Even Great Music Has Its Limits

The passion and dedication at OrchKids, a Baltimore version of El Sistema, cannot fix a broken city

Norman Lebrecht

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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