A book just came out on November 28 which thinks it’s going to expose Venezuela’s El Sistema as a tyrannical and corrupt petty kingdom. The author published an article about his findings in The Guardian.
Geoffrey Baker, is an academic in the music department of London’s Royal Hathaway University and thinks El Sistema needs to be critically assessed and exposed by someone not from Venezuela. Wait — maybe he just needs an uncreative idea for a book?
Why have I emphasized Baker being an academic? Because academics, by their very nature, do not create anything. Jose Antonio Abrue, the founder of El Sistema is not an academic. If he had been then there would be no El Sistema.
Geoffrey Baker has gone to Venezuela and found the people who are disgruntled with a musical system that has close to 1 million children.
With that many people involved there is always going to be stories of abuse of authority and there will be varying degrees of corruption in any organization. What I found distressing were some of the underlying prejudices in the Guardian article.
Baker brings up the idea that El Sistema’s motto of “To play and to struggle” has been transformed at the highest levels and that it should now read “To play and get paid”. So musicians performing at a world class level should not be paid?
I’m being paid to write this. I’m assuming Mr. Baker has been paid to write his book. I’m also guessing Mr. Baker gets paid to be an academic. Where’s the issue? People should be paid for what they do.
Money is supposed to represent time, effort, and ability. Music should be something the Venezuelans do for free?
Later Baker asserts that El Sistema is based on a 19th Century paradigm of musical education which involves mere repetition instead of critical thinking and creativity. I’m about to lose my head here. How else does anyone learn a musical instrument except by endless hours of practice and repetition?
Critical thinking and creativity do not enter into mastering an instrument. For the love of God how can anyone criticize a music system that focuses on practice?
We admire athletes for the excellence of their performance and brag about the hours they spent repeating an activity so that they can excel at the highest levels.
Anyone wanting to be a good basketball player needs to shoot 300-500 shots, with correct form, everyday. The exception being seven-footers named Shaquille O’Neal. No one criticized Pete Maravich for spending hours and hours bouncing a basketball. In fact, we admire him for it, and young players are taught his ball-handling drills.
Baker goes on to bring up the insidious use of music:
“Its roots go back further still to the Spanish conquest of the Americas, when missionaries used education in European music as a means of converting and ‘civilising’ the indigenous population. These precursors were programs of social control, not emancipation.”
Let’s get one thing straight here. The indigenous peoples of the Americas were practicing some undeniably brutal and inhuman activities. “Civilising” the indigenous people was a real thing. To now condemn both the past and the present use of music in South America as creating social control is as self-righteous as it gets.