Music for the masses: could it work here?

It would be brilliant if El Sistema, Venezuela’s social movement for classical music education, came to Britain. But there are obstacles.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Culture

Last night, in London, I participated in a very stimulating discussion titled ‘El Sistema: Will it Translate into English?’

El Sistema is a genuine social movement and publicly funded music-education programme in Venezuela. It is made up of 30 symphony orchestras, and most spectacularly it has got more than 250,000 Venezuelan children involved in learning serious music. A great number of these children – around 90 per cent – come from poor communities.

Last night’s discussion, organised by the Worshipful Company of Musicians and held at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, was designed to examine whether such a programme could ever take off in Britain – would it ‘translate’? It attracted a lively audience of musicians, music educators and individuals from the music industry. One of the speakers, Gloria Carnevali, former cultural attaché at the Venezuelan Embassy in London, said it is difficult not to be inspired by the huge impact that El Sistema has had on people’s lives. And she is right.

Other speakers, including Kathy Whitaker, manager of the Big Noise Project in Raploch, Scotland, and the well-known cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, who is chairman of the UK ‘In Harmony’ scheme that aims to get more young people playing musical instruments, expressed their hopes that the principles of El Sistema could work in Britain. Another panellist, however, Richard Morris, a well-known advocate of sustained progressive education, raised concerns about the potential for El Sistema to succeed in Britain, given the short-termist attitude we have to public funding here and the differences between children’s lives in Venezuela and children’s lives in Britain.

So, as a sociologist, how would I answer the question ‘El Sistema: Will it Translate into English?’

Venezuelan children learning
first-hand from the experts

In a world where we have become accustomed to pointless government social engineering and to well-meaning projects that invariably fail to make the slightest bit of difference to people’s lives, it is reassuring to know that we still possess the imagination to develop inspiring projects that do improve people’s lives. El Sistema is one of those rare examples of contemporary social activism that aims to transform people’s existences. It is definitely working in Venezuela, but could such a system of music education succeed in Britain?

It would be wrong simply to write off the possibility of something like El Sistema taking off here. After all, there are millions of parents who wish their children had more opportunities to improve their lives and get a better education. Throughout Britain, it is clear there is a real desire to participate in community-focused activities. Indeed, many children in Britain are actively looking for a community they can belong to, and would welcome participating in the ‘musical home’ provided by a British version of El Sistema. Also, the appetite for success, especially in the world of music, is widespread, as shown by the popularity of reality TV shows such as The X Factor.

However, it would be foolhardy to overlook the formidable cultural and social barriers that could make it difficult for El Sistema to work in Britain. I believe that there are at least four obstacles potentially standing in the way of translating El Sistema into English.

The first is the institutionalisation of low expectations in British education. As I understand it, the Venezuelan scheme demands serious commitment from the children, who are taught to play their instruments to a very high standard. In an average week, children receive many hours of tuition and they are expected to practice during weekends. In other words, they have to organise their schooling, social and family lives around the music.

In Britain, education in general, and music education in particular, works to a far less exacting standard of commitment. The contrast between El Sistema and the UK government’s Music Manifesto is striking. The Music Manifesto is about giving children a ‘musical experience’ and it lacks the challenging and transformative potential of El Sistema. In an educational environment where pushing children and demanding serious commitment is often decried as ‘authoritarian’, it would be very difficult to gain support for an El Sistema-style initiative from anything more than a small minority of self-selected and highly motivated families.

The second obstacle is linked to the wider cultural mood of low expectations. Poverty and a lack of economic opportunities are, of course, a problem for some communities. And unfortunately, in Britain, disadvantaged communities are also afflicted by cultural influences that undermine people’s ambitions and belief in themselves. In my travels around the world, I have often encountered real, absolute poverty. But often that poverty stimulates people and makes them hungry for a different way of life; they will jump at any opportunity that promises to improve their circumstances.

Sadly, such a sense of ambition is often weak in disadvantaged communities in Britain. Instead of the hunger for success that one sees amongst the poor of southern Asia or Latin America, people on very low incomes in the UK often have a strong consciousness of entitlement and have become distracted, by many factors, from understanding how their own efforts might lead to positive outcomes.

El Sistema places great
importance on group participation

The third obstacle is the ascendancy of celebrity culture. There are many influences behind such cultural phenomena as the reality TV show The X-Factor. One thing that fuels such things, unfortunately, is the aforementioned culture of low expectations, which distracts people from understanding the relationship between effort and success. Sadly, many young people want to become celebrities, and they focus on this objective without being encouraged to educate, train and improve themselves to realise their ‘dream’. Young people have always been drawn to ‘dreams’, but contemporary celebrity culture merely flatters their fantasies rather than instilling in them a true love for, or commitment to, music.

The fourth obstacle is the highly individuated culture of British childhood. For a variety of reasons, children’s lives are highly fragmented and individuated today. El Sistema provides an education that has a strong community focus. The children don’t practice on their own, but rather learn from the very start how to work and play together in an orchestra. There is little doubt that such a joint effort helps to encourage both a community dynamic and individual creativity. Such an approach goes against the grain of Britain’s atomised culture of childhood, where success is measured in a one-sidedly individualised manner.

The four obstacles I have outlined do not constitute an argument against the introduction of something like El Sistema in Britain. But hopefully they demonstrate, to those who are serious about introducing a Venezuelan-style system of music education here, that we must self-consciously challenge the culture of low expectations that afflicts schooling and children’s lives throughout British society. There is little point in introducing a modified Music Manifesto-friendly scheme that would require little commitment from children. It has got to be the real thing.

One reason why El Sistema has succeeded in Venezuela is because it was the product of a genuine movement. In other words, it is not a project of music education. Projects – even when well-funded – are just that: projects. They seldom transform into long-term durable institutions that materially improve people’s lives. Yes, pilot projects can work, because of the concentration of resources and the highly motivated personnel that they attract – but they rarely spread and become embedded in communities, which is why the bureaucratic attempt to generalise ‘best practice’ in ‘project creation’ turns into an exercise in ticking boxes. For El Sistema to work here, it needs to be led by a movement of committed music educationalists. Hopefully that is one Venezuelan lesson that can translate directly into English.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi railed against using music as an instrument of social policy and condemned twenty-first century philistinism. John Tusa gave Ten Commandments for the arts. Angus Kennedy slammed New Labour’s Hodge-podge approach to high culture. Munira Mirza said museums have impoverished aims. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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