Anyone who takes an active interest in culture will almost certainly have heard of El Sistema, the celebrated Venezuelan music project which has been using orchestral music-making to improve the lives of disadvantaged young people for nearly 40 years.
This month we learned that Sistema Scotland, Scotland’s own pint-sized version of the project, is to expand into Glasgow – just weeks after four new Sistema-inspired projects opened for business in Gateshead, Leeds, Nottingham and Telford. Could it be that Venezuela’s most famous cultural export is now as much a part of British music education as county youth orchestras and Eisteddfods?
Perhaps, but El Sistema is not without its critics. A number of commentators have expressed the view that its British spin-off projects – which typically involve working intensively with relatively small numbers of children – cost too much and beneﬁt too few. But more worrying is the misleading notion, propagated by some parts of the media, that El Sistema has somehow ‘come to the rescue’ of British music education.
In fact, Sistema-style projects are far from new to these shores. Take for example the Tower Hamlets Strings Project. Just like El Sistema, this pioneering initiative brought disciplined ensemble music-making to underprivileged children in east London for the best part of 15 years – showing that not every socially oriented music project originates in Venezuela.
Indeed, the most serious gripe with Britain’s growing number of Sistema projects is not with the projects themselves but with the excessive hype surrounding them, which distracts from the urgent reality that local authority music services – the real engine room of British music education – will face savage cuts over the next few years. Most children in Britain learn instruments through their local music service, not through a Sistema project – and yet the government’s idea for making music education accessible to all is to put money into Sistema projects while cutting music services. As impressive as some of these projects are, they should not be mistaken for the core infrastructure through which we stand the best chance of providing musical opportunity for all.