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El Sistema: does reality match the rhetoric?
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new in-depth study paints a negative picture

A new in-depth study paints a negative picture of El Sistema, the Venezuelan programme of musical and social education, devised by José Antonio Abreu, that is now being imitated the world over

11:17AM GMT 24 Nov 2014

A miracle. An inspiration. The saviour of classical music. These are the breathless terms used to describe El Sistema, the Venezuelan programme of musical and social education that is now being imitated the world over. We’re told that it has rescued untold thousands of poor children from a life of crime on the streets, by enrolling them in a network of music schools and orchestras across the entire country. It’s grown from tiny beginning over almost 40 years, thanks to the incredible energy and devotion of its founder José Antonio Abreu, who is often described as a saint. The symphony orchestra that forms the cream of El Sistema regularly tours the world, and is greeted with wild enthusiasm wherever it appears. The most famous alumnus of the system, Gustavo Dudamel, now leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and has become one of the faces of Rolex watches.

Now Geoffrey Baker, an academic at Royal Holloway College, University of London, has published an in-depth study which claims to reveal a very different picture. Like many of us, Baker was seduced by the choreographed joyousness of El Sistema concerts, and Abreu’s inspirational mantras about the transformative social effects of playing in orchestras. But he noticed the lack of any hard evidence for these effects, and wanted to find out whether the reality matched the rhetoric.

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