National Youth Music Organisations on the move: what does this mean for SATM?

Inclusion. Community. Youth voice. Sharing and empathy. Excellence of experience, not just of musical sound.

These are commonplace ideas in the field of social action through music (SATM) and they were central themes of a public seminar on 17 March. But this was not a SATM event: it was a debate organized by the UK’s Music Education Council (MEC), entitled “The Importance of National Youth Music Organisations and Centres of Advanced Training.” It featured representatives of some of the UK’s most hallowed youth music ensembles, including the National Youth Orchestra, the National Children’s Orchestra, and the National Youth Choirs. If music education has traditionally been constructed as a pyramid, this was the apex on show.

It was fascinating to see how the language and aims of the elite end of the music education sector have shifted towards those of socially-oriented programs in recent years. The centre of gravity of the youth ensemble world is moving towards SATM’s stated goals. This might justifiably be seen as a vote of confidence in SATM. But it also poses a subtle challenge for a sector that historically defined itself against the norm.

If ideas such as inclusion, community, and youth voice become mainstream in the large-ensemble world, even among high-performance groups, then what will be distinctive about SATM? What will be its USP (unique selling point)?

The logical conclusion is that SATM will need to up its game if it’s going to offer something distinctive. It will need to embrace pedagogical innovation and strive harder to centre and achieve its social goals. It will need to move forwards if it is not to look like it is moving backwards relative to the mainstream youth music sector. The MEC seminar could be seen as a pat on the back for SATM, but also as a spur to action.

In fact, the issue is not just that the mainstream may be catching up with SATM; it may actually be overtaking it in some places. The MEC seminar revealed the UK’s traditional elite to be more progressive than some of the most celebrated SATM programs in certain ways (for example, in the routine involvement of young people in governance). This is a warning against complacency and outdated alignments, which have held back some parts of the SATM field.

An important takeaway from the MEC event was that if programs are to be socially progressive, they also have to be musically progressive. Fully embracing youth voice means giving young people full control over the music – empowering them to make the music that they want to make, the music that is relevant to their lives. The social goal (youth agency) needs to be embedded in the musical process. A program that is distinctive is likely to sound distinctive.

This presents a particular challenge for SATM, given that the field’s most famous exemplars have been musically conservative. How to break away from the reproductive model of the past and embrace musical creativity in all its guises? How to put young people – not the conductor, the composer, or the musical work – at the centre of the musical process? SATM’s best-known programs do not provide much of a lead. It was noticeable at the MEC event that the programs that are most youth-driven at a musical level are the least conventional ones (such as Urban Development and the National Youth Folk Ensemble), which are not focused on large ensembles or classical music. This poses questions for SATM, which has historically centred these tools and been rooted in the classical orchestral world. What justification is there for continuing down this path when there is so much evidence of the advantages of other ones?

Even the traditional elite are now calling classical music “the elephant in the room.” They are pointing to genre fluidity as the future. They are dismissing instructionism (a pedagogy of adults instructing children in technical skills, which is the bedrock of SATM’s first-generation programs) as an old-fashioned approach. The National Youth Orchestra says that it is no longer an orchestral training program, while the National Children’s Orchestra is reconsidering the meaning of excellence. This is a sector on the move, its rethinking of its practices and purpose turbocharged by the Covid pandemic. SATM cannot afford to sit on its laurels.

The MEC seminar showed the apex of the UK’s music education pyramid looking critically at itself in public. Representatives acknowledged that dance education has been more progressive than music, despite having less funding; that music organizations should learn from their youth work equivalents, which have been doing deeper work for longer; that a potential gulf exists between musical skill and capacity to work with young people. Such public realism is salutary (and it has not historically been the norm in SATM).

If even the National Youth Music Organisations and Centres of Advanced Training are raising such critical questions, the writing is clearly on the wall for some of the foundational tenets of SATM. The good news is that new ones are already being written in certain places; some programs are forging less conventional paths, as described in my most recent book. But the field could go further: there is still plenty of attachment to old and increasingly questioned ideas. The MEC seminar saw leading youth music organizations come together and not only commit to new ways of thinking but also distance themselves from old ones and acknowledge their historical shortcomings. This is something that SATM as a sector is still reluctant to do, but with National Youth Music Organizations on the move, the pressure is on.

