Article in the Washington Post

On 27 May, an article that I co-authored with William Cheng appeared in the Washington Post. It tackles a difficult subject that I have been investigating for a decade: sexual harassment and abuse within Venezuela’s El Sistema.

The story was followed up by Norman Lebrecht on Slipped Disc.

This is not the first time that such allegations have made it into the media. In the past, though, the response from the sector has been minimal.

We conclude the article:

Waiting for this ongoing crisis to blow over yet again — waiting for survivors to fall silent, for the news cycle to refresh — is indefensible. El Sistema’s “open secret” is, it’s safe to say, a secret no longer. Is the world finally willing to listen?

In praise of conflict

Conflict is a good thing. This is, in essence, the message of Conflicted, a new book by Ian Leslie. Conflict can draw us together, make us smarter, and inspire us to be more creative. It can “force people to consider other perspectives, think more deeply about what they’re trying to accomplish, and fertilise new ideas.” Leslie is an evangelist for what he calls this “crucial component of life”:

Disagreement is a way of thinking, perhaps the best one we have, critical to the health of any shared enterprise, from marriage to business to democracy.

If there is increasing evidence that conflict can have positive effects on workplaces, avoiding it can be harmful—leading, for example, to groupthink and bad decisions. For Leslie, the political polarization found today in countries like the UK and the US is the result not of too much argument but rather too little.

Leslie traces a long tradition of interactive thinking founded on conflict. Socrates, the father of modern philosophy, preferred to talk with people who disagreed with him, believing that “the best way to dispel illusions and identify fallacies was through the exchange of arguments.” According to Agnes Callard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, Socrates proposed that

truth can be reached more reliably and quickly if, instead of one person weighing up both sides of an argument, two or more parties are involved, each assigned a distinct role. Callard calls this method the ‘adversarial division of epistemic labour’. One party’s job is to throw up hypotheses, the other’s is to knock them down. People can co-operatively disagree in order to get to the truth – just as, in a modern courtroom, prosecutor and defender co-operate in a quest for justice by ripping each other’s arguments apart.

The Socratic method has a long and distinguished history:

In medieval Europe, Christian scholars incorporated the rules laid down by the Greeks into the practice of ‘disputation’: a method of debate, developed first in the monasteries and later in early universities, designed to teach and uncover truths in theology and science. Disputations took place both privately, between master and student, and publicly, in front of the university community. Every disputation followed a similar format. A question is asked. Arguments in favour of one answer to the question are sought and examined. Next, arguments in favour of an opposing answer are considered. The arguments are then weighed against each other, before one or other answer is chosen, or a third one is found. Disputation was competitive; the goal was to convince each other, or an audience. But it was also believed that by examining a problem from different angles, new truths could emerge. The practice was essentially Socratic dialogue, formalised and scaled up. Historians of the period talk of the ‘institutionalisation of conflict’.

More recently, some psychologists have valorized a “division of cognitive labour”:

In the ideal discussion, each individual focuses mainly on the search for reasons for their preferred solution, while the rest of the group critically evaluates those reasons. Everyone throws up their own hypotheses, which are then tested by everyone else. That’s a much more efficient process than having each individual trying to come up with and evaluate all the different arguments on both sides of the issue and it’s likely to lead to better decisions.

Leslie has plenty to say about the arts, too, and specifically music. Some of the greatest rock groups have thrived on disagreement. “Conflict seems to be a crucial element of any creative collaboration. You might even say that innovation and creativity themselves arise from arguments with the world.” He looks to Ernest Bormann, a pioneering scholar of small group communication, who argued that creative groups oscillated around their tolerance threshold like a sine wave, “alternating frequent episodes of conflict with calmer periods of agreement. Conflict is needed, said Bormann, to clarify goals, illuminate differences, stimulate curiosity, and release pent-up frustration.”

In sum, “open, passionate disagreement blows away the cobwebs […]. Disagreement throws open windows and pulls up carpets, dragging whatever we’ve chosen to hide under there into the light. It flushes out crucial information and insights that will otherwise lie inaccessible or dormant inside our brains. It fulfils the creative potential of diversity.”


In a paper on socially oriented arts education in Colombia, Miñana, Ariza, and Arango (2006) take a similar line. They propose that conflict should not be regarded negatively; rather, it plays an important role in social cohesion, and resolution should not be confused with elimination. They cite an earlier study on war by Estanislao Zuleta, who argued that conflict and hostility are constitutive elements of social connection:

The eradication of conflicts and their dissolution into warm coexistence is neither an achievable nor a desirable goal […]. On the contrary, it is necessary to construct a social and legal space in which conflicts can reveal and develop themselves, without opposition to another leading to suppression of that other—killing them, reducing them to impotence, or silencing them.

