El Sistema’s Bad Press

Igor Toronyi-Lalic, a new "bad boy of music?"(Photo: CM2/UK)
Igor Toronyi-Lalic, a new "bad boy of music?"(Photo: CM2/UK)

I’ve been a cheerleader for El Sistema for years, on this blog, on the air and everywhere else. This is the program of music education  that originated in Venezuela under the guidance of Jose Antonio Arbeu. Gustavo Dudamel is the leading proponent on the world stage. He conducts the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, made of Sistema graduates, all of whom come from dire poverty.

El Sistema’s programs are found worldwide. Teachers go into the worst neighborhoods, from Israel to Illinois, and get children playing instruments. The long-range benefits are thought to be sensational, leading to improved intellectual and social skills-and a “ticket out”.

So what’s not love? British-based writer and polemicist  Igor Toronyi-Lalic has taken on El Sistema in a  recent issue of Classical Music Magazine, published in the U.K.

You can find the entire article on-line, but here are a few quotes:

“Jim Naughtie of the BBC Today programme believes the scheme a triumph just because 450 kids on an estate have learned an instrument. The enthusiasm with which people treat this fact troubles me.   It troubles me because it comes across as if art is being used to civilize the lower orders.  The fact is that learning an instrument is a morally neutral event. It is more or less good than anything else. …As often as not arts transforms life by tumbling it down into depression. In fact, one could argue that, in these extremely lean times, becoming a musician might be one of the surest ways of remaining in poverty.”

Toronyi-Lalic goes on to decry Arbeu’s perceived ties to the Chavez government:, writing of “Arbeu and Dudamel’s championing of Venezuelan authoritarianism through public support..”

I’d never heard of Igor Toronyi-Lalic before today. I did a web search and discovered him to be a fine writer and an expert debater. He’s a high level muckraker (not a bad thing), who backs up his points with a fierce intelligence. I surmise he’s never slept in a cardboard box or eaten out of a sewer, as have many of the Venezuelan youth drawn to El Sistema. And it’s true that the system is too new to provide statistics that adult lives have been improved by learning the clarinet at age twelve.

Kids join gangs to find a family, and they lean to violence as a form of control. Re-invent the structure with music and what’s the harm? There’s a difference between functioning collectively as adults with no other choice, and children living and working together toward a common goal. Especially when for many there is no home life.

So the jury’s out on El Sistema’s long-term effects. Short-term,  kids with no lives are fed, nurtured and taught. Go ahead. Raise my taxes and enlarge El Sistema here and everywhere.