Interview with Geoffrey Baker

In November 2014, Geoff published the book El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth with Oxford University Press. In this interview he shares about the beginnings, challenges, and ongoing hopes of this project.

Interview between Dr. Geoffrey Baker and Sistema Global Research Managers
(TRANSCRIPT)

13 February 2015.

Elaine Sandoval (ECS): Hello Sistema Global! My name is Elaine and I’m one of the Sistema Global Research Managers, and I’m here today with Steve Fairbanks who is the other Research Manager as well. Tody we’ll be interviewing Dr. Geoffrey Baker, who is a reader, or associate profesor, at Royal Holloway at the University of London. In November of 2014, Geoff published a very significant book on El Sistema, called “El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s youth” (and it looks like this). Today we’re very luck to have the chance to interview him for this series of interviews with El Sistema researchers.

Stephen Fairbanks (SF): Thank you for joining us, Geoff. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about your background as background as a musician, as an educator, and as a researcher?

Geoff Baker (GB): Yes, well sure. I started playing music when I was quite young, when I was a kid, and I mainly loved classical music but I also got involved in jazz and popular music as well. And I started teaching quite young, when I was in my mid-teens, in fact, and carried on teaching through my studies. And I ended up doing a Master’s at Royal Academy of Music. And two things happened at that point. First of all, I became introduced to musicology as a discipline. And secondly, I got interested in Latin America. And I made my first trip to Latin America in 1996, as part of my Master’s course, to do some research for my Master’s thesis. And after that I pretty much decided to change direction. And I went into a PhD in Latin American musicology. And that’s been my field ever since, for the last 19 years. I’ve spent long periods of time in Peru, in Cuba, Venezuela, of course, Argentina, and shorter trips – weeks or sometimes months – to most other countries in Latin America. And I went back into teaching in 2005, I took a job at Royal Holloway, University of London as a lecturer, and I’m teaching musicology and ethnomusicology now, rather than instrumental teaching, but I’ve been there as a faculty member for the last 10 years.

SF: Thank you. How and when did you first hear about El Sistema?

GB: Well it’s interesting. I first read about it in an in-flight magazine, on a flight in Latin America during one of my trips when I was working there. This must have been around early- to mid-2000’s. So several years before the big media boom, in the UK, anyway. And when I read this article it immediately grabbed my attention. And I cut it out, and I saved it. And I recognized straight away that this was something that really interested me and would be a great research project. But I was in the middle of all sorts of other things, I was working on two other projects at the time, and I wasn’t in a position to actually do anything about it. But I kept the article, and the idea was there. But it was years before I could actually act on it.

SF: That’s fascinating. That actually leads us into our next question – could you share a little bit about the process by which you decided to pursue your most recent research, and your most recent book. In other words, what were some of your motivations?

GB: well, the immediate catalyst was the famous Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra Proms performance in 2007, when they kind of burst onto the global scene. Because I’d read about it, I managed to get a ticket to that concert, so I was there, I was part of that audience. And you know, the idea had been in my head for years, but when I came out of that concert I thought, ok, the time’s come. And I sat down and I wrote my first research proposal to start working on it. And on a personal level I was motivated because it was a story that combined three things that I was very interested in, which were Latin America, classical music, and social justice. So in a sense, it was something of a no-brainer as an idea. And as an academic, you know, I was just motivated to explore, to understand – here was this fascinating topic, but there was little if any academic research on it. So I just wanted to go deeper, I wanted to know more, you know. And it’s always appealing for an academic when you find a subject that both grabs your attention as fascinating, and is also unexplored.

SF: Good. So what challenges did you encounter as you pursued your project?

GB: Well, one of the big challenges I had… My background is partly as a music historian, so I’ve done a lot of work in archives, and one of the first things I wanted to do when I got to Venezuela was get into El Sistema’s archives. So it was quite a blow to be told that I couldn’t, that I wasn’t going to be given access to the archives. In fact, they said they didn’t have an archive, although I later read Chefi Borzacchini’s book where she discusses the archive, so it turns out that wasn’t strictly speaking true. But also, so – more broadly, in Venezuela, archival resources are often chaotic and incomplete, even in the national library, so systemic, systematic research, rather, can be quite difficult at the best of times. So you know, it was hard for me to find documentary evidence to help me trace the development of El Sistema over the last forty years. So I had to rely quite heavily on oral history, on testimony of musicians, older musicians, cultural observers, journalists, and so on. And this was, you know, fascinating too. I would have very much liked to be able to test this data more thoroughly against documentary records, but I wasn’t given that chance. But still I was able to find some interesting documents – old newspaper articles for example, El Sistema’s old constitutions, this kind of thing, which did help flesh out my picture somewhat. So that was one big problem that I came up against.

