity thinking can help describe and explain our world, our relationship to it, and to each other far better—with far greater realism and fidelity—than the tools we have had handed down to us from nineteenth-century physics” (2013, 362; emphasis added). Ramalingam argues that top-down, hierarchical, blueprint thinking is inadequate and even counter-productive in a world of complex adaptive systems. He upholds the value of bottom-up, self-organized systems, allowing full interaction between actors: “From the perspective of adaptive agents, the edge of chaos is hypothesized as the optimal position for learning […]. True learning happens when organizations are coupled at the edge, where new ideas come into an environment that is flexible and adaptable” (186). His advice is to “let go and let the positive deviants self-organize in ways that enable them to find their own solutions. This is especially challenging for actors […] who are imbued with a powerful self-image of being the fixers and the solution providers” (278). He advocates for “minimally invasive education” (328): giving children technologies and letting them get on with learning and sharing ideas, with little intervention from a teacher, in what he calls a “Self-Organized Learning Environment” (330).

58This sophisticated but also realist vision of learning at the edge of chaos could hardly be further from orthodox SATM, with its obsession with discipline, order, conductors, and orchestras, which Abreu compared admiringly to a Swiss watch (see Baker 2016a). Recall Peerbaye and Attariwala (2019, 4), who characterized orchestras as “hierarchical and rigidly structured in terms of creation and production processes and protocols of decision-making,” and as needing “to develop flexibility for new and more complex approaches.” Indeed, Ramalingam holds up jazz improvisation (and rejects classical music) as an answer to his question: “How do we learn to set our knowledge, training and expertise aside and learn to be more adaptive?” (190). He closes his book with a vision: “Aid in the future would not be an export industry, sclerotic and rigid, shaped by politics of supply and the mental models of early Fordism. Aid would resemble the world of which it is a part: fluid, dynamic, emergent” (363). Replacing “aid” with “SATM” both encapsulates the field’s past and points to a possible future.

59Although their reforms were only partially achieved in practice, what Giraldo and Franco dreamt of in the Red was something quite similar to Ramalingam’s Self-Organized Learning Environment. They too imagined spaces that were more flexible, with adults taking a smaller role and students sharing and seeking solutions among themselves. They tried to bring more of a jazz improvisation ethos into the Red. The moment that I saw them happiest with the Red’s music-making was during the jam at the Harvard event—unplanned, self-organized, more than a touch chaotic, yet vibrant and captivating. Ramalingam’s educational vision has been realized in non-formal music education; might it be realizable in SATM?

60On a more personal note, the Latin American musics that I love most—salsa, for example, or Cuban timba, rumba, and hip-hop—have a realism and ambiguity about them that is lost in SATM’s idealism and utopianism. They often speak about life on the street; they have a touch of badness about them—a kind of swagger that the Cubans call guapería—and roots in Latin American musics of resistance going back to colonial times. Such genres construct community, but their leading musicians are often complex figures; in general, they are not, and do not claim to be, paragons of virtue. This ambiguity gives the musics a particular life force. The will to normalization in SATM—the focus on discipline, order, respect, responsibility—sidelines a lot of what makes Latin American musics special to me. It also minimizes embodiment, which is such a fundamental aspect of these musics.

61Is the capacity to instil discipline really what musicians love about music? How could SATM be more than this? What might an aesthetically realist SATM look like, one that reflects the ambiguity of Latin American musics, one that engages with the complexity of real life rather than negating it by removing children into a bubble of idealism and dreams of elsewhere? What might a realist SATM sound like? What might it feel like?

62Is there any place for idealism or utopianism, then? Scholars of culture and development have revealed their dangers. Abreu’s supposed utopianism was really an example of what Foucault (1991, 169) called “a military dream of society.” Yet a SATM stripped of all utopianism might be a rather dry affair. Ruth Wright offers a way out of this conundrum. She points to “real Utopias” rooted in “Utopian pedagogy”: not so much the pursuit of a future societal ideal as “an ethos of experimentation that is oriented toward carving out spaces for resistance and reconstruction here and now” (Coté, Day and dePeuter, cited in Wright 2019, 222). Wright offers a utopianism that is grounded in the realities and achievable goals of music classrooms, in cutting-edge practice and research in music education, rather than in grandiose claims about changing the world or imaginings of a perfectly ordered, harmonious society that runs like a Swiss watch. She describes activist, collaborative, creative pedagogies in pursuit of “new societal Utopias—not in the sense of unattainable perfect futures but in terms of encouraging spaces of social experimentation and resistance, encouraging the collective, reengaging communities with the political” (225). This is a form of pedagogical or educational idealism, focused on providing music students with precisely the kinds of skills that neutralize the dangers of utopianism. This is not Abreu’s utopia of disciplined, obedient, apolitical youths singing in unison from his hymn sheet; it is a utopia of autonomous but collaborative, creative, critically reflective, politically engaged musicians, each one with their own voice, pursuing a dialectical harmony that embraces dissonance as well as consonance (Fink 2016).