These Colombian authors critique the equation of peace with the absence of conflict as an elementary and conservative position that provides a weak foundation for social projects. In reality, “educating for peace implies educating for conflict.” They argue for retaining a conception of conflict “as a kind of commonplace social relation, something that is part of everyone’s life,” and also “as a catalyst of new relations.”

Within the field of music education, some practitioner-researchers have taken this kind of approach. For example, Cobo Dorado’s (2015) study of group music pedagogy underlines the importance of carefully managed conflict and constructive controversy for cognitive development. Accordingly, she argues that teachers should promote particular kinds of conflict in order to problematize knowledge and foster collaboration between peers. Similarly, Henley’s (2019) work with the prison program Good Vibrations is founded on the view that conflict plays an important part in pedagogy; the facilitators thus strive to create a safe environment, allow conflict to play out, and reflect on it afterwards.

It would seem, then, that conflict—learning to argue well and disagree better—ought to have pride of place in socially oriented music programs, particularly ones that seek to foster peace or coexistence. Yet at the heart of Social Action Through Music (SATM) lies a very different vision. El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, described its central tool, the orchestra, as “the only group that comes together with the sole purpose of agreement.” He claimed that an orchestra is “a model society […] whose essence is concertación; because to orchestrate is precisely concertar.” Concertar/concertación has a dual meaning—to agree/agreement, but also to harmonize/harmonization. El Sistema’s philosophy thus embodies the very opposite of Leslie’s vision.

As Fink (2016) argues, the problem here is not so much harmony per se, but rather a conception of harmony that has no place for dissonance or disagreement. This conception is evident in the exhortation by Chefi Borzacchini (2010), Abreu’s close confidant and the nearest thing to an official historian of his program, that in El Sistema, “everyone needs to be fully in tune in order to achieve unison,” and her imagining of a future Venezuela that is “perfectly in tune, with all its citizens joined in a single direction.” The creative potential of disagreement and diversity is nowhere to be seen.

If harmony is to be a productive metaphor for SATM, it ought to denote exploring and resolving dissonance, not singing in unison. Harmony has often had a coercive streak throughout history (Baker 2008; 2010; 2014), and Abreu’s philosophy is no exception. In reality, El Sistema’s process rarely constitutes “agreement.” Much more often, an orchestral conductor imposes his will upon young musicians. As a member of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra told a journalist: “It’s like American football — to be on a team, you have to have extreme discipline. The coach doesn’t say please and thank you.” This approach is a problematic one, both educationally and socially. Responding to societal violence by enforcing consonance may be counter-productive, as it does not allow participants to reimagine conflict as a productive force and to learn how to deal with it constructively. It may simply lead to the reproduction of violence in other forms.


Abreu was infamous for his abhorrence of divergent thinking and dissent. The Venezuelan classical music sector (or rather, diaspora) is littered with individuals who were “cancelled” by Abreu (fired, blacklisted, silenced, or persecuted), as well as others who were paid off. His attitude permeated El Sistema, turning it into an institution with a strong party line—a monument to groupthink.

The Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín (the Network of Music Schools of Medellín), the subject of my new book, is quite different. In this SATM program, as I observed during a year of fieldwork, tensions, debates, and even resistance flourished. They made the Red feel more chaotic, inefficient, and fractious than El Sistema; yet it also seemed like a healthier, more honest, and more democratic environment, in which groupthink did not dominate, employees were willing to be critical, and differences of opinion could be expressed publicly.

The Red was not a harmonious institution, yet my positive view of its dissonances is supported by Leslie: “Different parts of an organisation should be in tension with one another and staff should discuss those tensions openly, rather than silently pursuing their own priorities. A culture that tacitly prohibits disagreement makes the organisation more vulnerable to petty office politics, errors of judgement and abuses of power.” In other words, my more positive perception of the Red in comparison with El Sistema was not despite its obvious internal conflicts but rather because of them. They made life harder in some ways, but they also kept the program in motion. Conflict converted the Red into a living, changing organism, one that has steadily diverged over the years from the more static, univocal Venezuelan program.


An important example of the way that Abreu’s intolerance of criticism has shaped not just El Sistema but also the wider SATM field concerns the relationship between practice and critical research. Those who have followed El Sistema debates over the last decade might well think of this relationship as conflictive, but a closer look suggests that, as with Leslie’s argument about politics, the real problem has been not too much argument but rather too little. How much Socratic dialogue or disputation has there really been, even in print, let alone face to face? How often have critical arguments been subjected to point-by-point contestation? When Tom Service invited El Sistema’s executive director, Eduardo Méndez, to debate the main arguments of my 2014 book with me on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters, Méndez refused: he would only talk to Service. Many of Abreu’s followers have taken the line of The Maestro himself: excommunicate anyone who disagrees with you, and banish or ignore their arguments. This problem even manifests itself within the research sphere. In much SATM writing, conflicting opinions are ignored, dismissed or skated over rather than properly disputed.