And another was that very unexpectedly, I was brought into close contact with highly sensitive and often controversial information. And at times it was difficult to know how to handle it. There are no rulebooks that tell you how to deal with this kind of situation. And I didn’t know any academics in that sort of position. So I was quite torn at the time – as a researcher, I wanted to push ahead and get more deeply into the issues. But I also had a responsibility to protect my sources, to protect myself, to protect my research project. So, you know, it was a tricky path to follow at times, balancing the curiosity that I had on one hand, and caution on the other. And I was touching on some delicate subjects and also not everyone was willing to go there. So I certainly had the experience of being cold-shouldered a number of times by people who I knew knew things, but who didn’t want to tell me. And also I had moments when people shared information with me and I thought: what am I supposed to do with this?

SF: Thank you. Let’s jump ahead to the process of writing. What audience did you have in mind as you were writing your book? And would you say it evolved during the process of writing, did you find that perhaps your audience changed chapter by chapter in your book?

GB: I think, by the time I sat down to write, I think I knew what I wanted to do. I think when I first planned the project, I had planned a standard academic book. By the time I started to write, I decided I wanted something a little bit more accessible than a standard academic book, because it was clear to me that the well-known public narrative around El Sistema was wrong in many ways. So I wanted to try to pitch my book – to make it at least accessible to people who were interested in that public narrative, so let’s say educated, open-minded, classical music lovers, though not just them, you know. And I mean it was always going to be an academic book, I’m an academic. But I wanted it to be available to educated readers who aren’t necessarily familiar with, or particularly interested in academic sources, scholarly theories, and so on and so forth. So it was a bit of a juggling act. Trying to produce something that a professional academic or a PhD student might find useful, but at the same time, something that might grab the attention of a more general reader, or someone who’s more immersed in the practical side, more than the theoretical side – a professional musician, say, or a music teacher. And it’s a risk, definitely, it’s a risk, because you can end up being accused by academics of oversimplifying, and of practitioners of being overly theoretical or over-complexifying. So you know, it’s hard to keep everyone happy, and you can risk making everybody unhappy.

In terms of the kind of the flow of the book, some chapters are more theoretical than others. But I wouldn’t say that the imagined readership changes. You know, for example, I try and use Foucault in such a way that it doesn’t really matter whether you already know anything about him, or his work. And I hope that I wouldn’t use theory for the sake of using theory. If I talk about Foucault, it’s because I think he gives us a really important, distinctive handle on the issue of discipline, which is something that most classical musicians will understand is an important issue. And I mean if I include Foucault it’s because when I read that book a huge lightbulb went off in my head, which wasn’t a kind of theoretical lightbulb as much as a real deep understanding of the complexities around the idea of discipline, and I thought that was something really important to share with people beyond just the kind of narrow academic audience.

SF: What do you consider the most notable findings, or rather, some of the most notable findings in your book?

GB: That’s a very dangerous question to ask someone who’s spent the last seven years researching something and who’s written a 360-page book on the topic. So you know, it’s really hard to narrow down to a few headlines. But you know, I’ll tell you the things I really think are key. One is, that in general the pedagogy and curriculum of El Sistema are pretty old-fashioned and conservative. I was expecting to see something rather more revolutionary in terms of artistic learning. But it’s very much about discipline as I’ve already said, about authority, about obeying commands, a focus on drilling rather than critical thinking or creativity, lack of interest in contemporary thinking on music education, or citizenship education. So it’s – the core ideas of El Sistema have been around for centuries. We’ve had this kind of program in Europe 200 years ago, aiming to discipline the poor through music. And the ideas go back hundreds of years in Latin America. And this conservatism goes many ways, stems from El Sistema’s founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, who’s a deeply conservative figure, and who’s got quite a mixed reputation in Venezuela. He’s been given quite a whitewashing in the international media which regards him as a saint. But one of my discoveries in Venezuela is that he’s seen, certainly by some, as a complex and controversial figure there. He was famously described as “the philanthropic ogre” by the investigative journalist, Rafael Rivero, who wrote a long article about him in 1994. And certainly I came across some pretty unflattering reports from people who’d researched or worked closely with Abreu. That was very much a surprise.

