A visit to Sistema Norwich

In January this year, I had an article published about Sistema in the UK, one of a collection of articles focused on critical perspectives on El Sistema. My article discussed the issues with using classical music, a cultural form which is both played and listened to almost exclusively by the middle classes in the UK, as a social action programme for children in working class areas. I argued that classical music’s pedagogies and practices form a close fit with middle-class norms and values, as displayed historically and today. I concluded that the aesthetic of classical music needs to change in order for it to become more inclusive, and that using it as a tool for social action for children in schools in working-class areas risks repeating ideas from the Victorian era of using classical music (and other forms of high art) as a tool to ‘civilise’ the working class.

In February, I met the director of Sistema Norwich, Marcus Patteson, in the course of my research for my current project into the BBC Get Creative campaign. He had read my article and invited me to visit Sistema Norwich, as he wanted me to see how they were doing things differently to mainstream classical music education. I was very pleased to take him up on his invitation and to have the chance to talk further with him about his work. On my visit I also met Steve Copley, who had been until recently the music director of Sistema Norwich. The three of us had a long conversation about their project before I went to visit one of the after-school programmes. I was particularly interested that Steve himself was almost entirely self-taught as a musician. He has now moved on from Sistema and runs Laboratory Music Media, a music education organisation that runs workshops and trains teachers in using new forms of music technology for improvisation and composition. He showed me a couple of video clips of sessions with young people using iPads as musical instruments, which looked really exciting and innovative, and he stressed the possibilities involved in teaching music using iPad technology, as it allows users to be musically expressive without having to first develop any technical ability.

Marcus and Steve were critical of what they described as traditional classical music pedagogy and saw Sistema Norwich as doing something different. The main differences they described to me were that Sistema always teaches in groups and never individually; that children with different levels of musical ability play together; the programme prioritises peer-to-peer learning and has a peer leadership programme; they do some teacher training (although they said they would like to have the resources to do more); they use a variety of modes of notation including graphic scores; improvisation is a part of musical learning; they have a teen Sistema programme to support progression; technology is an integral part of what they do; and they draw on a variety of genres rather than just classical.

I was impressed to hear about these innovations, as well as their future plans to have a Sistema guitar orchestra and/or an orchestra of pop and rock instruments. I did have some reservations; one is that using an orchestral model seems to be to be detrimental to the kind of work they’re trying to do. This is because I don’t see how it is possible to use the orchestra and repertoire from classical music without also using its pedagogy and modes of social organisation. I’ll discuss the latter below. As regards pedagogy, Sistema’s motto, which the Norwich project buys into, is ‘passion before precision’. This is great rhetoric, but to my mind it doesn’t work with classical music. Precision is an integral part of classical music’s aesthetic – the orchestral string instruments that form the basis for Sistema programmes in the UK require, for example, extremely precise finger placements to just play the notes, let alone play them in tune and in time. To take the ‘passion before precision’ idea seriously would mean starting with music that the children were passionate about, drawing on their vernacular repertoires, and adopting a pedagogy that gives children the freedom to explore the music they love. So, I didn’t understand why Sistema Norwich were using the Sistema brand when they were trying to do things differently to Sistema. However, Marcus and Steve had visited El Sistema Venezuela and were very positive about the programme there, in contrast with Geoff Baker’s recent study of this programme which describes in detail how all is not what it seems (you can read my review of it here).

Despite these caveats, I was interested to see how the progressive ideas that I had heard from Marcus and Steve might play out on the ground. Currently, the music technology programme is run at one school as part of the after-school programme, but this was not running at the school I observed so I was unable to see any of their work on music technology in action. The school I observed had started its Sistema programme 18 months ago. I observed two groups – one that had started in September 2014 and another that had started in September 2015. The session I observed took place after school, and unlike some of the other schools Sistema Norwich work in, it was not compulsory for the children; they had chosen to be there. The children were between years 3 to 6 (ages 8 to 11). Each group had an orchestra session with instruments, and a musicianship session without instruments. I mainly observed the orchestra session, and only about 10 or 15 minutes of one of the musicianship sessions, so I will primarily comment on the orchestral work.

The children seemed happy and excited about being there, and the teachers were enthusiastic, energetic and positive. However, on the whole the programme seemed more similar to mainstream classical music pedagogy than I would have imagined from the way it had been described to me. One of the key ways in which this occurred was the top-down pedagogy, where the leader/conductor is always in control of what is happening, and gives instructions to the group. This is the norm for large groups such as orchestras and choirs, and it leads to a mode of pedagogy which is heavily reliant on ‘teacher talk time’ – the only voice you hear is the teacher’s (see Nicholas Dobson’s discussion of this in a different UK Sistema programme). This also means that there is a lot of waiting around for the players while the conductor rehearses different sections of the group. By contrast, a more engaged pedagogy would involve making sure that each group has something meaningful to do while the teacher/conductor is working with a different group. So while the teacher/conductor is rehearsing the strings, for example, s/he would assign another task to the wind/brass/percussion, such as listening and giving feedback. This requires the teacher/conductor to listen to learners’ feedback, and in this way incorporates the learners’ voices into the lesson or rehearsal and reducing the amount of ‘teacher talk time’.

I have very rarely seen this done in classical music pedagogy, and for it to work in a meaningful way, the authority of the teacher/conductor would be diluted as learning would become a more dialogic experience. Classical musicians usually don’t have the training or experience to work with groups in this way unless they are trained classroom teachers, and it involves a high level of planning and preparation. Community musicians, by contrast, would be likely to have these skills, but community music tends to work towards open-ended outcomes rather than learning a pre-written piece of music which requires a certain level of precision and accuracy. Sistema Norwich is in fact run by a community music organisation. Indeed, they commented that recruiting musicians with the right skills and experience was difficult, and their commitment to professional development for their teachers was working to rebalance this problem. However, this traditional method of top-down rehearsals within classical music is very strong, and the set-up of the orchestra requires it, so using the social model of an orchestra is likely to lead to this mode of rehearsing. While I did observe a small amount of improvisation taking place, it was still in the context of a very top-down model of musical leadership, with the conductor/teacher giving pupils one bar in which to improvise on his command. Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction.

Using this kind of large group tuition and avoiding the individualistic one-to-one tuition which classical music education usually relies on is one of the hallmarks of El Sistema that Sistema Norwich was explicitly following. I am not convinced of the benefits of having solely large group tuition, for reasons described above, and also because some individual attention is needed to work on technique, which is difficult in large groups. There is surprisingly little research on small group instrumental music tuition (although, see for example Daniel, 2008). This is a pity as it seems like it would be a helpful way forward to work in conjunction with the large group tuition in Sistema programmes. As above, I would be concerned to make sure that teachers were trained to encourage peer-to-peer learning and use the possibilities of being able to make music together that small groups afford, rather than trying to emulate the one-to-one lesson in small group situations.

There are various other issues that I would like to discuss but I will just briefly mention two: gender and repertoire. In my article I discussed ways in which the embodied restraint and obedience to authority which classical music requires fit closely with the ideas of being a respectable middle-class young woman in late Victorian England, and suggested that there is some legacy of these ideas still with us today. In Sistema Norwich, I was interested that there were nearly three times as many girls as boys across the two groups that I observed, and this was more pronounced in the senior orchestra than in the beginners’ orchestra. In this particular school, as I mentioned above, it was a voluntary after-school programme, so presumably more girls than boys were choosing to participate. This issue plays into broader associations of classical music and instrument choice with cultural gender codes, which have been explored by many authors, such as Lucy Green (1997). For me there are particular issues with using a cultural form that already has particular gendered associations to try to engage children in ‘disadvantaged’ areas. It seems that Sistema programmes will be unlikely to engage the white working-class boys who have consistently lower rates of educational attainment than other groups, and indeed in Sistema Norwich the boys who were attending the sessions I observed were more likely to be from ethnic minorities than white.

Finally, a word on repertoire. Sistema Norwich is apparently consciously using a broad range of repertoire rather than just classical. This is a hugely important part of a progressive music pedagogy – connecting formal music education with the music that children know and love in their everyday lives. However, how this music is included is as important as the simple fact of including it. As Lucy Green describes in her work on classical music in secondary schools (2003), non-classical genres were taught according to the values and ideology of classical music. Similarly, while the pupils I observed at Sistema Norwich were playing a One Direction song arranged with visual notation (a simplified version of staff notation), this is a way of learning that teaches other genres according to the pedagogy of classical music, i.e. reading from written music, on acoustic instruments.

To finish – a caveat. I was in a school where the programme had only been operating for a year and a half – maybe in schools where it’s been going longer there is a greater variety of practices? From my observations, the ideas of Sistema Norwich are, so far, more progressive than the practice. Maybe this gap between ideas and reality is inevitable; and certainly Sistema Norwich are to be applauded on the ambition of their ideas involving technology, in particular.

A recent piece of research into Sistema Norwich from Mark Rimmer and colleagues at the University of East Anglia provides a vivid picture of the project as a whole. Parents were, on the whole, more enthusiastic about the programme than the young people. While some children did well in the programme and enjoyed it, there were signs from the report of ways in which the programme could be reinforcing ideas of what counts as good taste and the ‘right’ kind of behaviour, which risk reinforcing classed patterns of achievement and exclusion that have been studied by education researchers for decades.

What’s great about Sistema Norwich is their experimentation with technology and their aspirations to do things differently from traditional classical music education and work towards a more progressive pedagogy. However, in terms of quality of music education, I think the programme would do better to employ primary school music specialists who are trained classroom teachers, and let them have free rein to use a wide range of types of teaching, rather than to impose the constraints of using orchestral instruments and therefore having to use conservatoire-trained teachers who know how to play them.



Daniel, Ryan. 2008. Group Piano Teaching. VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller.

Green, Lucy. 1997. Music, Gender, Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Green, Lucy. 2003. ‘Why “Ideology” Is Still Relevant for Critical Thinking in Music Education.’ Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 2 (2). http://act.maydaygroup.org/articles/Green2_2.pdf.




A visit to Sistema Norwich

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