Here, too, the Red provides an illuminating contrast. As part of a major change of direction in 2005, the program created a psychosocial team, part of whose remit was internal research. The team’s reports were often quite critical of the program, and they generated tensions within the Red, even at leadership level—and yet, fifteen years later, the team is still there. Rather than excommunicating critical voices and shunning their ideas, the Red created a space for them and maintained that space—sometimes of dialogue, sometimes of dispute—through thick and thin.

The Red has not run away from the tension or conflict between critical research and practice; rather, it has treated that tension as something productive, a catalyst for positive change, and therefore something to be managed rather than eliminated. Bringing critical voices into the fold has not entailed blunting their critiques. And change has indeed resulted from this approach, to a much greater extent than in the “harmonious” El Sistema, as I explore in my new book.

I believe that the Red models a possible future for the SATM field, one in which the relationship between practice and critical research is rethought to centre disputation rather than excommunication. Tension and conflict are reframed as productive and therefore to be encouraged and harnessed rather than avoided or eliminated. Abreu’s zero-tolerance attitude to criticism led to the demonization of conflicting opinions, but the Red points to another way for SATM. If the field were to look at critical researchers as people with whom to exchange arguments, to engage in disputation, bringing conflict on board as a productive force, the dynamics around practice and critical research that have dominated since 2014 would be transformed.

Leslie writes: “Imagine a culture […] where argument is viewed as a dance: a collaborative performance.” Why not imagine such a dance within SATM, with divergent views brought together rather than kept apart?

SATM would benefit from more conflict at several levels. For students, learning how to deal with conflict should be part of their training; pace Abreu, disagreement is a better educational focus than agreement. Miñana, Ariza, and Arango’s argument is much more coherent: “educating for peace implies educating for conflict.” Among adults, conflict between different perspectives within SATM programs should be regarded as a potential strength rather than a weakness—as generative of new ideas and practices. Abreu’s removal of dissenters is precisely the wrong approach for a large organization. The same is true of tensions between the views of practitioners and critical researchers. There could be much more emphasis on bringing conflicting visions together, rather than keeping challenging ideas at arm’s length. Both the practice and research arms of SATM would benefit from more disputation and “institutionalization of conflict.”

It is time for SATM to put Abreu-esque groupthink and demonization of divergent views firmly behind it and recognize the value of conflict.


Baker, Geoffrey. 2008. Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco. Durham: Duke University Press.

———. 2010. “The Resounding City.” In Music and Urban Society in Colonial Latin America, edited by Geoffrey Baker and Tess Knighton, 1–20. Cambridge University Press.

———. 2014. El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 2021. Rethinking Social Action Through Music: The Search for Coexistence and Citizenship in Medellín’s Music Schools. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.

Borzacchini, Chefi. 2010. Venezuela En El Cielo de Los Escenarios. Caracas: Fundación Bancaribe.

Cobo Dorado, Karina. 2015. La Pédagogie de Groupe Dans Les Cours d’instruments de Musique. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Fink, Robert. 2016. “Resurrection Symphony: El Sistema as Ideology in Venezuela and Los Angeles.” Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 15 (1): 33–57.

Henley, Jennie. 2019. “Pedagogy & Inclusion: A Critique of Outcomes-Based Research and Evaluation.” Paper delivered at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Leslie, Ian. 2021. Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together. Faber.

Miñana, Carlos, Alejandra Ariza, and Carolina Arango. 2006. “Formación artística y cultural: ¿arte para la convivencia?”

Doing things differently

What does a mentorship program for troubled boys in 1940s Boston, USA, have in common with a social dancing program for older adults in 2010s Sydney, Australia? Both were assumed to benefit participants, and both were subjected to randomized controlled trials (RCTs), which discovered—to the researchers’ surprise and even consternation—that the programs did not have the expected effects. RCTs are often described as the “gold standard” of scientific research, so their results demand close attention. The dance study found that social dance did not reduce the incidence of falls or their associated risk factors in older adults. More strikingly still, the mentorship study found that the social outcomes were worse for the treatment group—the boys who had been mentored—than for the control group.

These studies underline a point that is central to my previous research and my new book, Rethinking Social Action Through Music: one cannot assume the value of any given social intervention. As a plethora of studies across many disciplines reveal, some interventions—even ones that look attractive and whose benefits seem to be a matter of common sense—turn out to have null effects, while others, like the Boston mentoring program, have negative ones. However widely accepted they may be, however “obvious” their benefits may appear, they need to be rigorously scrutinized—and if the social objective is the priority, the results need to be taken seriously, even if they are unexpected or inconvenient.