The Dream Unstarted: El Sistema’s discordant notes

The Inter-American Development Bank identified El Sistema’s excessive centralization in Caracas as a key weakness when it became involved with the Venezuelan youth orchestra scheme in the late 1990s. In 2007, the bank made a loan to finance the construction of high-spec music centres in seven regional cities in order to decentralize the program. The new centres were the major element (more than 50%) of a $211 million package for El Sistema: $150 million provided by the IDB and $61 million by the Venezuelan state. One, in the city of Barquisimeto, was designed by Frank Gehry and was to be named Dudamel Hall, a reflection of the famous conductor’s warm relations with Venezuela’s political leadership.

The buildings were due to be completed by 2011. However, in my 2014 book on El Sistema, I drew attention to the fact that these centres had not been built, or even started, by that year. In a 2016 blog post, I noted that while the regional centres remained unrealized, El Sistema was pouring resources into a huge new building in Caracas, which was not in the original IDB plans – indeed, which flatly contradicted the bank’s stated goal of decentralization. As well as questioning the logic behind this move, I wrote that “there’s a real risk of this building becoming a white elephant.” Yet despite the global profile of El Sistema and the large sums of public money involved, no one else engaged with the story. I devoted a 2017 blog post to this topic under the heading, “Is anyone paying attention to the big issues?”, and asked:

Is there any mention or explanation or discussion of this 180-degree turn anywhere? […] El Sistema is a major classical music story that tens of thousands of people around the world follow avidly, yet no one seems to notice or care about the big issues. Far more attention is paid to trivial details like paper violins than to an illogical volte-face with a price tag of over $100 million.

Today, a team of Venezuelan investigative journalists published a detailed report on the phantom centres. They confirmed that, fifteen years after the contract was signed, not a single brick of the original seven centres has been laid. The half-built Caracas centre has been on hold since 2020 due to a lack of resources. The report highlights the illogicality of reducing a national program of decentralization to the construction of a single building in the capital. In the regional cities identified by the IDB, instead of the modern music complexes that had been planned, the reporters found borrowed or rented facilities in a poor state of repair, with some having closed altogether. A number of music schools in Venezuela’s second city, Maracaibo, were listed as operational on El Sistema’s website but were found to be shut or even non-existent – the kind of discrepancy between publicity and reality that I have been highlighting for a decade. Similarly, El Sistema’s CEO, Eduardo Méndez, claimed that demand was surging and he outlined plans for expansion; however, music school staff interviewed by the reporters spoke of declining numbers of teachers and students.

This decline is hardly surprising, given that many staff receive only “symbolic salaries.”  Of the huge sums allocated at the top of the program, only a few drops reach the bottom. The reporters interviewed a former El Sistema teacher who left after receiving no payment for a year, calling the program “a swindle,” and a current teacher who described what is almost a kind of indentured labour. He is paid a miserable $6 a month, yet he said:

I can’t leave. If I quit, they’ll take away my instrument.

Without an instrument, he would be unable to moonlight at the weekend, playing the gigs that allow him to maintain himself.

How much money has been paid out by whom and what it has been spent on remains something of a mystery; the report details wildly contradictory figures in official financial accounts, and the IDB and the Venezuelan government refused to clarify the situation to the journalists. This is the sobering, messy, murky reality of El Sistema – one that has long been obvious to serious observers but ignored by so many, at home and abroad, who only want to see a “Venezuelan musical miracle.”

That it has taken so many years for this story to be investigated and aired in the media simply illustrates the iron grip that El Sistema has maintained on the public narrative throughout its history. The program’s founder and long-time director, José Antonio Abreu, infamously used bribes and threats to keep the Venezuelan media on a tight leash and El Sistema’s scandals out of the news. To my knowledge, the last critical investigative report on El Sistema dates from 1994: Rafael Rivera’s “The Philanthropic Ogre.” (Today’s investigation is not the first to focus on financial murkiness: Abreu’s slush fund and “strange, improvised” movement of money was a focus of a 1990 article by Roger Santodomingo.) Now, nearly 30 years later, Venezuelan investigative journalists have once again pierced the heavy veil of silence that covers El Sistema and keeps its realities away from the ears of the world.

In 2014, I wrote that El Sistema had numerous skeletons in its closet and that more evidence would eventually come to light. This year it is failures of planning and infrastructure; last year it was sexual abuse. 2018 saw unpublished and unflattering evaluations of El Sistema emerge, including highly critical reflections by current and former members of the program; while in 2017 Abreu’s phantom PhD was rumbled and the IDB published evidence of a low percentage of poor beneficiaries and minimal social impact (undermining El Sistema’s two major claims to fame). The year before that, former El Sistema violinist Luigi Mazzocchi painted a detailed portrait of institutional malpractice to Larry Scripp for an article in VAN Magazine. That’s quite a few skeletons for what was once hailed as one of classical music’s biggest success stories, and yet the closet is far from empty.

