Not a Sponsor, but a Game Changer …

This blog is based on an article first published in the June 2014 edition of the ‘Ensemble’ Magazine
May 2014 – 786 Words

It was recently announced that Venezuela’s National Electricity Corporation (Corpoelec) will form a new youth orchestra in Caracas under the aegis of El Sistema, with the aim of eventually enrolling up to a thousand children. (Stop for a moment and think about that announcement: it’s nothing short of a revolution in institutional and model development for El Sistema). Not long ago came the news of Maestro Abreu’s plan to extend El Sistema’s work into schools throughout Venezuela. Another big, very big, idea. Meanwhile in Barquisimeto the proposal for one of the world’s greatest architects to build an opera house complements the announcement last year of Milan’s La Scala opera house partnership with El Sistema.

Here are three examples – plucked almost at random from El Sistema’s ever burgeoning and seemingly unstoppable structural and institutional growth – of radical new models to advance the spread of successful Sistema work in Venezuela. After almost 40 years, the unremitting daring pace of structural expansion there remains mind bogglingly ambitious, and whilst such changes take their place alongside highly valued pedagogical and musical developments too numerous to list in a blog of this humble length, they are no less integral to the success of El Sistema. Actually perhaps more integral; a point we can often miss.

Now I could go on at length about the developmental ingenuity of Maestro Abreu’s model development and its critical importance for the growth of El Sistema, but instead of preaching to the possibly converted, here’s my question for today: what is happening in the rest of the El Sistema world that can even begin to compare with the virtuosic depth of long term strategic planning and development of El Sistema in Venezuela?

Answers, I suspect, could be proffered on an extremely small postcard.

The fact is that many people are so justifiably impressed by the methodology and pedagogy of El Sistema, that, in my opinion, they have arguably neglected the radical nature of the model development side. Now don’t get me wrong: there are some great programmes and wonderful teaching approaches out there, and there are also some very impressive institutional initiatives, such as Take a Stand and Salzburg Festival’s recent mass Sistema play-in that brought almost 1500 young Venezuelans to perform in one of the world’s most important music festivals.

But how many of these initiatives are being planned on, say, ten – forty year perspectives in order to provide new engines for institutional development in tomorrow’s world at national or regional level? What does the next President of the US (or the one after that) know about the social problem solving capacity of El Sistema? Who has engaged with the George Soros’s, the Bill Gates’s or the Thomas Piketty’s of this world? In England last year, for example, when Sistema England made a presentation to an invited audience with members of the in Harmony Scheme, the question from the floor from the UK government’s Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, was words to the effect ‘this is all wonderful: have you been in contact with the Ministry of Justice?’

So we have here a philosophy, a methodology, a pedagogy, actually a complete aetiology of positive  social change in a proven program of community cultural activity. (Apologies, proven is a big word that remains arguably short of our current grasp). But is it only Maestro Abreu that we should be relying on to argue the case in front of the World Bank, Davos, G20 and TED people?

My thesis is that to begin to be successful at such a level, at a level where there is significant institutional leverage on big international stages, El SIstema programmes need to be more imaginative and bold in their institutional thinking. And somewhat more outward facing. The laboratory phase of hundreds of varied Sistema organisations worldwide has been great – and continues to be – but it’s essentially a laboratory of pedagogy. What is now needed to lay alongside it is a laboratory of institutional and model development that takes Sistema organisations into daring new partnerships and as yet unimagined alignments.

A couple of examples from Europe: Big Noise in Scotland is hosting an international teachers’ conference in October 2014. How great an opportunity is that for major international tech. companies or inter-governmental organisations to eavesdrop on this gathering? Or the next Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra camp in Istanbul in August. Why not invite major international corporations to come alongside it to see how young Europeans from a dozen countries or more are learning to communicate effectively across major language, social and cultural barriers? Fact: somewhere near you is a company like Corpoelec Venezuela; not a sponsor, but a game changer. Fact: unlocking that change is just a matter of imagination.