What Might a Sustainable SATM Look Like?

63Some would argue that if there is one area above all in which social action is needed today, it is in combatting the climate crisis. An economic system geared around excessive production and consumption is driving the planet towards the brink. Features of this system such as pollution, overwork, stress, and lack of free time also bring consequences for human beings’ physical and mental health and quality of life. An increasing number of social thinkers and activists are pushing back and looking for more sustainable ways of living that relieve the pressure on the planet while bringing additional benefits and pleasures to other areas of human life.

64Building on radical economists’ questioning of the ideology of growth (e.g. Raworth 2017), Soper’s (2020) manifesto for “post-growth living” proposes that what is good for the planet is also good for us. A less work-focused existence and “a less harried and acquisitive way of living” open up the possibilities of “relieving stress both on nature and on ourselves. If the circulation of people, goods and information were to slow down, then the rate of resource attrition and carbon emissions can be cut, and time freed up for the arts of living and personal relating” (53). If a time-scarce, work-dominated society is bad for workers’ physical and mental health, play offers an alternative focus: “There is a special pleasure in the concentration of the game and the uncertainty of its outcome, and by ‘wasting’ more time on the ‘pointless’ activities of play, rather than ‘investing’ it in instrumental work activity, this gratification moves against the commodifying logic of our times” (86).

65A constellation of “slow” movements has emerged as forms of critique of and resistance to the intensity of modern life (Craig and Parkins 2006), and the cult of work faces increasing scrutiny (e.g. Campagna 2013; Frayne 2015; Suzman 2020). Some writers focus on the environmental angle, others on the political one. Frayne, for example, regards busyness as an enemy of democracy, since people need time to be politically active citizens. He is among a number of thinkers who articulate a politics of (free) time. Such movements are not limited to the global North: sumak kawsay/buen vivir is an important example of thinking and action on de-growth, sustainability, and quality of life from the global South (Salazar 2015; Mignolo and Walsh 2018), and similar principles are articulated by indigenous populations across South and Central America (Houtart 2011).

66If this historical juncture is generating new philosophies of social action, it also calls for new kinds of social action through music, better aligned with efforts to confront the biggest problems and challenges of our time. Orthodox SATM, however, points the way backwards. El Sistema “produced musicians like sausages,” to quote one of its members (Baker and Frega 2018), reflecting Abreu’s ideological grounding in mid-twentieth-century industrial capitalism (Baker 2014). In the founder’s own words, El Sistema boiled down to hard work. His vision was simple: “we grow, grow, grow.” He abhorred ocio (free time) and had no interest in grassroots participation or activism. El Sistema was focused on one thing: speeding up and intensifying the process of orchestral training. Its musical claims to fame have always been about more, bigger, louder, faster. It brought together more than 10,000 musicians for a concert in memory of Abreu.

67El Sistema emerged on the back of an oil bonanza. The program developed without any conception of ecological limits, flying parties of up to 300 musicians and hangers-on around the world and stimulating massive consumption of tropical hardwoods for instruments (Lafontant Di Niscia 2019). After 2007, the dominant image of SATM was the jet-setting Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, continually on tour around the world’s great concert halls. In 2019, as I began writing this book, Greta Thunberg led young people in climate protests around the world, but Latin American youth orchestras continued to fly across continents for no reason other than to give concerts. These supposed social programs for youth seemed almost oblivious to the biggest social issue of their time for young people.

68Shevock (2021) urges music education for social change to pay greater attention to ecological issues. SATM should recognize that the world today does not need an ethos of discipline and normalization, but rather a new mindset; it is not individuals that need to correct their course but rather economic and political ideologies. The planet does not need “grow, grow, grow”; on the contrary, humans need to rethink our obsession with growth. As Raworth (2017) argues, we have to refocus on thriving instead. Speeding up and intensifying is precisely the wrong approach for our times.