Then the institution itself, the power dynamics of El Sistema are quite problematic. It’s an autocratic, hierarchical institution, that functions in a pretty opaque fashion. One thing that surprised me about it was the way that resources – both human resources and economic resources – are funneled toward the top of the organization. So the main focus is really on these show orchestras that travel around the world and wow audiences like me in 2007. More than working with deprived Venezuelan children. And frontline teaching of small children in ordinary núcleos is the lowest paid and lowest status work in El Sistema. So away from the cameras and official delegations, there are a lot of disgruntled teachers being paid by the hour with few benefits. And it’s interesting no one seems to be concerned about social justice for them.

One of the things that El Sistema’s most famous for is its claims to be a social program that targets the most vulnerable in society. But I found little evidence of genuine social work going on, it very much operates as a musical program, I found. And also, I came away with a big question mark over the idea that it’s really targeting the most deprived of society. I certainly found when I interviewed Sistema musicians about this, they were skeptical, by and large, for the most part, they regarded this as kind of marketing, as propaganda, rather than the reality of the program. And certainly in the main music school I studied, I found very little evidence of deprivation. And simply there was a lack of mechanisms for targeting the poorest in society by the schools where I studied. The doors were open to all, yes, but targeting was not part of the plan.

And one last idea, which is fundamental to El Sistema, the idea of the orchestra as a model for an ideal society. There’s pretty little basis for that assertion, and I think if you talk to orchestral musicians or read academic studies of orchestras, it’s actually quite a problematic institution. And I would say that El Sistema’s a model for an autocratic society rather than an ideal society, and even for a 1% society.

Clearly I can go on and on, but pretty much I would say that anything I believed when I arrived in Venezuela turned out to be somewhere between questionable and downright false. And a final point which I maybe don’t make enough of in the book, but I’m increasingly seeing as quite crucial is the issue of gender discrimination. And I’m not talking here about the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, which actually require research in Venezuela in order to grasp and verify them. But rather the blatant under-representation of women at the top end of the organization, which is certainly something you can see from the comfort of your computer. The top orchestra, the Simon Bolivar, has an 80-20 gender split, and all of the top conductors and directors are men. So you know, I’m increasingly asking myself, why is the organization regarded as a beacon of social justice, when it’s so obviously patriarchal? And why are people so ready to overlook these things, let alone the red flags about more serious issues that female musicians face? It’s like, you put together children and music and everyone loses their critical faculties. And also, you know, there’s this kind of guru worship around Abreu, which means people won’t stand up and ask difficult questions, like why are his hand-picked conducting protégés always male? As far as I’m concerned, if you believe in social justice, then you believe in gender equality. If you believe in gender equality, then you have to put up your hand and say, El Sistema is a patriarchy, and you get more social action for your music if you’re male.

SF: So, could you take a moment and comment on how you situate this latest book, including these findings you shared with us, amongst your previous work?

GB: Well I think there are a number of threads that run through all the research I’ve done, really, over the last nearly two decades. I mean Latin America, obviously is a thread. I’ve worked a lot on socialist political contexts. I’ve done a lot of work on Cuba and Venezuela and Argentina. Cultural institutions is another thread, cultural policy. And music education was a small part of my first book, and it became essential to a later project which I did in parallel with my research on El Sistema, which is called “Growing into Music,” which involved spending six months filming children learning music in Cuba and Venezuela, part of a larger research project on childhood musical learning around the world. And all of these films are now finished and available online.

But sometimes I think one of the interesting things is that sometimes these connections take awhile to become apparent, even to me. It’s kind of in retrospect that I understand how these things come together. For example, when I conceived of my Sistema project, I didn’t think it would have any connection to my PhD work on music in colonial Peru. That seemed a very far-fetched idea. But after awhile I realized that there were certain dynamics common between these two kinds of musical, cultural contexts. And it’s been interesting whenever I talk to scholars who have studied or read about colonial Latin American music, they make the same kinds of connections. So I think having a historical grounding ended up being very useful, somewhat indirectly, because it could help me understand how El Sistema’s repeating several quite well-worn tropes from the past, the quite distant past in Latin America.

