Out now: “Rethinking Social Action Through Music”

There is a narrative of social action through music (SATM) that is familiar in the global North: the Venezuelan orchestral program El Sistema, created in 1975, exploded onto the international classical music scene in 2007 with the debut performance of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra at the Proms, giving birth to a global El Sistema-inspired movement. But there is another strand to this story, which saw programs influenced by El Sistema founded in Latin America in the 1990s. One such program was the Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín (the Network of Music Schools of Medellín), which opened in 1997 and worked hand in hand with El Sistema for its first seven years. This orchestra and band program was intended to promote peaceful coexistence in Colombia’s second city, which had gained infamy as the murder capital of the world during the heyday of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, and it formed part of a broader strategy of urban renewal that became known as “the Medellín Miracle.” It is the focus of my new book, Rethinking Social Action Through Music: The Search for Coexistence and Citizenship in Medellín’s Music Schools (Open Book Publishers, 2021).
My previous book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (OUP, 2014), explored the complex and at times unsavoury realities behind the spectacular façade of SATM’s most famous program. I argued that it was time to re-evaluate El Sistema and reconsider the widespread admiration for its model. Since then, I have become increasingly interested in the question that I posed at the end of that book: might SATM work better outside of Venezuela? What might be learnt, I wondered, by studying another program of this type and comparing it to the original? In 2017-18, I spent a year carrying out fieldwork in Medellín, looking for answers.
It turned out that by 2007, the year that Sistemania took hold in Europe and North America, Medellín’s SATM program had already run into problems and begun to rethink the El Sistema approach. In 2005 a new director had taken over, and the following year she had produced a detailed critical report on the Red, proposing a change of direction. As the wave of enthusiasm for El Sistema swept the global North, the Red distanced itself from the Venezuelan model, embarking on a process of reform that has been going on ever since.
Another internal study found a serious problem in the Red: a high percentage of advanced music students showed arrogance, exclusion towards their peers, and a lack of respect towards their teachers. Successive reports contrasted the theory that music generates positive social values ​​and the reality of divisions, rivalries, and negative attitudes found within the program. This was a bombshell, considering that the Red was funded by the city to promote peaceful coexistence.
With these internal reports, critical perspectives became embedded at the highest level of the program. Senior managers concluded that the original approach to SATM was too focused on musical outcomes and that the Red, as a publicly funded social program, needed to take the social side more seriously. Questioning a lack of voice and agency, they sought to empower the students and adopt a more participatory ethos, to distance the program from dynamics of pity and charity, and to boost musical and pedagogical variety. The Red embarked on a search for improvement, which started from recognition that the orthodox model of SATM did not lead to the desired outcomes with respect to coexistence and citizenship.
During my year in Medellín, I observed a new wave of reform, which focused on identity and diversity (more emphasis on Colombian music); creativity (a greater role for improvisation and composition); reflection and participation (a shift to project-based learning); and territory (connecting the Red to other cultural actors in the community, and listening more to the city).
This process was not without its challenges. Rethinking and reform generated internal debates and resistance from some staff and students. The relationship between the musical and social sides of the program and between classical and popular music emerged as particular sources of tension. I observed the grinding of the gears as leaders attempted to graft progressive educational philosophies and practices onto a relatively conventional music program.
Studying this fifteen-year process of divergence and change tells us a lot about the limitations of the orthodox model and the potential of SATM to transcend it. It also sheds new light on academic research, since the Red’s internal analyses show many parallels with critical scholarship on El Sistema and similar programs that has been published internationally since 2014. The Red’s experience may have considerable relevance to many other contexts around the world in which El Sistema has been adopted and adapted.
The emergence of self-critique and change of the dominant model of SATM from within the field is a significant development. Up to now, critical research on SATM has often been positioned as divorced from practice and external to the field and therefore safely dismissed or ignored.Now, the source of the critique is a major SATM program.
Moving beyond this case study of change, I also engage in a broader rethinking of SATM, looking to the future of the field. There have been significant shifts in society and music education since El Sistema’s foundation, suggesting that SATM’s core model deserves revisiting at the very least. Reflecting on the search for alternatives and improvement in various parts of the world, I propose five areas as priorities for further attention: the “social” in SATM and its relationship to musical practices; decoloniality and SATM’s approach to classical music; the political dimensions of socially oriented music education; artistic citizenship; and the demographics and targeting of beneficiaries.
There are challenges and obstacles to reform. These include limited circulation of knowledge and public debate; the slow evolution of teacher training; resistance to change from within SATM; and the conservative influence of El Sistema and some major funders. I also hold up three dilemmas of a more conceptual kind. Does SATM constitute an effective and efficient means of tackling major social problems? Is SATM inescapably rooted in colonialist ideology? And is SATM inherently dangerous because of its susceptibility to appropriation by political or commercial interests? These questions interrogate the validity of SATM as a concept.
I conclude by considering possibilities of transformation, inviting the reader to imagine a SATM for the future, one that is socially driven, emancipatory, realist, sustainable, and more profoundly Latin American.
I sat down to write this book about change in SATM in late 2019. Just a few months later, COVID-19 and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter moved some of my central concerns (such as large ensembles and Eurocentrism) much higher up the public agenda, and major questions surfaced around the world about what music education could or should look like in future. In 2021, progressive voices across many areas of human life are questioning whether we should rush back to an old normality that was already broken. If ever there were a moment to rethink social action through music, it would be now.

3 Comments on “Out now: “Rethinking Social Action Through Music”

  1. Pingback: E-book “Rethinking Social Action through Music” de Geoffrey Baker – Centro de Investigação em Psicologia da Música e Educação Musical

  2. Pingback: E-book “Rethinking Social Action through Music” de Geoffrey Baker – Centro de Investigação em Psicologia da Música e Educação Musical

  3. Pingback: Rethinking Social Action through Music: The Search for Coexistence and Citizenship in Medellín’s Music Schools (Geoffrey Baker) – Working in Music

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