Europe’s Sistemas: Lessons from the Past – Patterns for the Future

Where are Europe’s Sistemas going? There has been an almost explosive growth in the development of the Sistema Europe network since its formation in 2012, and within the last 5 years, more than 30 Sistemas in 20 European countries have brought Sistema inspired work to around 15,000 young people. What will the next 5 or 50 years bring for these and other nascent European Sistemas? I recently gave the 2013 Honorary Fellows lecture for the Worshipful Company of Musicians in London at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre on 28 June 2013 as part of Southbank Centre’s Nucleo weekend:

Subject:  Europe’s Sistemas – Lessons from the Past and Patterns for the Future.
it was great to have 2 hours to go into this question in some depth. My headline conclusion: to develop to their best potential, Europe’s Sistemas, especially those from countries like the UK, might want to focus on four areas:

Screen Shot 2013-07-07 at 17.50.34If you have any time at all I recommend looking and listening to the video from our Turkish friends (with a little help from Guatemala) in slide 40 in the power point presentation below. (There should be embedded video that you can play by clicking on the image). Most of the kids in the video have been playing for around 4 months. This shows what Can be done far away from Venezuela.

Here, first of all though, is a Visual minute of the session by Arianna Corradi of Creative Connection (Thank you Arianna!)

SB - el sistema - 28.06.2013 webYou can also view a video recording of the lecture, in three parts, thanks to Reynaldo Trombetta, Director of Communications of In Harmony Sistema England :

Part 1/3 Opening Lecture 40′:
Part 2/3 Panel Discussion 50′:
Part 3/3 Open Discussion 30′:

Here also, are the powerpoint slides, since they were not always that clear in the video

Panel Members:
Introduced by Leslie East, Pastmaster Worshipful Company of Musicians
Yemisi Blake – poet, artist, producer and researcher
Pam Burnard – Reader in Music Education at the University of Cambridge
Nathaniel Facey – Alto saxophonist
Claire Fox – Director The Institute of Ideas
Marshall Marcus – CEO European Union Youth Orchestra, Founder & Chair Sistema Europe, Trustee In Harmony Sistema England

A Transcript of the 2010 THE WORSHIPFUL COMPANY OF MUSICIANS ANNUAL DEBATE ‘El Sistema: will it translate into English?’ referred to in the lecture can be found here

Eric Booth’s essay The Generous Laboratory, also mentioned in the lecture, can be found here

The image by The hashtag for the Nucleo is #NucleoFest

And finally here is the visual minute (also by Creative Connection, directed by Tim Caswell) from last year’s Sistema session at Southbank Centre’s previous Nucleo weekend, that included Julian Lloyd Webber Chair of In Harmony Sistema England, Nicola Killean Director of Big Noise Sistema Scotland, Dan Trahey Director of OrchKids Baltimore USA, Jonathan Govias Canada, Ricardo Castro Neojiba Salvador Bahia Brazil, Juan Antonio Cuellar Batuta Colombia, and Etienne Abelin Director Superar Switzerland:

Sistema SessionPlease post any comments here:

BBC Young Musician of the Year … but then what next?

Have a listen to this Youtube clip of a 15 year old Martin Bartlett playing the Sonata in F Sharp Major by Scarlatti, or a 16 year old Lara Melda playing Chopin’s Etude in C sharp minor. They both attained the dizzying (although it must also be said shockingly under reported by the media) prize of appearing in the BBC Young Musician finals, in 2012 and 2010 respectively. The competition attracts the world’s finest players, best in their world in their class, if no doubt heavily ‘hot housed’ and mostly used to an atmosphere of privileged tuition.

So what do you do after achieving this rarified level of attainment? Well, head into the arms of waiting agents and a nice comfortable career in club class, might be one of the standard answers.

So let’s hear it for Lara and Martin, and fellow musicians Harry and Tatiana Gilfillan, when they head on to the rather more economy stage of  St. James’s Piccadilly in the middle of London, UK on 10 July for a concert supporting  Street Child World Cup. Street Child World Cup campaigns globally for street children to receive the protection and opportunities that most of us as children were able to simply take for granted. Through football, art and an international conference their aim is to challenge the negative perceptions and treatment of street children. The concert will be focusing on the run up to 2014 and the World Cup in Brazil, when thanks to Street Wide World Cup, children from up to 20 countries will be brought together in Brazil, drawing from a network of projects all campaigning for the rights of street children. The idea is simple: ensure that street childrens’ voices are heard and that for a change they also can be a part of an international festival of football. The concert on 10 July is amongst a number of international football and arts-based events building towards and beyond the momentum of Brazil 2014.

The negative aspects of Brazil’s run up to the 2014 world cup has been well on show to the world in the last few weeks. Here however is something positive to hear about it.


Go Figure: another Sistema No Brainer PART 2

April 2013, 412 words

Last November I wrote about what I saw as one of THE new big issues of note in Sistema land: the question of research and evaluation. Since then SERA (the Sistema Evaluation & Research Archive) membership has gone to beyond 60 people from about 15 countries and 4 continents, and grows weekly. And seemingly dozens of people are engaged in new research studies regarding El Sistema. Don’t get me wrong, it will be a while – I’m talking years – before most of these studies shows significant results. And we are going to have to be careful and rigorous in making sure that such research and evaluation is objective and suitably peer reviewed (and not simply a series of attempted justifications) of what Sistema work is really achieving or not achieving. Nevertheless things have moved on significantly during the last year.

In one way all of this is what you might call ‘small beer’. Because  what we lacked up to now, is a plain audit of what is out there. Knowing from a simple catalogued listing,  who has been, and is doing, research. Well it seems that that is all about to change following the very recent release from Sistema Global. Ladies and gentlemen, here is a copy of the announcement. It seems that there is a new player in the field …

Sistema Global  is delighted to announce that it has commissioned a Literature Review of Projects Inspired by El Sistema. An international team of music education researchers led by Dr Andrea Creech, of the Institute of Education, University of London. Together with colleagues from McGill University in Canada and the Autonomous University of Chihuahua in Mexico, the IOE researchers will be reviewing the many academic journal articles, evaluation reports, dissertations and policy documents that have been produced on Sistema programmes outside Venezuela in recent years. The Review is expected to be available in early July. For further information or to contribute to the research contact Andrea Creech. “

Now that, is what I call progress. Thank you Sistema Global, the Institute of Education, London University, and Dr.Andrea Creech and her team.  We look forward to a research base line. Then we can really move on to identifying the areas of research provision that are lacking. As for that killer piece of research I mentioned last November, well the game is still open on that one. Small steps maybe, but as they say … small steps are better than small beer.

Voice, Power and the Fruits of Difference

Opening the Great Doors of Diversity

I’ve just been in Detroit for three days attending Sphinx’s inaugural convocation about diversity in the performing arts. It was an impressive and imposing rolling structure of creative planning: One lecture space. One networking room. One theme. One inspiring memorial lecture (Jawole Willa Jo Zollar receiving the Arthur L. Johnson award.). And 31 speakers with 15 minutes each on their chosen subject leading out of the theme empowering diversity in the performing arts. Few questions, no break outs, no multiple sessions, no trying to curate a joined up narrative. Brave stuff. And in the end the ‘con’ in Sphinxcon turned out not to be the dreaded conference, or even a convening, but a ‘conversation’, people simply listening to each other talk about diversity. Next time – and I’m sure there will be a next time – it will be different, but this was at least a heady beginning for lots of people who have been battling both severally and separately in the diversity wilderness for many, many years.

So how was it?

Well there was a wondrous pot-pouri feel about it. From Horst Abraham talking about leadership in turbulent times, to Shirley Stancato on dealing with race, Farai Chideya on the global and historical context of diversity, David DiChiera a treasure of a storyteller, María Rosario Jackson on cultural kitchens, Ken Fischer being very successfully practical, and the greatest solo spoken word dance narrative I’ve ever witnessed (Maria Bauman of Urban Bush Women). There was generosity, there was whimsy, and and a sort of home spun mid Western laid back amiability in spades.

And what did I learn? Well it was three days of reminders: I was reminded that Aaron Dworkin is not only a charismatic leader and a great speaker, he is even cleverer than you might have thought before. His last words were the key ones: ‘this may only be the beginning of the conversation, but the conversation has no sense unless it is translated into action’. And to be more precise, he quoted Picasso: “Action is the foundational key to all success”. As for the reminders, near the top of the list were a series of easily forgotten truisms; that prejudice is born of ignorance, that diversity begins with knowing who you are (thank you Delroy Lindo), that in order to persuade people you must first listen, and that – here is perhaps the most interesting  – if only the lots of people doing good in their own projects could come together, then the quiet getting on with it ‘doing’ majority could change the world in quite a small period of time. As it is however the chips suggest that we are definitely in it for the long haul.

Another gain it gave me was the catalyst to deconstruct the word. Otherwise ‘diversity’ can sit down on us a little too squately and heavily as if trained by one of Larkin’s Toads. On the one hand there is ‘power’: the need to redistribute resources, money, platforms and opportunities from the ugly indefensible unjust excesses and over concentrations of power present in the status quo. Then there is ‘voice’, something which all the contributors of color seem to have a powerful handle on (and particularly the idea that they really know and value who they are) rather than the personas and amnesia of self that those who make it over the money parapet often seem to fall prey to. There is also plenty to talk about here regarding fear: fear of difference, fear of giving a platform to people who come from different traditions, fear of the unknown if we are to let in diverse rather than known entities, whatever it is that we do. So  in all of this, difference therefore emerges as not only a personal positive and a group challenge, but a simple brute necessity. Boredom and unknowingness are the probable alternatives.

But really the most important potential gains in sight are the cornucopic and seemingly infinite fruits of difference on offer – a matter I did not have time to riff on in my 15 minute presentation in Detroit on the lessons for diversity in the recent globalisation of El Sistema – if we have the courage and commitment to really open the doors to diversity. As a journeyman in the world of El Sistema in the last few years, this, if nothing else, has struck me time and time again. And now back in Europe as CEO of the European Union Youth Orchestra (an orchestra of young players currently auditioned from 28 countries) I am only just beginning to see some new opportunities and challenges of working with diversity.

I am buoyed up however by the experience of the last 18 months, in which I have had the luxury to be able to watch, teach and listen to diverse groups of young musicians from about 18 countries in 4 continents in dozens of projects, together showing me exactly what that diversity gives us in practice when it flows untamped into the concert hall. Whether I have been in New York or Tbilisi, Caracas or Stirling, Salvador Bahia or Stockholm, Los Angeles or Moldova, or now Detroit with the Sphinx orchestra, the absolute raw driving energy that is humanity at its very best has been almost continually on show to remind me that when race, gender, poverty and class are not allowed in as restraints on trade or creativity, humanity has seemingly limitless and inspirational achievements as its trophies. And the alternative – allowing those doors to close shut – means only one thing: a new Dark Age. You know your duty.


Postscript: below you can find a link to the presentation El Sistema: Lessons in Diversity & Globalisation given in Detroit Michigan, USA on Saturday 16 February 2013 as part of Sphinx’s Inaugural Convening on Diversity in the Performing Arts plus a couple of photos of suggested Characteristics and Program for a Diversity Network made by the conference delegates during the talk on El Sistema.

Sphinx Presentation Marshall Marcus Feb 13


Go Figure: another Sistema No Brainer

November 2012 – 1223 words

Something is stirring in Sistema land. In the last few months an idea that has spent much of its life lurking in the depths has begun to acquire air and a new level of articulation. It’s not yet sweeping through the international Sistema community; there are no major bush fires or storms with names in their wake just yet, but by my reckoning there soon will be. And in my opinion it’s going to be a key – as well as a very big – challenge for just about every Sistema programme out there. Period.

Evaluation and Research is the name of this new game. It comes at Sistema projects from a number of directions. Many, though not all, programmes have had to do some evaluation as a matter of course when starting up or carrying on, even if only of the most basic kind. In places like Europe and the US it’s part of the background hum to a project, a constant riff that always needs attending to but can never be finally quite satisfied. Want to be sustainable? Then you’d better have some cast iron figures to show why your patrons, donors, sponsors, friends, trusts, local council or national government should keep on giving, and why your journalists, writers and broadcasters should keep on telling the story as something really positive. (Of course I appear to be making a big assumption here: I seem to be assuming that the figures will show good news. That, of course, may or may not be the case, and you won’t find that out until you have those figures).

Looked at like this, the question about evaluation and research seems pretty clear. But it’s not long before a profusion of questions arise from every side: what measures should you be using? Is it about musical attainment, social development or both? Cognitive function or social behaviour? How do you calculate value on SRI measures? Should positives (future employment) as well as absence of negatives (lower unemployment) be factored in. Should you be doing it yourself or getting outsiders in? What percentage of your precious turnover is worth it for hard facts? Are you talking about evaluation, research or both? Can you trust the evidence of already published studies? Where are the control groups? Are you prepared to wait a decade or so for really trustworthy figures? Have you measured drop out rates? Ambitious or prudent? Longitudinal? Quantitative or qualitative? Did you do base line measures before you began? And that’s before you get to any of the complicated stuff. Help!

Back in January 2012 I was sitting in an evaluation class at the LA Phil’s Take a Stand conference, and getting, well, bored. The Arts Council in England, knowing that I would anyway be in LA, asked me to have a look at what the session would throw up. Keep it simple, was the adamant proposal from the session. You have enough to worry about without getting a PhD in data methodology, and anyway it would take years to get sophisticated numbers. A few simple quantitative measures are much better.

Well I didn’t buy any of that, and I still don’t.

Of course viewed from Caracas, where I recently landed, there’s historically been a different approach. El Sistema grew here with a different sense of what it means to persuade. And anyway if you can show that it works, really show, do you also need to prove that it works? And what if you’re in Yerevan or Kinshasa or Ramallah or Stockholm? What is ‘showing’ in these cultures? What is proving?

The easiest thing is to forget the whole dance and get on with what got you started in the beginning: making great music with children and improving lives in the process, not staring at numeric pictures that merely represent the hopefully successful results of such activity.

I sympathise. But let me tell you: some new solutions are forming. And the nice thing is that that some of these new solutions are mirroring the way children learn about music in El Sistema; by doing it together. There’s a kind of quiet madness about everyone trying to solve this evaluation problem on their own. Yes, of course there are some different needs and there are different cultures and many different ways of working with evaluation or research, but there are far more common needs. Why not let’s share answers to those common needs. So Glenn Thomas’s Sistema Global has just started a sub group called, appropriately, Sistema Research. To begin with Glenn, Teaching artist Eric Booth, UK music educationalist Richard Hallam, and I started throwing a few ideas around. But I really became impressed when I saw the number of people chiming in. An initial thread passed 60 contributions, including Marilyn Price-Mitchell (US), Ken MacLeod (Canada), Joy Bechtler (US), Keane Southard (US but with increasing knowledge of Brazil) Tricia Tunstall (US) Geoff Baker (UK) and Sara Zanussi (US). (Hmn; did I say global?)

