Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change through Music

By Grimmer, Jessica | Notes, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change through Music


Grimmer, Jessica, Notes


Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music. By Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016. [xxiii, 408 p. ISBN 9780393245646. $28.95.] Photographs, bibliography, appendices, index.

Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music bears witness to the global spread of the El Sistema movement and reports its impact on local communities. The authors, Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth, first came into contact with El Sistema at its place of origin in Caracas, Venezuela; Jose Antonio Abreu, a government employee and classically trained musician, founded it in 1975. El Sistema began by targeting poverty-ridden youth and engaging them in an intense practice of classical music, first in orchestras and later in choirs, bands, and chamber ensembles. These ensembles typically meet five or more times a week for long rehearsals; these meetings function as both social and music education programs. Booth, an actor turned teaching artist, discovered El Sistema on a 2008 trip to Venezuela. Writer, pianist, and educator Tunstall followed suit the next year. Tunstall's encounter resulted in her monograph Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), which tracks the growth of the El Sistema movement from Latin America to the United States, particularly in Los Angeles, Baltimore, and New York City.

In Playing for Their Lives, Tunstall and Booth continue to chart the spread of El Sistema-inspired programs outside Latin and North America. The authors introduce Abreu's vision from its humble beginnings--with fifty music stands in a Caracas parking garage--through its development into the first nucelos, or center: the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Rather than develop an army of classical musicians (though great artists do emerge from the programs), Abreu hoped to create "successful, happy, and good citizens" (p. 9) through artistic engagement that delivered a reprieve from the scarcity of poverty, taught collective work, and provided protection from the dangers of drug and gang violence. Though government funding aided in the expansion of the program across Venezuela to a current total of 423 nucelos, this support has been problematic. Abreu's failure to speak out against violent clashes between protestors and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's regime has drawn the ire of critics. Still, for many, the social benefits have outweighed the controversies, and the popularity of the program has proved contagious. The authors credit the worldwide spread of El Sistema in recent years to the popularity of Gustavo Dudamel as conductor of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, Abreu's 2009 TED talk and prize, and successful performances at the 2013 Salzburg Festival.

While the authors' admitted enthusiasm suggests the possibility of blind spots in their views of the program, Tunstall and Booth insist that they understand the challenges facing El Sistema and call attention to specific problems. The lack of empirical data on the impact of the program presents one of the largest issues, which the authors attribute to the absence of mandatory feedback in Venezuela and other Latin American countries, coupled with the relative newness of programs abroad. The authors instead relied on qualitative and observational evidence, a necessity given the variety of programs examined. They visited over one hundred programs in twenty-five countries, where they interviewed directors, teachers, students, and parents. Because Abreu shuns the prospect of franchisement, the musicians and educators who founded most of the programs adopted these terms and tenets as an honor code. Throughout, Tunstall and Booth emphasize the adaptability of El Sistema-inspired programs to unique issues in underserved communities around the world, highlighting different aspects of the program in each location. …

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