UPDATE: 16 March

On the eve of the publication of this investigation, the IDB clarified to the reporters that responsibility for the failure to build the music centres lay squarely with El Sistema. The investigative team also noted that the decision to focus resources on a second HQ in Caracas, rather than the regional centres specified in the grant agreement, was described by Eduardo Méndez as “a strategic decision by Maestro Abreu.”

As explained in my 2017 blog post, the IDB identified decentralization via the construction of regional centres as a priority in 1997. Indeed, it argued that constructing a headquarters in Caracas “would be appropriate only if it were accompanied by the Regional Centres.” El Sistema failed to act on this directive in Phase I of the IDB project, building only the first Caracas HQ. So when the IDB issued its second and much larger Phase II loan in 2007, it reiterated that the central goal was “to deconcentrate El Sistema” via the creation of “an intermediate regional level.” But history simply repeated itself: again, the regional centres were forgotten; again, El Sistema only built a complex in Caracas (this time unfinished).

From the point of view of infrastructural development, the last 25 years of El Sistema – and the IDB’s relationship with the program – have been a resounding failure. The desolate picture in regional cities today contrasts starkly with the elaborate plans that were made (and financed) all those years ago. And as Méndez revealed, the buck stops with José Antonio Abreu, who was responsible for the abandonment of El Sistema’s top strategic priority over the last quarter of a century.

¡Ya disponible! “Replanteando la acción social por la música”

Existe una narrativa de acción social por la música (ASPM) que resulta familiar en el Norte global: el programa orquestal venezolano El Sistema, creado en 1975, irrumpió en la escena musical clásica internacional en 2007 con el debut de la Orquesta Juvenil Simón Bolívar en los Proms, dando lugar a un movimiento global inspirado en El Sistema. Pero hay otra vertiente en esta historia, en la que se fundaron programas influenciados por El Sistema en América Latina en la década de 1990. Uno de estos programas fue la Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín, que se inauguró en 1997 y trabajó de la mano de El Sistema durante sus primeros siete años. Este programa de orquestas y bandas pretendía promover la convivencia en la segunda ciudad de Colombia, que se había ganado la infamia de ser la capital mundial del asesinato durante el apogeo del Cártel de Medellín de Pablo Escobar, y formaba parte de una estrategia más amplia de renovación urbana que se conoció como “el Milagro de Medellín”. Este es el tema central de mi nuevo libro, Replanteando la acción social por la música: La búsqueda de la convivencia y de la ciudadanía en la Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín (Open Book Publishers, 2022).

Mi libro anterior, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (Oxford University Press, 2014), exploraba las complejas y a veces desagradables realidades detrás de la espectacular fachada del programa más famoso de la ASPM. En él argumentaba que era hora de reevaluar El Sistema y reconsiderar la admiración generalizada hacia este modelo. Desde entonces, me ha interesado cada vez más la pregunta que planteé al final de ese libro: ¿podría la ASPM funcionar mejor fuera de Venezuela? ¿Qué podría aprenderse, me preguntaba, estudiando otro programa de este tipo y comparándolo con el original? En 2017-18, pasé un año realizando trabajo de campo en Medellín, buscando respuestas.

Resultó que en 2007, el año en que la “Sistemanía” se impuso en Europa y Norteamérica, el programa ASPM de Medellín ya había tenido problemas y había empezado a replantearse el enfoque de El Sistema. En 2005 había asumido el cargo una nueva directora, que al año siguiente había elaborado un detallado informe crítico sobre la Red, proponiendo un cambio de rumbo. A medida que la ola de entusiasmo por El Sistema se extendía por todo el Norte, la Red se distanció del modelo venezolano, embarcándose en un proceso de reforma que ha continuado desde entonces.

Otro estudio interno detectó un grave problema en la Red: un alto porcentaje de alumnos de música avanzada mostraba arrogancia, exclusión hacia sus compañeros y falta de respeto hacia sus profesores. Sucesivos informes contrastaban la teoría (de que la música genera valores sociales positivos) y la realidad encontrada dentro del programa (de divisiones, rivalidades y actitudes negativas). Esto fue una bomba, teniendo en cuenta que la Red fue financiada por la ciudad para promover la convivencia.

Con estos informes internos, las perspectivas críticas se integraron en el más alto nivel del programa. Los altos cargos llegaron a la conclusión de que el enfoque original de la ASPM estaba demasiado centrado en los resultados musicales y que la Red, como programa social financiado con fondos públicos, debía tomarse más en serio el aspecto social. Cuestionando la falta de voz y agenciamiento, intentaron empoderar a los estudiantes y adoptar un ethos más participativo, para distanciar el programa de las dinámicas de lástima y caridad, y potenciar la variedad musical y pedagógica. La Red se embarcó en una búsqueda de mejora, que partió del reconocimiento de que el modelo ortodoxo de la ASPM no conducía a los resultados deseados en cuanto a convivencia y ciudadanía.

Durante mi año en Medellín, observé una nueva ola de reformas, que se centró en la identidad y la diversidad (más énfasis en la música colombiana); la creatividad (un mayor papel para la improvisación y la composición); la reflexión y la participación (un cambio hacia un aprendizaje basado en proyectos); y el territorio (conectar la Red con otros actores culturales de la comunidad, y escuchar más a la ciudad).

Este proceso no estuvo exento de dificultades. El replanteamiento y la reforma generaron debates internos y la resistencia de algunos miembros del personal y de los estudiantes. La relación entre los aspectos musicales y sociales del programa y entre la música clásica y la popular surgieron como fuentes particulares de tensión. Observé cómo los líderes intentaban injertar filosofías y prácticas educativas progresistas en un programa de música relativamente convencional.

El estudio de este proceso de quince años de divergencia y cambio nos dice mucho sobre las limitaciones del modelo ortodoxo y el potencial de la ASPM para trascenderlo. También arroja nueva luz sobre la investigación académica, ya que los análisis internos de la Red muestran muchos paralelismos con los estudios críticos sobre El Sistema y programas similares que se han publicado internacionalmente desde 2014. La experiencia de la Red puede tener una relevancia considerable para muchos otros contextos de todo el mundo en los que se ha adoptado y adaptado El Sistema.

El surgimiento de la autocrítica y del cambio del modelo dominante de ASPM desde dentro del campo es un acontecimiento significativo. Hasta ahora, la investigación crítica sobre el ASPM se ha situado a menudo como divorciada de la práctica y externa al campo y, por lo tanto, desechada o ignorada. Ahora, la fuente de la crítica es un importante programa de ASPM.

Más allá de este estudio de caso sobre el cambio, también propongo un replanteamiento más amplio de la ASPM, mirando al futuro del campo. Se han producido cambios significativos en la sociedad y en la educación musical desde la fundación de El Sistema, lo que sugiere que el modelo central de la ASPM merece, como mínimo, una revisión. Reflexionando sobre la búsqueda de alternativas y mejoras en varias partes del mundo, propongo cinco áreas como prioridades para una mayor atención: lo “social” en el ASPM y su relación con las prácticas musicales; la decolonialidad y el enfoque de la ASPM sobre la música clásica; las dimensiones políticas de la educación musical con orientación social; la ciudadanía artística; y la demografía y la selección de los beneficiarios.

Existen retos y obstáculos para la reforma. Entre ellos, la circulación del conocimiento y el debate público limitados; la lenta evolución de la formación del profesorado; la resistencia al cambio desde dentro de la ASPM; y la influencia conservadora de El Sistema y de algunos de los principales financiadores. También planteo tres dilemas de tipo más conceptual. ¿Constituye la ASPM un medio eficaz y eficiente para abordar los principales problemas sociales? ¿Está el ASPM ineludiblemente enraizado en la ideología colonialista? ¿Y es el ASPM intrínsecamente peligroso debido a su susceptibilidad de apropiación por parte de intereses políticos o comerciales? Estas preguntas cuestionan la validez de la ASPM como concepto.

Concluyo considerando las posibilidades de transformación, invitando al lector a imaginar una ASPM para el futuro, una que sea socialmente impulsada, emancipadora, realista, sostenible y más profundamente latinoamericana.

Me senté a escribir este libro sobre el cambio en la ASPM a finales de 2019. Apenas unos meses después, COVID-19 y el resurgimiento de Black Lives Matter hicieron que algunas de mis preocupaciones centrales (como los grandes ensambles y el eurocentrismo) ocuparan un lugar mucho más importante en la agenda pública, y surgieron grandes preguntas en todo el mundo sobre cómo podría o debería ser la educación musical en el futuro. En 2021, voces progresistas de muchos ámbitos de la vida humana se preguntan si debemos volver precipitadamente a una vieja normalidad que ya estaba rota. Si alguna vez hubiera un momento para replantear la acción social por la música, sería ahora.

“Engineering” social action through music

In a recent study carried out in Colombia, Cespedes-Guevara and Dibben (2021) found that a year of training in a classical music instrumental program had no significant effect on prosociality or empathy. Their results echo those of other studies of similar programs, such as Alemán et al. (2017) on El Sistema in Venezuela, and Ilari et al. (2018) on an El Sistema-inspired program in the US.

Does this mean that music education doesn’t foster prosociality and empathy? No. There are other studies that suggest the opposite, such as Rabinowitch (2012) and Van der Vyver et al. (2019). But these studies involve musical activities and games that were expressly designed to promote prosociality or empathy. The null outcomes emerged from more conventional music education programs like El Sistema. The conclusion is clear: music making that is shaped with prosocial goals in mind is more likely to achieve those goals than conventional activities like playing in a youth orchestra. This is perhaps an unsurprising conclusion, yet it is one that poses a challenge to the social action through music (SATM) field, which is founded on El Sistema’s reading of conventional musical training through a social lens rather than designing of music education to maximize social impact.

Ilari et al. arrived at the same point. They note that “effects of music education on children’s social skills have been found mainly in programs that followed specialized curricula,” and

“for music education programs to be effective in developing social skills, perhaps it is necessary to devise curricula that not only break down traditional hierarchies found in collective musical experiences, but also afford children ample opportunities to exercise social skills such as empathy, theory of mind, and prosociality in more direct ways.”

In a more recent article on the potential of music to effect social change, Rabinowitch (2020) explores this idea further. She asks:

What if we could intentionally “engineer” new forms of music or music-making designed to maximise the positive effects of music on social skills? 

She suggests that “in order to optimise its social impact, engineered music-making should involve informal, even improvisational, highly mutualistic joint performance,” and that it would be advisable to emphasize collaboration rather than competition.

“It might be similarly important to focus on the process of creating music rather than on its end result. That is, the aim of the activity might not be to produce a well-polished concert, but to participate in the music-making”

These studies thus provide a clear steer away from SATM’s historical roots in concert performance of canonical orchestral repertoire, and towards more innovative design.

Urging the field to put social objectives at the heart of practice as well as discourse was one of the key messages of my most recent book, Rethinking Social Action Through Music. There are other ways that Cespedes-Guevara and Dibben’s study intersects with my own – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that both looked at SATM in Colombia. Theirs included a comparative element, involving also dance and sport programs. They observed a difference between the young musicians and footballers, which was signalled to them by the director of a music program:

Regarding violence prevention and community transformation, the children in the football programme are more concerned with transforming the dynamics of violence in their territory; those of the orchestra are more oriented to their own life project. We have tried to balance these things, because what we observe is that the orchestra children develop these skills very well and their life projects are very reflective and critical, but when it comes to thinking about their territory and influencing their territory to transform it, it’s not that strong.

(Director, industry-sponsored youth symphony orchestra)

Cespedes-Guevara and Dibben continue:

“Informants from the music-training projects described the individual transformation, whether actual or intended, as a journey away from the home  community, and by implication its associated criminality and poverty, saying, for example, ‘that music, somehow, helps them escape’ (Director, infant and  youth symphony orchestra), towards the world of music constructed as a particular orchestra and/or as the classical music world more generally: ‘…it was bringing the children closer to classical music… to bring these children from this community closer to the orchestra Philharmonic or classical music’ (Director, non-profit music school). Music and the community are constructed as two separate worlds, demarcated by music genres and associated lifestyles.”

The director of an orchestral program explained this last point:

“[W]hat this type of music does is to open themselves to a different world. So you see the young people who listen to reggaeton, who listen to other types of music, and these children from the foundation, I don’t claim that they don’t [listen to reggaeton], but they are more immersed in another style of music and in another lifestyle.”

Cespedes-Guevara and Dibben conclude:

If, as this implies, the two worlds are separate, transformations that take place for the individual stay with that individual rather than benefiting the community from which they come

Several themes may be drawn out here. First, for all the emphasis on collective music-making, SATM appears to be an individualizing process; and for all the talk of social change, SATM seems to promote escaping from social problems rather than facing them. Cespedes-Guevara and Dibben found that young footballers were more committed to transforming their community than young classical musicians. The prosociality and life-project findings might be seen as two sides of the same coin: if SATM fosters orientation to a personal life project, then it is hardly surprising that it does not promote prosociality.

There are close parallels with my argument in my book:

the figures at the top of the SATM pantheon—particularly conductors like Gustavo Dudamel—are those who have established themselves in orchestras overseas; they symbolize an ideology of music as a means of individual social mobility and transcending the local, rather than as a catalyst for collective social change within and for the community. Here we see a paradox in orthodox SATM: an idealization of the collective (the orchestra), yet an individualized conception of success (the young musician who “makes it” in the profession).