And the other thing I was going to say was that some kinds of connections also emerged from my later research in Cuba, because there I was exploring the way that popular musicians learned to talk to the state in order to gain support or gain space for their activities. And through this research I kind of got a sense of how, when you have a very active state like you do in left-wing political contexts like you do in Venezuela and Cuba – what musicians say publicly is very often well-constructed, for instrumental ends, for particular aims. So what musicians say often needs to be regarded as strategies rather than statements of facts. You have to dig beneath these kinds of public announcements. And that served me very well in Venezuela, where there’s a lot of wonderful sound-bites around El Sistema, and they’ve been very effective in convincing the Venezuelan government, foreign development banks, so on and so forth. But they still need to be analyzed carefully by anyone seriously interested in this field.

SF: Can you share with us a bit about what research projects you are intending to work on next?

GB: Yes and no, I can share with you that I have no idea. I mean part of me says that I am mentally burnt out with this last book, and I’d be quite happy never to do any more research ever again. But I think realistically, I’m really interested in doing more research further down the line on the idea of music as social action but much more broadly. Thinking about different ways of approaching issues of social action and social justice in music. Probably sticking in Latin America, which is the part of the world that I know well. But no concrete plans for the moment.

SF: Do you see yourself being involved in El Sistema research or work in the future?

GB: I think it’s complicated. I mean, in some ways my options are quite limited because I can’t really do further research in Venezuela, certainly not for the moment. So as much as I’d like to plug gaps in my knowledge, for example to do more archive research, I’d love to do that, but you know I just can’t see it happening at the moment, with, you know, El Sistema being the way it is now and the issues I’d have if I went to Venezuela. And you know, there are definitely… I’ll be honest there are days when I’ve had enough of getting abuse hurled at me by people who don’t know very much, who think they’re experts on El Sistema. I just think you know what, I’ve done my research, I’ve published my results, I’ve done my bit, I’ll leave it there. If people want to pretend my book doesn’t exist or whatever, good luck to them.

But then on the other hand, there’s another part of me thinks well, I have to be involved whether I like it or not because now I’m a focal point for Venezuelans who are glad that some of these things are being talked about in public. And that’s in a sense the die cast in that respect. So in some ways, because I can’t go to Venezuela, there’s not very much I can do to be involved in a concrete sense, but I would like to create a space for more public debates around the issues that are arising. This has been my intention for some time of my personal website, but unfortunately after the first few exchanges, the North American advocacy community withdrew kind of en masse. So it didn’t really work out, which is a shame, because I think it would be great if there was more willingness to get into proper critical debate in this field.

Anyway, I’m planning to re-launch the website, in bilingual form, under the title tocarypensar.com [“to play and to think”]. And I’m going to see if the Venezuelans are more up for debate about this. I think at the end of the day there are important issues around social justice, around human rights at stake here, and I can’t just let them go because I’m getting a bit of flak from vested interests or uninformed parties. I think that free and frank debate around El Sistema is essential. It’s a vital part of music as social action. And it’s still not happening. So I have to try to do my bit to make sure that it does happen.

SF: What impact do you hope that your work will have, maybe talking more specifically, on the Sistema Global community?

GB: Well, hope… I hope that it will lead to more critical distance from the Venezuelan program. And to more robust debate around the pros and cons of the Venezuelan Sistema. I mean I do believe that sooner or later, all those Sistema-inspired programs around the world will need to recognize they’ve been inspired by a program that reproduces many of the exclusive and unjust elements of music education in the past. And since these programs don’t receive money from Venezuela, there’s no need for any of the kind of subservience that’s all too common in this sphere. So I’d like to see some of these programs come out and say, yes, we find El Sistema inspiring, it’s inspiring us to think about music and social action. But the way we’re going to go about this is going to reflect cutting-edge research on music education today, not ideas that were already conservative two hundred years ago. And one of the points I make in my book, which is not as negative as people would like to make out, is that there are really good models of music education being put into practice in Europe and the Americas today. Often on a shoestring budget, tiny scale, zero publicity. Why not be inspired by these, as well, instead, you know? So I think at the heart of this lies a key question, which is what are you, what are we fundamentally committed to? Is it spreading El Sistema or is it spreading social action through music? Because they’re not the same thing. And if you’ll allow me to finish on a more utopian note, I really hope the Sistema Global community will eventually decide to use its influence to push for positive change in Venezuelan music education. I think that anyone who’s thought about social justice seriously knows that calling out social injustice is central to pursuing social justice, however politically inconvenient it may be to do so. So I think Sistema Global could push for gender equality, for example, or it could push for a more humane rehearsal schedule, better physical training for young musicians, reduced frequency of performance-related injuries. I think that keeping silent in the face of these kinds of problems is not social action through music.

