“Was this the greatest prom of all time?” the Daily Telegraph’s arts editor was moved to ask, after hearing Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the Royal Albert Hall in 2007. The SBYO is the public face of the Venezuelan youth orchestra system, known as “El Sistema.” This program – according to Sir Simon Rattle, “the most important thing happening in music anywhere in the world” – has attracted much attention internationally, partly via the activities of its flagship orchestra, and partly through its claims to use classical music education to foster social inclusion. The System has blossomed since the late 1990s under the government of Hugo Chávez and has become a paradigm for music education around the globe. It is being emulated in North and South America and in several English-speaking countries, and has inspired Sistema Scotland and the English “In Harmony” program.
In 2010 and 2011 I spent nearly a year in Venezuela researching El Sistema. This project entailed observation of Venezuelan núcleos (orchestral training centres), interviews with many Venezuelan musicians and figures in the cultural world, and analysis of the policies, ideologies, and discourses underpinning El Sistema, comparing theory and practice. I was interested in El Sistema’s claims to harness the power of music to transform lives, and I looked into the idea of music as social action and the notion of the orchestra as a school for citizenship and a “harmonious society.” I was also keen to assess the impact of El Sistema on music in Venezuela.
This research project gave rise to a book, a guest-edited special issue of Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education (15/1, 2016), and a number of articles and book chapters.
Below, you can find a list of key resources for thinking critically about El Sistema, including all my articles and essays; information about my book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, published by OUP in 2014; and a link to all my blog posts on El Sistema from 2012 to 2020.