Geoffrey Baker’s new book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, is a stinging critique of the Venezuelan instrumental and social music education programme. Baker’s research is far reaching, drawing on observations of the programme throughout Venezuela and interviews with key participants in the programme and students themselves. As a piece of qualitative and ethnographic research, it is beautifully constructed. Throughout his book, which I reviewed here for the Music Education UK website, Baker is at pains to justify his assertions about the programme and, when necessary, points to the limitations of his research and the conclusions therein.
In the final chapter of his book, Baker points to a number of projects that exemplify what he calls a more ‘progressive’ form of music education. At this point, it was lovely to find references to Musical Futures, a project that surely every music teacher here in the UK must be aware of that has made a significant and positive contribution to music education over the last ten years. This was what Baker has to say about Musical Futures:
One of the most radical and promising music education initiatives is Musical Futures, which began in the United Kingdom in 2003 and is spreading internationally. Musical Futures builds on Green’s (2002, 2008) work on informal learning and its application to the classroom. It’s central element is copying recordings by ear, and it integrates listening, improvising, and composing into the learning process, which is holistic and student-led (rather than sequential or drill-based) and promotes student choice of instruments and repertoire. Green (2008, 199-80) applies this informal learning pedagogy to ensemble playing and classical music, revealing that there is no inevitable bond between El Sistema’s curriculum, collective ethos, and conservative pedagogy. (Baker 2014, p.318)
He then goes onto draw a direct comparison between El Sistema and Musical Futures in terms of cost and instrastructure:
El Sistema requires an extraordinary and continuous outlay of money on infrastructure and instruments, primarily for the program’s elite students, and would fall apart without the continuous injection of huge funds. It also creates dependency through its educational practices and monopolisation of funding. Musical Futures represents a radical alternative: a genuinely new pedagogy, and a grassroots movement led by teachers and students rather than a central institution. With minimal funding required, it is not only much cheaper but also more self-sufficient and sustainable than El Sistema. (ibid)
Those of us that follow these things carefully will know that Musical Futures is going through something of a radical transformation itself, moving away from the financial support provided by its charitable funder – the Paul Hamlyn Foundation – and developing into an independent business. We wish them well at this key time and look forward to the continuing positive contribution they will make towards the development of progressive music education pedagogy around the world.
Green, L. (2008) Music, Informal Learning and the School: A new classroom pedagogy. Aldershot, Ashgate.
Green, L, (2002) How Popular Musicians Learn: A way ahead for music education. Aldershot, Ashgate.