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Taking pride in their musicianship: Marin Alsop (left) with the children of OrchKids (photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

The school, as we arrive, is in lockdown. Lockdown? “It’s what we do when there’s been a shooting,” says the young man who eventually lets us in. “Today, it’s just a practice drill.”

The last shooting was two weeks before, a drive-by burst that wounded five parents as they waited to collect their kids. No arrests were made. The police in Baltimore are themselves in lockdown since the death of an unarmed suspect. The city, briefly the nation’s capital after the British burned down Washington in 1812, is a tinderbox of racial tensions, a gaping black hole in the American dream.

I’m in West Baltimore, ten minutes’ drive from the Washington Memorial, and 40 from Barack Obama’s White House. It’s late afternoon. The streets are deserted, most houses derelict, barely a soul to be seen. The school I’m visiting is built like a high-security prison, with massive gangways for crowd control, neon lighting and steel shutters. It is after school hours and the students who have stayed behind, which is most of them, are playing stringed instruments or singing in a choir.

Sweetly, and incongruously. Eight years ago, the Baltimore music director Marin Alsop blazed into her office with a documentary on El Sistema, the Venezuelan music nursery. “We gotta do that here,” she declared. The first school to introduce OrchKids was shut down before the term was out. In Baltimore, public schools are forever getting reallocated to needier areas.

Unfazed by the initial setback, OrchKids today looks after 820 schoolchildren most afternoons, teaching them musical and communications skills, feeding them light snacks and the supper most might not get at home. “Pretty much everyone here,” says Paul Meecham, president of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, “has a family member in prison or shot dead on the streets.” 

The teaching at OrchKids, so far as I can tell on brief inspection, is motivated and engaging. The instructors are Peabody Conservatory students or semi-retired musicians, patient, focused and encouraging. The children, as young as six years old, are taught to take pride in their musicianship and to address others with courtesy and consideration. The ones I meet are painfully polite, groomed to make a good impression.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I ask one prize pupil.

“A tuba player,” he announces. “Or maybe a truck-driver.”

The boy’s ambitions, constricted as they are, illustrate the artificiality of our connection. For black American children in West Baltimore, orchestral music belongs nowhere in their cultural make-up. No one they know has ever played in or gone to a symphony concert. Bach and Beethoven were aliens from Planet Zog until the Baltimore Symphony came offering free afternoon care, a few hours of safety from the desolate streets where a child’s life can be snuffed out without warning.

For the orchestra, likewise, it’s an awkward adjustment. The role of social worker to America’s underclass does not fit easily with the stringent demands of making music at an international level. The Baltimore Symphony depends on wealthy donors to pay its wages. It raises $1.3 million a year to fund OrchKids, but money is getting hard to come by in a city whose centre has been vacated by the middle classes. Baltimore musicians are about the worst-paid in any major US orchestra, on around $70,000 a year. The Peabody Conservatory, America’s oldest, has to market itself in China to maintain student numbers. Music is fighting here for its own survival.

I am dumbstruck with humility at the dedication of the OrchKids tutors I meet — the school secretary who stays on voluntarily after hours and seems to know every child and parent, the singing teacher who exudes rhythm and charisma in equal measure — and still I cannot ignore the glaring gulf between the gravity of the social crisis and the limitations of the musical remedy. What I have seen in Baltimore deepens my nagging disquiet at the universal application of the Sistema model.

El Sistema was designed by José Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan economist and politician, to rescue barrios urchins from drugs and guns by teaching them a negotiable set of musical skills. It achieved stunning results under one of the world’s most violent and least competent regimes, yielding a flurry of fine soloists and conductors and several Simón Bolívar-branded orchestras that play with a confraternal passion which is as distinctive as it is inimitable. Watching a Bolívar orchestra and chorus of former street kids accompany La Bohème at La Scala, Milan, last summer was, for me, a clinching vindication of the social experiment, at least in respect of its original home base.

Abroad, El Sistema has been embraced as a model for social regeneration in Europe and the US, attracting such high-profile advocates as Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and the violinist Nicola Benedetti. However, except in Los Angeles, where Abreu’s brilliant protégé Gustavo Dudamel has driven a compelling YOLA programme among mostly Hispanic youth, El Sistema has failed to demonstrate — on Scottish sink estates and Italian summer camps, for instance — that symphonic music can repair social deprivation and communal disintegration.

Music is music, make of it what you will. Music can enhance life’s achievements and console us in our losses, but it cannot repair the holes at the heart of society. Few, if any, OrchKids will win a $45,000 scholarship at Peabody or a $70,000 job in the Baltimore Symphony. Life is not equipped with happy endings as default. And while my admiration for OrchKids is unqualified, I am increasingly concerned at the assumption it helps to project that music is a panacea for social woes.

There is no proof that classical music does more for unprivileged kids than after-hours football, pottery painting or software design. It may not even be more fun for the children, especially for the significant minority who are tone-deaf or manually undexterous.

El Sistema has fostered a seductive illusion that music is an all-purpose solution. But music has its limits and we need to accept them. It cannot cure cancer, relieve poverty or revive a dying city.

The Baltimore Symphony will celebrate its centenary next year — if Baltimore itself shows the will to survive.
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Lawrence Eckerling
December 3rd, 2015
2:12 PM
Music is not going to solve everything. And you are right, it can't cure cancer. But just as musical performance quality is subjective (and can't be quantified with research data), every musician knows that it touches you in your "heart", and taps into feelings beyond places where words take you. That cannot help but make a better person, and that cannot help but improve the society at large. You can't quantify this either, but we know it's true. And I swear, if every person was able to feel things deeply, such a person is much less likely to take a semi-automatic gun and kill 30 people, and then kill him/herself. I can't prove it, but I just know it. Lawrence Eckerling, Music Director, Evanston Symphony Orchestra

December 2nd, 2015
7:12 PM
I do agree with the comments of enemigopublico. What is missing from the envious US reports on El Sistema is the fact that the US already has a well-developed program of training in music and the arts for underserved communities. It was started in innercity settlement schools at the beginning of the 20th century and exists as the membership of the National Guild of Community Arts Education. If you want to give money to help underprivileged kids learn an instrument, find a school in your area on the NGCAE website and make a donation.

November 29th, 2015
5:11 PM
Enimegopublico, does your comment mean that this is not helping these children? Of course it is helping them, and from an orchestra which amongst the orchestras in the USA is not a rich orchestra. Things like this must go on.

November 29th, 2015
11:11 AM
This article injects a very useful dose of sceptical enquiry into a discussion that’s usually romanticized, at times to the point of absurdity. There’s little to argue with in most of it, with the exception of the paragraph on El Sistema in Venezuela, which is wrong in just about every respect. El Sistema wasn’t “designed to rescue barrios urchins from drugs and guns” – it was designed to train up young, predominantly middle-class musicians for Venezuela’s orchestras. Go and check out its first constitution from 1979. The stuff about rescue came much later, when the program came under more pressure to justify its existence. Even now, this aspect is much exaggerated. The chorus accompanying La Bohème in Milan was the National Youth Choir, which includes people of all social strata, not a chorus of former street kids. Its “stunning results” are musical, not social. There is no rigorous evaluation or compelling evidence that shows that it works as a social program, as even its main funder, the Inter-American Development Bank, has admitted. Indeed, Venezuela’s social problems have got worse as El Sistema has got bigger. Given that El Sistema was not created to solve social problems in Venezuela, and there’s no good evidence that it does, it’s hardly surprising if it’s failing to do so outside Venezuela. Norman’s scepticism is more justified than he realises.

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