SF: Good, well thank you, Geoff, we’ve very much appreciated the time and insights you’ve shared with us. Your book certainly has caused a stir among the readers in Sistema Global and we appreciate being able to get to know you better as we reflect on the book and connect the ideas you shared with your motivations and how you’re pursuing them. Thank you very much!

GB: Well, thank you, thanks so much for the invitation and for the initiative of producing this series.

ECS: Thank you Geoff!

Interview with Andrea Creech

Andrea was lead author on the 2013 Sistema Global Literature Review of El Sistema and El Sistema-Inspired Programmes. She continues to generously support Sistema Global, and shares here her thoughts on the process of pursuing the literature review and ongoing areas of development in El Sistema research.

Interview between Dr. Andrea Creech and Sistema Global Research Managers
(TRANSCRIPT)

21 November, 2014.

Elaine Sandoval (ECS): Welcome to Sistema Global Research’s first interview with Sistema researchers. Today we’ll be speaking with Andrea Creech. Andrea Creech is Reader in Education at the University of London’s Institute of Education. Known for her rigorous scholarship, she recently led a team of researchers in conducting a global review of research regarding El Sistema and El Sistema-inspired programs. Andrea has graciously agreed to interview with Sistema Global, allowing the Sistema community to gain greater insight into her as a researcher and to learn more about her research experience. Thank you, Andrea!

Andrea Creech (AC): It’s my pleasure. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Stephen Fairbanks (SF): And I will be conducting the interview. My name is Stephen Fairbanks and I am, along with Elaine, Research Manager for Sistema Global. Andrea, will you please tell us a little about your background as a musician, as a teacher, and as a researcher?

AC: Ok. Well, I’ll try and keep this brief. I started out very much with an identity as a professional musician; that was my career that I started with. I had grown up in a family of musicians. I think I always knew that I was going to be a musician. I was a violinist and a viola player. So I did a music performance degree at university. And while I was at university, I funded my university studies with my first job playing in a symphony orchestra in Canada. And after I had finished my Bachelor of Music, eventually, I moved to England to pursue some post-graduate study. And I bought a plane ticket intending to stay for 8 months, and about 30 years later, I’m still here! So I began working as a musician in London, and I started to teach, and I taught a little bit for what was then called the Inner London Education Authority. And – without any training whatsoever – I found myself going off on Saturdays, teaching groups of children in inner-city schools, the violin. And that was kind of my first introduction to teaching.

So, anyway, I continued to pursue my career as a viola player, and I went and was sub-principal in the Scottish Opera Company for a few years, and then I moved to Liverpool, to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, where I was sub-principal viola. And all through that time, I had a little sort of thread of teaching, and I became more and more interested in teaching.

And eventually, I left the orchestra and I went to the Republic of Ireland, where I founded and directed a community music school, and did that for nine years. And it was very much a community music school, with programs for people of all ages, meeting all sorts of different kinds of needs, and it was a really exciting, kind of entrepreneurial, project. And I’m really proud of what we did there. I went there with my husband, who’s also a musician. We started with just ourselves and nine years later we had a school with 350 students and teachers. And some of the teachers were young people who we had nurtured through the school, and so it was their school, their community, and it was a really exciting project.

Through all of that time, I was really fascinated with all the processes around teaching and learning. And so during that period of time, I went back to study and, to cut a long story short, ended up doing a psychology degree – a Master’s in psychology of music, and then a PhD in psychology in education. And so without ever really planning it, really just driven by my own interest in teaching and learning and the psychology of learning, and my love of music – driven by that, I sort of made this journey from being a viola player in an orchestra to being a director of music school, and engaging with my community, and eventually into academia, where I now am! So, I’ve tried to keep that brief, but hopefully you’ll see a little flavor of my journey into the world that I’m now in.

SF: Yes, thank you! You’ve somewhat hinted at it – but how and when did you first learn about El Sistema and El Sistema-inspired programs?

AC: Well, I think I became aware of El Sistema sort of when the rest of the world started to become aware of El Sistema. Certainly when the orchestra first came to the UK, and we heard about this exciting project and this exciting orchestra, and then I became aware of similar kinds of initiatives beginning to crop up and develop. And I guess I was especially interested because of my own experience with our community school. And I began to think, “actually, I know what this is about, because actually, we’ve been doing things like this!” So there was a kind of point of recognition there.

SF: So, can you tell us what interested you in conducting the global review of literature that was published about a year ago?