Taking the results seriously may mean considering a change of direction. The dance study, for example, did not stop there; its authors did not simply conclude that dance doesn’t work. Rather, they proposed the development of “modified dance programmes that contain ‘training elements’ to better approximate structured exercise programs.” In other words, they suggested that ordinary social dance might not work to prevent falls, but a specialized dance curriculum, designed around the desired outcomes, might.

I was pointed to this study by Tim Joss, the founder and head of Aesop (Arts Enterprise with a Social Purpose), which has created Dance to Health. In Aesop’s words, the Australian RCT

demonstrated that dance in general, and social dance in particular (such as folk and ballroom dance workshops) do NOT prevent falls or their associated risk factors and, more broadly, challenges the validity of generalised claims about arts activities achieving health improvements. We realised therefore that Dance to Health needed to do things differently to achieve the outcomes we desired.  

Dance to Health created a specialized curriculum, which was found by an external evaluation to reduce falls by 58%.

Two features of Aesop’s philosophy are particularly noteworthy: its insistence on the value of research and engagement with researchers; and its starting point of “being sceptical of broad claims of generic health and wellbeing benefits of arts engagement.” In other words, engagement with researchers is not shorthand for engagement with researchers who tell a story that we’d like to hear.

Imagine if social action through music (SATM) took a similar approach.

Our field has its own RCT: the Inter-American Development Bank’s 2017 study of El Sistema. Like the two RCTs above, its findings confounded expectations: it discovered no evidence that El Sistema boosted social or cognitive skills, contrary to two decades of claims. It also estimated the poverty rate among those who enrolled in El Sistema at 17 percent, while the poverty rate of the states in which they lived was 47 percent. In other words, a program that had long been touted as a model of social inclusion actually seemed to exclude the poor rather than include them. The report concluded that El Sistema “highlights the challenges of targeting interventions towards vulnerable groups of children in the context of a voluntary social program.”

At this point, though, the response was very different to Aesop’s. The researchers—employed by El Sistema’s funder, the IDB—used “creative” methods to extract a couple of positive results from the data, and then all the parties involved (the program, the researchers, the funders, and the supporters) spun the results, exaggerating the positive findings and minimizing the negative ones, and ended up presenting the study as confirming El Sistema to be a resounding success (see Baker, Bull, and Taylor 2018 for detailed discussion).

Now imagine a parallel universe in which El Sistema and its backers had taken a different approach. Rather than sweeping inconvenient findings under the carpet, rather than inventing a success story where there wasn’t one, the key players acknowledged the null and negative findings and resolved to do something about them. They acted on the major caveat in the report—that El Sistema “highlights the challenges of targeting interventions towards vulnerable groups of children in the context of a voluntary social program”—and responded, like Aesop, “we realize that we need to do things differently to achieve the outcomes we desire.” They turned to experts on music education and social development, including those who question conventional approaches, recognizing the value of critical thinking for progress. They drew on that expertise to create a new, specialized, research-based curriculum, designed around the desired social outcomes rather than a particular musical tradition.

This is, of course, a parallel universe. El Sistema did not take this approach, and the chances of it doing so in future are slim. But SATM is not El Sistema, and the broader field could look to the research and examples like Dance to Health and conclude: we need to do things differently, and we can.

Examples exist within SATM—perhaps not of the precise process described above, but of efforts to think critically about conventional assumptions and practices, and to develop new, better approaches. However, we don’t hear enough about them, in part because El Sistema has monopolized the media space. We tend to hear about their similarities to El Sistema rather than their differences.

My new book looks at one such program, the Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín (the Network of Music Schools of Medellín). The Red started out like El Sistema, but it began to research and critique this model in 2005 and has steadily diverged from it since then. There are other programs out there that have explored new directions, like Argentina’s Programa Social Andrés Chazarreta (which focuses on Latin American traditional and popular music), Orchkids in Baltimore (which has pursued collaborative composition), Sistema Toronto (with its Social Development Curriculum), or Sister Cities Girlchoir (a “girl empowerment choral academy”). It’s time we heard more about them—and particularly, more about what they’re doing differently and why.


Baker, Geoffrey, Anna Bull, and Mark Taylor. 2018. “Who Watches the Watchmen? Evaluating Evaluations of El Sistema.” British Journal of Music Education 35 (3): 255–69.

For those without institutional access, a pre-proof draft can be found here.

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.

Keynote lecture: “Rethinking Social Action Through Music”

The video of my keynote lecture, “Rethinking Social Action Through Music,” at the 5th international SIMM-posium (Social Impact of Making Music) on 12 January 2021 can be found below: