With the holiday season upon us, I thought I would share some thoughts I’ve had for some time concerning one of the more promising movements in the performing arts: El Sistema.

Since 1975, Venezuela has been the home to one of the most radical experiments in music education: “El Sistema,” or FESNOJIV (the National Network of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela). Originally conceived of by economist Jose Antonio Abreu as a means of social reformation for the nation’s poorest youth, El Sistema has become a global phenomenon that offers new evaluative measures other than artistic superiority or financial gain.  The project’s pervasive success can be linked to the meteoric rise of alumni such as Gustavo Dudamel (music director, Los Angeles Philharmonic), whose recent tours with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra garnered international press.

As one might expect, much has been written about the remarkable successes of El Sistema, prompting performing artists and arts managers from all corners of the globe to adopt a mission of social betterment through musical education.  The seemingly altruistic tenets of El Sistema have become particularly attractive in the orchestra world, where music education initiatives are not only becoming an important part of value propositions and mission statements—they serve as a partial solution for many of the challenges the industry faces (see http://orchestrarevolution.org/, the League of American Orchestra’s 2010 annual meeting blog, to see how pervasive the  “El Sistema model” is in industry conversation). The project’s merits have been especially well discussed in the U.S., where music education has been systematically dismantled over the last two decades. Since 2000, several El Sistema-inspired initiatives have popped up here, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles) project and El Sistema U.S.A., which was founded as an arm of New England Conservatory’s Preparatory Division in 2009 and graduated its first class of Abreu Fellows in 2010.

Yet the original scope and value of the Venezuelan initiative, rooted not in a “system” but instead in an ideology of almost obsessive dedication by underprivileged youth, does not map easily onto the practices of contemporary American culture. Don’t get me wrong; I’m as firmly on the “El Sistema Bandwagon” as the next person, and it’s hard to deny the valuable work being done by music teachers in Venezuela and beyond. Nevertheless, as the movement picks up steam, the industry should take a long, hard look at what components of the “system” are central to its students’ success.  After all, isn’t that the point?

As it currently stands, who exactly benefits from this work—America’s youth or the ailing orchestra industry itself? Are these two “communities” mutually exclusive, or can they both benefit from El Sistema’s remarkable objectives, regardless of national or cultural context?