AC: Well of course, as I’ve outlined, my background is very much to do with a love of music, a real belief in the transformational power of music, and also a deep interest in teaching and learning and the psychology of music. And I’m a researcher. I spend a lot of my time doing research, so I’m really also interested in evidence-based approaches. So that was what really interested me in getting involved in the Literature Review.

ECS: Let me jump in for a second! Can you tell us a little bit, then, about how you selected the other members that you brought into the team that conducted the Lit Review?

AC: Partly that process was through my connections through the International Society for Music Education (ISME), and so I certainly knew two members of the team, and knew their interests and background through ISME. And one of the members who came – Patricia Gonzales – is a fellow board member on ISME. So that was partly how the team came together, and also partly through the process of finding someone and putting together a team. The Sistema Global team also suggested the involvement of one of our members of our team in the US [Grace Waitman]. So it was a sort of collaborative effort, putting together a team to undertake the literature review. We were also concerned that we should have – as far as possible, and on a limited budget – a fairly good representation of languages and geographic representation, so we very much needed and wanted someone to be based in Latin America or somewhere in that region. We very much needed and wanted somebody based in the USA, and I’m here in the UK and with good access to the European network, and then our other colleague, Lisa Lorenzino, was in Canada. She’s also a fluent French speaker, and she has a pool of doctoral students with all sorts of international connections. So we tried to sort of have that kind of international flavor.

ECS: That’s wonderful – I mean, it’s such an impressive undertaking that you took, and such an amazing output in the end. Could you tell us a little about some of the most notable findings that you came across in doing the Lit Review?

AC: Ok, well the notable findings. I think, possibly, in some senses, it’s what the literature actually reinforced. So for me, what was really important was finding that the evidence that there is around El Sistema and Sistema-inspired programs very much reinforces and adds to a wider body of literature and evidence that relates to the wider benefits of music. And I think that that’s really quite important. And it links to one of the greatest kind of achievements and triumphs, if you like, of El Sistema, is the interest in music education that is has inspired around the world. In some ways, it sort of captured the public imagination; now the research evidence and literature about the program is reinforcing the messages about the power of music that many of us have been kind of banging on about for quite some time.

And so, in terms of those sorts of wider benefits, in particular, the evidence is showing benefits in terms of personal development. There’s quite a lot of evidence relating to academic achievement – so children who were in Sistema-inspired programs are achieving academic targets more successfully than their peers who are not in the program. It seems to be developing high aspirational kind of attitudes amongst young people, and certainly seems to be linked to a sense of personal wellbeing. So, that’s kind of not new, but it’s really notable that that evidence seems to be emerging from Sistema-inspired programs. And it’s very positive that that’s adding to what we already know.

I think also in terms of notable, it’s notable almost for the areas that still need further research. It’s early days. Many, many of the programs that we were looking at have only been in existence for a very, very short amount of time. I mean, many of them – we’re talking like 2 or 3 years for many of them. So it’s early days. But, emerging from the evidence, there is encouraging evidence about social impact, about community engagement. I think it’s more limited than the evidence related to personal development, but there are some encouraging trends. And, for me, what’s notable is that that is something that clearly needs some investment and some further research.

And also, what was notable for me – I mean, this was a literature review, but a sort of element of it was a sort of quasi-survey. Because in order to undertake a literature review in an area where there is very little published literature – or there certainly was very little in 2013, it’s growing – so we had to do a sort of… I call it a quasi-survey because it wasn’t really a survey. But we had to contact as many Sistema-inspired programs directly as we could. And we did contact hundreds of programs, directly, and I think that was really notable, was just finding the sheer number of programs – approaching, getting on to 300 programs in some sort of 60-ish countries… music education programs that share this commitment to inclusive practice and to reaching groups of young people who would not normally be supported in their musical development. So I think that is notable in itself. And again, I come back to my point that perhaps it’s that that is the real triumph of El Sistema, is the inspiration for focus on music and its place, and the right to music, and the right to access to music, amongst many, many groups who would traditionally perhaps be underserved in this respect. So I think that was notable.

ECS: That’s wonderful.

AC: You know, there are lots of other areas. One of the areas that struck me very, very much is the whole issue of peer learning. So of course, El Sistema and Sistema-inspired programs are based on the idea of learning in a group. And in some cultures, that’s more normal than in other cultures, but what’s exciting about it is that it’s such a rich context for really looking at that, and researching what makes for really effective practice in terms of peer learning, and how can that really be supported best. So, it’s clearly in some programs working incredibly well, and in terms of a notable finding, it’s just that there is this very, very rich context that is something that I think really deserves further research. We’d be missing something really valuable if we didn’t look at t that in greater depth.