69A music education system that reproduces the ethos of the economic and social system that got us into this mess hardly points the way out of it. On the contrary, “the very virtues that defined human progress— our productivity, ambition, energy and hard work—might lead us to perdition” (Suzman 2020, 303). If “we are global warming” (Simms 2011), then hot-house musical training is the wrong model for mass music education in the 2020s, particularly for music education with social objectives.

70SATM needs new figureheads—people rooted in the realities of the 2020s, who can inspire new kinds of social action and activism. Or to go further, perhaps it should abandon figureheads altogether, in the light of the field’s mixed history of charismatic but authoritarian leaders, cults of personality, and top-down management. Perhaps what are needed are instead principles, concepts, or symbols that may be appropriated and adapted by each community or program, maybe even each individual, and unfold through bottom-up processes of collective construction.

71A culture ministry official in Medellín criticized the Red as a system of rapid musical production and argued that it needed to slow down: “Let’s stop, take a break, breathe, and have a rethink.” This could be a motto for SATM in the 2020s. What might a SATM look like that supported the search for new ways of imagining social life? One connected to the social movements of our time that are responding to climate change and rethinking the social, political, and economic systems that have contributed to it? Recall Mignolo and Walsh’s (2018, 64) description of sumak kawsay/buen vivir as “the harmonious interrelation or correlation of and among all beings (human and otherwise) and with their surroundings.” This is precisely the kind of coexistence that we should be searching for in the 2020s: one that embraces harmony between humankind and the natural world as well as between people.

72What might a post-growth model for SATM look like? Varkøy and Rinholm (2020) give one clue, proposing the embrace of slowness and resistance in music education as a way of contesting consumerism, constant action, and economic growth, and thereby contributing to the development of a more sustainable society. Another signpost is provided by Todes (2020), who applies Raworth’s model of Doughnut Economics to the classical music sector. Such a thought experiment would be well worth translating to SATM and fleshing out. It offers an example—even if only a brief sketch—of rethinking the conventional model of how a music sector works in the light of radical contemporary thinking about the most urgent social questions.

73The classical music sphere is beginning to understand the importance of localism, and it seems increasingly likely that in time it will devote more attention to local community work and less to international touring (Brown et al. 2020). Lebrecht (2021), imagining a revolutionized sector rising from the ashes of COVID-19, proclaims: “Local is the new global.” SATM ought to be leading this movement, rather than taking inspiration from a program with a centripetal, export-based model. Music students undertaking ecological projects is a positive step, but rethinking SATM through the lens of ecology and sustainability requires a further one: to reflect on the ways that industry, speed, and growth are woven into the field’s orthodoxy at the deepest level, permeating its ideology and practices, and to rethink it in terms of sustainable education (Rustin 2020).

74Whichever routes are ultimately taken, the 2020s call for a very different ethos in SATM: one cognizant of systemic problems and attuned to efforts to tackle them; connected to progressive movements that uphold the value of sustainability, quality of life, and free time; committed to play and creation and not just work and performance; and looking beyond the needs of the music profession and industry.


75El Sistema re-enacts the same ideology and dynamics of music education that have prevailed in Latin America since the sixteenth century. The parallels between choirs of indigenous musicians performing European music as a symbol of civilization and orchestras of barrio youths performing European music as a symbol of social transformation are hard to overlook. Laid over this substratum is a vision of SATM shaped by mid-twentieth-century industrial capitalism and developmentalism. It is time to think about SATM in a completely different way: without hierarchies of culture and value; without constructing the music student as inferior and in need of correction; without resting on principles of intensity, speed, size, and growth.

  • 6 At the SIMM conference in Bogotá in 2019, some of the most dynamic practices and ideas were present (...)

76Answers to the questions posed in this chapter may come not just from the most progressive voices in SATM but also from smaller grassroots projects. SATM has garnered disproportionate attention and funding because its narrative appeals to politicians and the media, and in some cases it has crowded out other visions, but it has much to learn from smaller programs, which sometimes have a more contemporary ethos and radical agenda.6 In Colombia, there are many such projects, working in more challenging circumstances, with more disadvantaged populations, or in more innovative or holistic ways than orthodox SATM, often with more than one art form at once. SATM may be older, larger, and more famous, and it was novel in some respects when it was created, but it has developed slowly since then and has been overtaken as other forms of socially oriented arts education have advanced, often more attuned to the thinking and practices of social movements. There are also progressive organizations linking practice and research in Latin America, such as FLADEM and Observatorio del Musicar, that receive much less publicity than SATM but serve as incubators of innovative ideas and practices. Beyond the region, CM has generally followed a different path to the large ensemble model, and it has been pursuing creative, participatory, non-hierarchical, small group work for decades, putting into practice many of the ideas proposed in Part II (and more). The fact that such approaches are still somewhat novel in SATM is a testament to the conservative influence of Abreu and El Sistema over this field. More attention to promising alternatives outside the SATM field—smaller, more flexible, more agile music programs, or other arts education projects like Medellín’s Dance, Theatre, and Visual Arts networks—could speed up progress within it.

