Learning music “at its core is a quest for beauty,” contends Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A quest for beauty possesses a certain desperate allure during these times that have been ravaged by COVID-19 and racial injustice. And for students without access to a high-quality education or affordable after-school activities, a musical quest for beauty may always present a deep appeal.

Inspired by El Sistema — the program in Venezuela where Dudamel trained and now conducts — music programs have popped up globally in an effort to open a “quest for beauty” to all students. Dudamel’s mentor and the founder of El Sistema, José Antonio Abreu, has said, “Music is immensely important in the awakening of sensibility and in the forging of values.”

If Abreu is right, then we should all be invested in music education, seeing as it is also the education of values. If we invest and follow closely, we may begin to get curious. If we see music education as a quest for beauty, which beauty, exactly, is sought after? Even more importantly, which values are forged through this education?

It can be easy to regard social-good-oriented music programs as precious opportunities provided to children living in a world otherwise bereft of beauty, but my experience paints a bit more complex picture.

Before the pandemic, in the summer of 2019, I built a research project with the goal of understanding the values and goals of music education programs that target underserved students. I traveled to three U.S. states and three other countries in the Americas observing orchestras and classrooms to see how valued beliefs translate into action.

After school and summer music programs like the ones that I visited — directed toward under-resourced populations, working toward an idea of social good — tend to have some basis in an orchestral model. Because of the number of kids and the usually limited financial resources, this makes sense. Playing in an orchestra can present numerous educational benefits, and many students enjoy it. One violin student I spoke with likes orchestra because it is fun to be in the midst of all the people and noise — the “harmony with every instrument and the energy, because everyone focuses.” Having played in an orchestra myself, I can attest to the grandiosity of the experience.

Nonetheless, Geoffrey Baker, one of the most outspoken critics of El Sistema, raises several fascinating concerns in his book El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. Baker argues that programs like El Sistema push their own musical traditions without encouraging ownership such as composition. When other ensemble types or music genres are included, they are seen as extra or peripheral.

Speaking to teachers, I wondered whether there exists an ethical balance between one’s love of classical music and the notion that it’s not right for everyone. One director of an El Sistema-inspired program admits that there are “two pitfalls” of this conversation about classical music choice with her student population: “Imposing Western art music on these black kids, and that’s not native to their culture. And there’s also something to say for … why should we think that black kids can only rap and listen to hip hop; that’s also pretty stereotyping and putting them in a box. I don’t want to be in either of those camps.”

This sense of catch-22 accurately captured my own conflict as a music educator. Perhaps the commonality between both sides — the imposition of Western European culture versus the assumption of students’ incapability or disinterest — lies in a lack of understanding between teacher and student.

One teacher, who travels from the U.S. to a nearby country to teach band at summer camps, admitted, “Where I feel disconnected is not understanding… what their desire is to learn what I’m teaching.”

Given the relative lack of professional opportunities for classical musicians in many developing countries, her sentiments are understandable. Unfortunately, her disconnection led her to make assumptions about her students and their culture. “There’s a lack of connection to classical music. … They just don’t understand it. … They don’t have the education to appreciate all the aspects.”

This band teacher contended that local teachers cannot effectively promote appreciation because that requires someone to “emote the feelings of classical music.” Foreign teachers, she said, bring that appreciation and those emotions. Still, she wonders “how much [students] are willing to receive about classical niche ideas… or if they understand the importance of it.” Similar to beauty and values, importance must be defined contextually. To the teachers I met, classical music holds heavy importance, but the backgrounds which led them to this conclusion are often quite different from the backgrounds of their students.

If teachers do not understand their students’ motivations to learn or their connections to the music being taught, they cannot adequately build the relationships necessary for quality teaching. A teacher who believes themself the guardian of an elite art form bars themself from truly empowering a student. If a program only offers classical music, what reasons do they have for imposing this Western art music on an underserved student population? If an organization asserts that their students choose classical music, do we know the students’ reasons for choosing it?

It is crucial that music educators learn to prioritize the social relationships students perform and the values they forge in an orchestral setting. Baker opines that it is too easy to fall into the trap of orchestras as sites of “competitiveness, cliques, authoritarianism, and the reproduction of social hierarchies.” He denounces musicians’ lack of voice and the inflexible expectations set by leaders. Unless teachers make conscious efforts otherwise, values taught may include “obeying rules, being silent and punctual, and behaving oneself”—an environment constituting what Baker calls a “school of social discipline.”

If that seems extreme, I have observed it myself, in rehearsals where students were told “you stink” or “get out” when they failed to play a passage correctly. I have sat in on a 72-person orchestra with one main conductor in which some of the students who fall behind “won’t play the concert anyway.” I have seen a conductor stop rehearsal so each violinist may play a passage one at a time while retorting, “Is it difficult? Of course not.”

These teachers are not villains; they face material, time, and energy constraints, and they may feel internal or external pressures to pursue musical excellence. But these moments make us question: Are the students forging aspirational values? Are they learning to perform empowering relationships? Regardless of these teachers’ intentions, their methods risk treating students like cogs in an orchestral machine, their success fixed by the uniformity and precision of the group’s product.

The programs I saw employ alternative formats to promote more interactive learning, too — adaptations which, by taking students out of the machine of the orchestra, help view students as full agents. One program ensures that one teacher for each instrument is present during full orchestra rehearsals, so that all students have a mentor. Another sticks to small string orchestras and bands due to the difficulty of producing quality music with large groups of beginning-level students. One afterschool program forwent the orchestral model altogether and focuses on small ensembles of three to four students. Several programs teach additional subjects like music theory, improvisation, or composition.

In his book, Baker draws on Paulo Freire and Deleuze and Guattari, whose theories illustrate the benefits of student leadership and egalitarian communication, including being honest about contradictions and conflict. In imagining this new politics of music, we must recognize that a community is better acquainted with its own needs than any outsider could be. If music educators do not come from the community where they teach—which many do not—what gives them the authority to choose the music and format of their program? What are they doing to transfer power from those who had the privilege to start the program to those who come from and retain a better connection to the community?

As teachers of social values and relationships, musicians face a unique responsibility to question and justify their attitudes and methods. It is precisely the musicians who grew up invested in classical music and orchestras, who see orchestral styles and ensembles as always and already natural and virtuous, that most desperately need to rethink their devotion to these works as vehicles of social change.

The questions and reflections that stood out during my research and travels in 2019 are even more relevant now. In 2022, as organizations around the world conduct Zoom meetings revisiting their commitment to inclusion and diversity, music education programs should be no different. I hope that, during the forced reflection time the pandemic gave us, when students were at home and educators had to reevaluate their abilities and challenges, more foundational questions of value started to come to the forefront too.

No inherent problem lies within the strings of a violin nor the notes of Beethoven. What prevents us from using them as tools for liberation are not the tools themselves, but the system within which they invariably exist. As long as we cultivate in the soil of colonialism, the fruits borne of our labor will bleed inequity. Music touches the soul; through it, we forge values, embody relationships, and seek beauty. Absent proper caution, such a powerful medium can effortlessly exacerbate inequalities. Sowed intentionally, though, the seeds of change may yield harvests of empowerment and imagination that before seemed unthinkable.