Among the mistranslations that occurred when SATM was adopted in the global North after 2007 was to describe it using the language of social change, when in reality the field’s “social turn” in Latin America in the 1990s was underpinned by the notion of social mobility.

A lack of territorial connection and commitment was recognized as a significant weakness by the leaders of the Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín during my fieldwork, and they addressed it by converting the program’s social team into a territorial team.

Next, Cespedes-Guevara and Dibben’s argument about SATM fostering social separation, mediated by musical genre, finds a close echo in my book, with its emphasis on classical music and boundary-drawing:

the characteristic dynamic of the collective in SATM is not the much-touted teamwork—of which the conductor-led orchestra is in fact a strikingly poor example—but rather tribalism.

I too observed the dichotomy of classical music and reggaetón. As I noted, a member of the Red’s social team characterized the attitude of some of the program’s students to their peers as

you, so simpleminded, just listening to reggaetón and me, so sophisticated, listening to Beethoven

The fact that our two studies independently came up with similar findings from similar programs in different Colombian cities is undoubtedly suggestive.

Cespedes-Guevara and Dibben note two points of interest – or perhaps, two sources of tension – for critical researchers of socially-oriented music education: (1) with music widely assumed to do good, neither practitioners nor sponsors are necessarily interested in research on the social impact of such programs; (2) the more specific assumption that classical music is particularly good (i.e. better than other genres) clashes with research into the mixed effects of orchestral programs and with the obvious benefits of learning other musical skills, effectively bringing critical researchers into a relationship of tension with participants’ deeply held beliefs about music – a point that I made in my fourth chapter.

Finally, their article raises broad and important questions about the social impact of making music. As they note, “social impact” in SATM actually looks a lot like “individual impact” when viewed through the statements of those working in the field. Furthermore, researchers struggle with a similar issue: we like to talk about the social impact of making music, but social impact is extremely difficult to measure, and attributing it to a single intervention (such as a music program) is even harder – so we tend to study other things. As Cespedes-Guevara and Dibben put it:

it is notable that there is limited focus on the effects of these interventions beyond the individual: how do these programmes impact their families, neighbourhoods, cities and the nation? And to what extent can these impacts be captured by psychological instruments that focus on individual, short-term effects?

There is a challenge here for both practitioners and researchers of SATM, then. Are the work and the evaluation of the work really about social action at all? To expand on a point from my book (p. 206), is “social action through music” simply a misnomer for this field, given that its orthodox manifestations, at least, have little to do with either “social” or “action”?

To live up to its name, SATM may need to take two steps: adopt a more political approach (Dunphy 2018) and engage in more of Rabinowitch’s “engineering.”


Alemán, Xiomara, et al. 2017. “The Effects of Musical Training on Child Development: A Randomized Trial of El Sistema in Venezuela.” Prevention Science 18 (7): 865–78. 

Cespedes-Guevara, Julian, and Nicola Dibben. 2021. “Promoting prosociality in Colombia: Is music more effective than other cultural interventions?” Musicae Scientiae.

Dunphy, Kim. 2018. “Theorizing Arts Participation as a Social Change Mechanism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Community Music, edited by Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Lee Higgins, 301–21. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ilari, Beatriz, et al. 2018. “Entrainment, Theory of Mind, and Prosociality in Child Musicians.” Music & Science, February. 

Rabinowitch, Tal-Chen. 2012. “Musical Games and Empathy.” Education and Health 30 (3): 80-84.

Rabinowitch, Tal-Chen. 2020. “The Potential of Music to Effect Social Change.” Music & Science.

Van de Vyver, Julie, et al. 2019. “Participatory arts interventions promote interpersonal and intergroup prosocial intentions in middle childhood.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 65.

The world is changing – so too must social action through music

As I was nearing the end of writing my book Rethinking Social Action Through Music, which focused on the Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín, I observed the 2020 edition of the program’s annual pedagogy seminar. I was so impressed that I put this event at the core of the book’s Afterword. I hailed the seminar for its “special energy of rethinking and renewal,” and concluded:

Despite all the challenges of 2020, then, I end the year with a greater sense of optimism and hope with regard to the Red.

Six months after the publication of my book, the 2021 edition of the seminar took place (27 September – 2 October), and it provided a welcome opportunity to check back in with the progress of the program and the processes that I had written about. What follows is not a summary of the whole event but rather a few key messages culled from panels that I was able to watch online.