ECS: Are there any other specific areas of practice or pedagogy that you hope to see further developed in the Sistema world?

AC: Well, you know, I think the whole area of pedagogy is something, again, that is worthy of research and really looking at what’s happening in programs that label themselves as Sistema-inspired. I mean, peer learning is one aspect. But these programs obviously – the majority of them – are programs that are targeting underprivileged populations, they’re targeting children from deprived backgrounds, and so the pedagogy has elements of what we would call a social pedagogy, you know, looking at the holistic development of the child. And in some programs, certainly some here in the UK, the children who are involved really do come from very, very underprivileged backgrounds. And have a whole range of needs that you might not find in more mainstream kinds of music education programs. So that whole sort of interface between music and music education, and the social pedagogy, is something that I think is really interesting. And I think in some programs, it’s been developed very much. In others, maybe not so much. But I think there are lessons to be learned and again, it’s a rich context for looking at that.

But I will also add that it’s certainly the case – I mean perhaps it’s one of the notable findings – is that Sistema-inspired programs can mean many, many different things. And our brief for the Literature Review, was to include evidence from any program that labeled itself in that way. So, you know, there’s a great deal of diversity amongst the programs that carry that label. And I think Abreu himself advocated that El Sistema should be interpreted in response to local community needs, and contexts, and so on. So I think that’s a really good thing. And I think that’s partly what makes El Sistema outside of Venezuela so difficult to define and pin down, because it has been interpreted in many different ways. So there are many different models. So the pedagogy, therefore, is not a method, is not something that you can kind of put in a textbook, but I think there are these basic principles around trying to integrate a sort of element of social pedagogy with music education, that probably most programs grapple with – that interface. I don’t know if I just answered the question or not!

ECS: Thank you! You definitely are one of the people most acquainted with what’s going on in the El Sistema world, so it’s very valuable to hear your thoughts. So some of the challenges that I’m hearing that you encountered were things like just being in touch with so many hundreds of programs… Are there any other challenges that you ran into that you’d like to share with the community?

AC: So, the literature review, I think others have carried out some elements of literature review. But I think it was a big undertaking to do something with the title of “Global” Literature Review. Particularly, when there’s not all that much that’s been published. So, one of the challenges simply was accessing the material. We needed to contact programs so that we could access the sort of gray literature, the evaluation reports and that sort of thing. There were also quite a few student dissertations, and some really excellent work, but again, finding that and accessing it, that was another challenge. It was the challenge of getting to the material.

And then of course, the challenge of sort of trying to undertake something like that with a team who’s spread out all around the world. You know, there were logistical issues with doing that, and how would we put it together, and who would coordinate it, and so on, and so on. So it was a bit tricky.

And the language issue, you know, between us we had six languages, but clearly there are more than 6 languages in the world, and I’m aware that there were some documents that we just simply couldn’t really access. We tried, but just because of the language barrier. And so to be really inclusive in something like that, you would really have to find some way of overcoming that. But anyway, we did the best we could!

I mean, looking at the bigger picture in terms of the challenge of building up an evidence base. It’s that research costs money, research and evaluation cost money, it’s very difficult to get funding for research in anything like music education. It’s not generally high on the agenda for funding research councils and so on. And, of course, individual programs are struggling to run the program, and so the capacity to carry out evaluation and to fund that and so on, is limited. So I think from that perspective, it’s challenging to build a big evidence base, and it makes it even more important that there needs to be a sort of central place or an overview, because there are lots and lots and lots of small-scale projects. For example, like the PhD projects, the dissertations, and so on. It’s all small-scale, understandably so. But these are like little pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. And it’s when you can put all the pieces together that you start to see the bigger picture. So I think it’s really challenging to have a kind of fragmented evidence base, much of which is in gray literature, and that’s one of the bigger challenges for let’s say, the Sistema world, in putting together an evidence base. But, you know, that’s just how it is.

ECS: Well, challenges notwithstanding, you really created something so valuable to the movement! Would you be able to say a little about how you think the review has had an impact on the movement so far, or what further impact it might have?