As a companion initiative I’ve started a Google Drive folder: SERA, ‘Sistema Evaluation and Research Archive’. (You can find that through this blog at or via an information page on the main menu El Sistema drop down tab). There you can place research work and see what others are placing there. It’s new and early days. Gradually a conversation will form around these sites and a new international approach to evaluating El Sistema will arise, which will not be quite so North American and UK centred. And I dare say more sophisticated ways of talking about it together will emerge.

Some of the questions are practically screaming at me. For someone there’s a career to be made by grabbing hold of this question: how to best audit what is around in a way that helps everyone in the field. There’s another field of glory for whoever can develop a small set of templates that cover a big enough range of different evaluation needs, so that evaluation can be approached with flexibility but enough consonance that results around the world can be compared. And whilst we are about it we could also do with a nice suite of evaluation tools (thank you for that one Eric).But ultimate glory awaits whoever can find the killer research project that really unites what many Sistema practitioners around the world are doing.

Now you can argue about whether El Sistema in Venezuela is a programme, a system, a network, a franchise, or another fancier word that explains it all in a few connected syllables. But internationally it’s already clear how we are going about solving El Sistema challenges: share, open source, look, learn, discuss, explore, communicate, try and report: these are the buzz words. And when it come to growing a methodology of evaluation and research that will work from LA to Kampala it’s very clear: the network is king. That is the really valuable thing I have learnt this year from international Sistema work. And not only is the network free, but it also lacks centralised control, as Glenn, Eric, Richard and I know only too well. We can start what we want, but the network will decide where it goes. A no brainer if ever I saw one.

Sistema Global Research sub group available via the Sistema Global LinkedIn Site

Sistema Evaluation and Research Archive information at:

Seizing the moment for Africa

October 2012 – 541 words

The moment for action has arrived. Or rather for more action. With the successful entry of 22 projects in 18 countries into Sistema Europe throughout the first half of 2012, it is now time for another – and arguably much larger – challenge.  That challenge is Africa.  The method for meeting it will be the values, programmes and methodology of El Sistema, and the device for achieving it will be a new organization that launches today, Sistema Africa.

Over the last few years I have listened slowly but surely to a small but growing number of voices from around the continent – from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean to the heart of Africa and beyond – exploring ways to establish Sistema work in a substantial, effective, sustainable manner. During the last year virtual conversations have taken me to Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, and beyond. There is a thirst, and a tremendous sense of desire to make something positive happen, and build sustainable help for young people through the vehicle of  music. Of course much is already going on, and there are many people who have been fighting the battle for some time. One of the challenges – as in Europe – will be to see how the wonderful pattern of activity that already exists will come together with any new or continuing Sistema projects. And as with Sistema Europe the stress will be on being an organisation that brings people together, assists the spread of good ideas and practice, and is generally helpful in an open non territorial welcoming manner.

As the first stage in assisting that process, I am working with Gabriel Prokofiev, who is already well known in Europe for his radical new classical music projects and who very successfully worked in Caracas with the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in February 2012. Gabriel is now looking at establishing Sistema work in Congo-Brazzaville where he has been recently, and will be returning. He and I have founded Sistema Africa to bring together the already existing and ongoing Sistema ongoing projects as well as any inspirational leaders who want to begin their own Sistema journey.

Initially Sistema Africa will exist simply as a Facebook Page – see for where this currently exists –  in order to become a friend, announce any work that you are doing, and network with your contacts to spread the word. I am sure that initiatives like Glen Thomas’ Sistema Global will also help the process. My gut feeling is that unlike in other places in the world where El Sistema is developing, the first priority will be to establish a linked conversation by people who share values, practice and common challenges. Linking together will I am sure be the number one priority. Later on the form of Sistema Africa will develop in ways that we can probably not imagine just now, but will be described by the journey it happens to take. As the Venezuelans say, the planning is the doing. At some point it will need to be a place where money can be raised and lobbying achieved. Let’s see where this takes us. For now welcome to anyone who wants to join this new bold audacious initiative, to anyone who wants to seize the moment for Africa.