77Answers will also have to come from another source: universities and conservatoires. Reform or revolution in SATM will be hamstrung unless it is mirrored in the training of musicians in higher education. Music teachers cannot be expected to implement effectively methods and ideas that have not formed part of their own education. Zamorano Valenzuela’s (2020) research on training activist music teachers in a public Chilean university points the way.

78In many ways, this invitation to reimagine SATM could extend to many parts of the world. The issue of creating a curriculum and pedagogy that accord more closely with the local context and the social goals arises in many places. This is an area in which more imaginative programs are making progress and it is a path that beckons for others. Pursuing this line will not answer every question raised in this book, but it will be a big step forwards. Adopting an emancipatory, realist approach, focused on assets rather than deficits and critical reflection rather than discipline, might not tie up every loose end, but it too would represent a significant advance. Greater attention to sustainability, meanwhile, would be a positive step anywhere on Earth.

79As I have argued repeatedly, the issues in Medellín and Venezuela are not unique to those contexts. In the course of conferences, visits, and conversations with SATM educators and researchers in a number of other countries, I have seen that behind the idealistic public discourse, there are similar challenges, complexities, and limitations, and there are staff willing to provide a realistic account of them (in private). There are other programs that suffer from a lack of suitably trained teachers, or struggle to reach the most disadvantaged, or offer a conservative curriculum and pedagogy, or generate professional desires in contexts where there are few relevant work opportunities. My inquiry may be centred in Colombia and Venezuela but it does not stop there.

80Pace Abreu and Dudamel, orchestral music is not going to change the world. Large ensemble music education has been around for centuries; it is not suddenly going to end poverty, violence or crime. More thoughtful conductors such as Mehta and Barenboim do not regard music as a magic solution to intractable problems. Art may of course have social effects, but they are rarely direct or linear, hence Clarke’s (2018) preference for the more contingent notion of social affordances rather than impact. Music may be a source of catharsis, consolation, inspiration, revelation—but the idea that teaching children to play the violin will dissolve “wicked problems” is a fiction, and a pernicious one if it detracts from more serious efforts to tackle such challenges and to understand music’s social effects.

81So what can SATM do? Can it do more than keep children busy and off the streets? If it looks to develop social skills in a more focused way, grapples with issues such as citizenship and empowerment, conceives of music education as political and ethical action, and learns from the most promising models of music education and social change, it will offer more to participants and engage more directly with society outside its walls. And if the coming years see the emergence of a Latin American, socially driven, emancipatory, realist, sustainable SATM, then the field’s promise may be realized.


1 “La Música Como Libertad: Gustavo Dudamel en Princeton”, 8 January 2019,

2 Gelb (2004) argues that embracing ambiguity was an essential characteristic of the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and that today, in an era of information overload and rapid change, “[t] he ability to thrive with ambiguity must become part of our everyday lives” (150).

3 See, for example, “Re-directing: Directing in the Twenty-first Century”, International Conference, Department of Cultural Heritage, University of Salento, Lecce, Italy, 2–4 October 2019; Duška Radosavljević, “The Heterarchical Director”,

4 I am not simply advocating for a nationalist approach to SATM, though it might be justified in a context where national culture is overshadowed by global and cultural survival or revival is a priority. A national and/or regional focus may make sense in a postcolonial country like Colombia. In a former colonial power in the grip of right-wing nationalism like the UK, however, a contrasting approach might be preferable: for example, focusing on the musics and histories of regions colonized by the British and the variety of cultures that make up the country today as a result. I am not therefore pointing to a one-size-fits-all approach to SATM, but rather to more flexibility and experimentation, and, above all, to greater consideration of cultural-political questions and interrogation of arts education that perpetuates unequal relationships of colonial origin.

5 Salazar 2015; Mignolo and Walsh 2018; Smith and Silverman 2020.

6 At the SIMM conference in Bogotá in 2019, some of the most dynamic practices and ideas were presented by small projects in peripheral areas with little media presence.

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