AC: Well, what I hope… I mean, I don’t have evidence of impact directly. What I hope is that what it’s done is put a focus on the importance of evidence. And got people thinking about collecting evidence. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is that I very much hope that it has highlighted the whole debate around the place of Sistema, of El Sistema and Sistema-inspired programs, the place of that piece of the puzzle, within the wider world of music education, and also within the wider world of initiatives that are working for the same kinds of aims and objectives in terms of social… we can call it social change, social transformation, empowerment, reaching underprivileged young people and raising aspirations, community engagement, all of those kinds of things. So, what I hope is that it’s helped to sort of position Sistema-inspired programs within that bigger picture.
And to open channels for partnership-working, for looking at what each can contribute – because I think Sistema-inspired programs for all the wonderful work that they do, should never be an excuse for, or replacement for, all of the wonderful work that many other diverse kinds of musical support for diverse kinds of musical progression pathways, offer. So there’s many different ways to become a musician, and many different ways to become a person with high aspirations, and to experience excellence. And I do think that Sistema-inspired programs have achieved a huge amount, but I think it’s one way, and what I hope is that by building an evidence base, we can see where that is positioned within the wider world, and that it really opens up dialogue and collaboration. It’s only when we have dialogue and collaboration and work alongside each other, that we can really have a unified approach to music education, and achieving the power of music that we know and really believe is possible. Does that make sense?

ECS: Definitely, it does. Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to hear a researcher such as yourself, help us make the links between practice and programs, and what research can do for us – so thank you!

AC: Actually, there was one thing I was going to add, in terms of impact, or influence. So, I mentioned how I hope that the literature review, as a sort of basic start, has helped to put the focus on evidence. But I also hope that what we’ve managed to draw… because we tried to identify and highlight areas for further research, and areas for further development, so I’ve given the example, for example, of peer learning, and how it’s such a rich context for looking at peer learning and developing approaches to supporting peer learning. But I hope that the literature Review has also identified areas that Sistema-inspired programs can continue to develop in terms of their practice. So it’s not just in terms of gathering evidence, but in terms of their practice, and moving towards achieving the kinds of outcomes that they’re united in wanting to achieve.

So, for example, the whole area of community engagement and social change, which still, the evidence is not as extensive as there is in terms of personal development. But that whole area, I think there are all sorts of possibilities for practice. So for example, intergenerational learning could be developed to a much greater extent. There could be all sorts of innovative and exciting approaches to really developing community engagement. And I mentioned before the whole sort of social pedagogy side of things. And I think programs could draw on expertise from that world to a greater extent than perhaps some of them do.

So I think that’s one way that I hope the Literature Review can sort of influence practice… and just sharing! Looking and seeing what other people do. We’ve got a big appendix in the back of the Literature Review outlining the different programs and what they look like. And how that translates into evidence. And, just skimming through it, if you were running a program, you might get some ideas! It’s an overview – it gives you an overview, to then go, like a springboard, and hopefully, ideas about new practices and new ways of developing.

ECS: If I can add one question – I was wondering if you would speak a little bit about how you see yourself continuing to be involved in the El Sistema movement.

AC: Oh, that’s a good question! Well, I very much want to continue to support development along the lines I’ve outlined, in terms of particularly supporting teacher development. I have several doctoral students doing research in Sistema kinds of contexts. You know, I’m absolutely committed to looking at things like community development, and some of my research is taking me in that direction.

I don’t know if you are aware that a big strand of my research in my institution has been in the area of music amongst older people, and I think this is why I mentioned intergenerational learning. Because I think if you’re talking about the community and meeting social challenges, affecting social change, a complete and entirely youth-focused approach misses out on opportunities for really engaging community, and community means life-long. And aging is one of the great social… our aging population is one of the greatest social challenges of the twenty-first century. And I’m really, really interested in how things like Sistema or initiatives like Sistema-inspired programs can contribute to integrating and helping to keep older people integrated in their communities. So aging in community through music-making is something very much at the focus of my research. So I’m sort of just following and contributing and working on an update to the Literature Review, so sort of keeping abreast of new literature that is being published, and very, very interested!

ECS: Well, thank you so much for your ongoing support and involvement in Sistema Global. It’s really wonderful to have your voice and have your work involved.

AC: It’s my pleasure, it’s absolutely my pleasure and it’s really an honor to be associated in any way with a community of people – and a global community of people – who are really, essentially, committed to exploring the power of music and what it can do for human development. And I think that’s, you know, a fantastic way to live your life. And so, it’s an honor to make any kind of contribution to that, really, to be part of it. It’s who I am, and it’s what I believe in, and it’s what my entire life has been about. So it’s a community that I feel quite comfortable with.

ECS: Well, I think there’s no better way to conclude than that!