The Red is a “school of thinking.” This is how a panel moderator, Eliécer Arenas, described the program, and the event bore out his words. A striking feature of the Red is that it has been guided by a number of different leaders and visions during its history, leading to juxtaposition of and friction between ideas, and to a degree of critique and self-critique that is unusual in the social action through music (SATM) field. Panellists acknowledged tensions and mistakes, which they regarded as positive – as productive and potential sources of learning.

Vania Abello, a former director of the program, spoke openly about her reservations, such as the potential downsides of constantly putting on concerts for the city. Prioritizing impressive musical results can have costs in terms of the educational process, which may be rushed or forced, leading to negative consequences for some participants. She was critical of the structuring of SATM around the needs of the tiny percentage of students that go on to become professional musicians, and its incapacity to deal properly with students who struggle technically and don’t have “the right level.”

A lot can get lost when the approach is intensive – such as the opportunity to get to know more about the children, their families, and their communities. The Red doesn’t fully understand what goes on around it, she said, but the same was true for some participants, whose knowledge of their own barrio was sometimes limited. The problem with treating music schools as “safe spaces” was keeping children and young people shut away inside and therefore disconnected from the outside. As a result, a lot of people in the community don’t know what the Red is or even that it’s there. She painted a picture of a program that still had much work to do to improve the exchange between inside and outside.

Abello welcomed the break that the pandemic provided, forcing the Red to suspend its performances and thereby allowing it to think. Aníbal Parra, the Red’s social coordinator, noted that the pandemic revealed a lot of problems and questions within the student body and their families. The implication was clear: intensive music instruction had kept these problems and questions out of sight, rather than addressing them.

Evidence of this “school of thinking” can be found in the Red’s current collaboration with impressive critical thinkers on music, education, and society such as Eliécer Arenas and Andrés Samper. The former critiqued the old saw of inclusion, questioning its equation with massification and with herding large numbers of young people into a single way of thinking. These collaborators emphasized the need for a more complex understanding of music, without losing from sight that the most important element of SATM should be enjoyment.

The world is changing – so too must SATM.

This issue was on the minds of the Red’s management during my fieldwork in 2017-18 and it played an important role in the seminar. Diego Zapata, the Red’s new director, is a specialist in new technologies, and he argued that the Red needs to rethink itself in the light of rapid technological change. Young people are moving fast, he said; the Red needed to try harder to keep up. The Dean of the local public university, which oversees the Red, imagined quite a different future: students have new tools at their disposal and will create quite new things. His implication was that the old model of music education based on learning orchestral instruments would decline. The Red has to shift as society shifts, argued another panellist; so it needs to be a cauldron of creativity and a laboratory of new ideas.

The Red’s most experienced teacher, Wilson Berrío, made the same point: times have changed, kids have changed, and education needs to change. When he started, the Red followed the El Sistema way: the teacher just turned up at the school with the music and said “this is what we’re going to play.” Now, students are more involved in the process, helping to make choices about repertoire, collaborations, and venues. Their research now forms part of the educational process.

A variety of locations of change were identified. The training of teachers needed to be transformed: most teachers were trained in culture of obedience, not critical questioning, noted one panellist. Ensemble practice ought to be liberated, stated another, with more chamber music and contemporary music.

An external invitee, León David Cobo, threw a dizzying range of elements into the mix: indigenous music on digital platforms, experimental music, new technologies, multi-disciplinary work, new forms of notation. This diversity of ideas expanded the horizons far beyond SATM’s traditional focus of orchestras and symphonic bands. (I recalled a point that the Colombian anthropologist Carlos Miñana had made in a recent keynote on music and social transformation: that SATM has tended to limit itself to a tiny corner of the musical and pedagogical world.) Cobo also argued that SATM staff and students shouldn’t reject but rather research: don’t avoid what the world is throwing at us (new musics, new technologies), he said, but rather embrace them and the crisis that they may provoke in us. He gave the example of reggaetón, which – as I mention in my book – is often the brunt of scorn from SATM musicians, showing up the limits of their discourse of inclusion. What would it mean to grapple with such musics and face their destabilizing influence rather than retreat sniffily into a bastion of supposed cultural superiority?

Beware of grand narratives.

Panellists expressed unease with a messianic or salvationist approach to SATM, which is so common in the field. The language of “saving” people was too reminiscent of the colonization of the Americas, said one, and of the forced evangelization of the indigenous population. SATM was about providing experiences, provoking questions, and opening possibilities, said another, not saving anyone. Sweeping narratives and grand plans can lead to neglecting the pedagogical detail, which is where the real work happens.

The musical vs. the social is a tension to be managed not resolved.

That the musical and social sides of SATM are in tension is a reality that has long been obvious and acknowledged in the Red, if less so elsewhere in the field. What was interesting about Arenas’s position was that he did not imagine a future in which this tension was resolved, where either the musicians or the social team prevailed, but rather one in which the program was constantly adjusting and rebalancing itself. Tension is productive.

From the collective to the community.

Samper placed this notion at the centre of his contribution: going beyond a focus on the collective to one on the community. It is a thought-provoking idea in the context of SATM, which has historically emphasized the collective but left its relationship to the community rather vaguer. The ensemble is often considered as a microcosm or symbol of an imagined future society, rather existing in a dynamic relationship to a real, present one. Indeed, programs like El Sistema and the Red were originally conceived of as refuges from a community considered to be dangerous, rather than partners in a dialogue. Berrío took up Samper’s idea and argued that the Red was starting to take this step, though it still needed to do more: “we need to interact more with the community.”

Final thoughts

In my book, I held up the Red as an example

not of “best practice” but of striving towards it; not of inspirational rhetoric but of an openness to critical reflection and dialogue; not of a model program, but of one that shows that change is possible in the SATM field.

In other words, I saw the Red as an example because of the centrality of thinking and rethinking in its history: its willingness to continually put hard questions on the table and reinvent itself. For me, the Red’s story was one of self-critique and change, starting in 2005.

Change is more common in the SATM field these days. El Sistema and its closest allies may continue down a conservative path, but other El Sistema-inspired programs have shifted away from the dominant model to greater or lesser degrees. There is even a SATM symposium in the US this week centred on the theme of change.* Self-critique, however, is another matter. As I wrote in my book:

the explicit alignment of so many programs with El Sistema has limited the space for full, open, critical discussion of the fault lines in the Venezuelan model that necessitate change. Many have been willing to discuss how El Sistema might be adapted to other national contexts; but few have dared to suggest publicly that El Sistema needs to be transformed because it is flawed and out of alignment with current ideas about music education and social change. Institutional alliances and political sensitivities mean that public discussion of change, when it occurs, generally takes the form of offering a solution without naming the problem.

Or as I put it more simply later on:

There is much talk of great new work, much less of what was wrong with the old work.

The Red, though, has consistently named the problem since 2005. This is why I think it should be of interest to reflective members of the field.

Six months after the publication of my book, I continue to see the Red’s seminar as an unusual space for critical thinking within SATM. This event marked the 25th anniversary of the Red, yet the tone was less triumphant than might have been expected. Such symposia tend to have more than a whiff of self-congratulation and self-publicity about them, but the Red’s was once again more nuanced and thought-provoking. Alongside the recognition of the program’s achievements, plenty of interesting questions were raised and challenging ideas presented. There were numerous invitees from outside, but the main focus of the event was critical conversations about what the Red was, is, and could be, recognizing that the program had not always got it right, and that there wasn’t even consensus about what “right” is.

A central theme of my book is that regular changes of director have kept the Red in constant motion since 2005. Once again, a new director is in charge – the fourth one since I went to Medellín for a reconnaissance mission for my fieldwork in 2016. However, the most recent seminar suggests that self-critique and change continue to be on the menu.

* It will be interesting to see whether embracing change extends to the historical refusal to talk seriously about El Sistema and all the ways that the Venezuelan program contradicts the SATM sector’s stated commitment to social justice and social change.

Media coverage of El Sistema sexual abuse allegations

There has been considerable media coverage of the sexual abuse allegations coming out of El Sistema. I wrote an article for Caracas Chronicles, and the site’s editors wrote a second one, available in both English and Spanish. There have been investigative reports in Clarín (Argentina), ABC (Spain), and BR-Klassik (Germany). The story has also been covered in other media outlets around the world, including several times on Slipped Disc. The July issue of the UK’s Music Teacher Magazine led with an editorial that called for collective action on this issue.

El Sistema issued a public statement in early June. A few international Sistema programs did the same, the first being Sistema England. Sistema Toronto’s was the most impressive. However, most Sistema-inspired programs remained silent, raising questions about the depth of the field’s commitment to social justice. El Sistema USA produced a belated whitewash statement that made no mention of El Sistema or sexual abuse. The response from the classical sector has been almost imperceptible, suggesting that #MeToo has not sunk very deep. El Sistema’s funders and famous boosters have kept very quiet. Gustavo Dudamel, who describes El Sistema as his “family,” has made no comment and expressed no sympathy or concern. It is hard not to feel a sense that while victims, their representatives, and human rights defenders are seeking to turn this story into a public issue in order to secure justice for past abuses and prevent future ones, many in and around the Sistema field are saying as little as possible and hoping for the matter to go away as quickly as possible.

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: