Against a backdrop of political unrest, intense poverty, and the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, author Tricia Tunstall writes of the rise of Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel to the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and his resultant status as an international sensation in the field of classical music. Throughout the text of Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, the author deploys many such tableaus as a means of understanding the myriad ways in which El Sistema, the Venezuelan system of orchestras, can be credited with the transformational changes in the lives of its participating youth. Currently providing nearly half a million young people with access to time-intensive, conservatory-level musical training, the system's rigorous nature—several hours a day, often six days a week—demands that students devote themselves tirelessly to their musical studies throughout their formative years.

Tunstall is perhaps at her best in the book's first four chapters, as she brokers her unique perspective as an artist, educator, and journalist to delineate and demystify the enigmatic beginnings of the Venezuelan system—with borrowed instruments, nonexistent funding, and only a handful of students—in 1975. These carefully researched early histories are juxtaposed imaginatively against the impressive scope of El Sistema today—from its thriving capital city headquarters to its hundreds of satellite locations, or nucleos, throughout Venezuela.

In addition to the well-regarded level of artistic excellence achieved by youth in the program, Tunstall further documents the system's extramusical effects: vastly reduced high school dropout rates, improved academic performance, and leadership skills that are developed as participants gradually rise through the ranks and take on increased responsibility as teachers and administrators within El Sistema.

As knowledge of the program's primary mission of youth development through ensemble-based music education has spread, it is perhaps therefore not surprising that El Sistema has garnered somewhat of a cult following in music and music education circles. As noted in the chapters entitled “An Idea Worth Spreading” and “Faces of El Sistema USA,” the unique Venezuelan music education system serves as the fount of inspiration for an international network of educators working to achieve similar ends. Grassroots El Sistema– inspired programs have multiplied throughout the world, and, as described by Tunstall, the landscape of the music education field has been subsequently augmented by the rapid addition of dozens of such programs over the past five years.

However, even as the author chronicles the system's growth and development under visionary leadership over the past four decades and recounts how the idea of launching a similar nationwide movement has captured the imaginations of many here in the United States, Changing Lives seems limited in one notable respect. Following the book's epilogue, “Loving Needy Children Well,” the critical reader is left with unexplored dilemmas concerning efforts to adapt the model elsewhere and will likely question the empirical foundation on which the author bases many of her claims as they relate to the program's successful adoption on U.S. soil.

With widespread public support, strategic partnerships forged with corporations, and broad-based federal funding, Tunstall illustrates how El Sistema has thrived in a unique landscape and under extremely favorable financial conditions. Furthermore, the Venezuelan model has been able to make a case for itself to funders largely through informally gathered anecdotal evidence. A similarly conceived model is not likely to succeed in the United States given current funding trends that reinforce a culture of evidence-based social policy making in the distribution of scarce financial resources in the country's public and nonprofit sectors. Indeed, in the passages in which the author describes several U.S.-based implementations of the Venezuelan model, it is sometimes difficult to see how these programs differ markedly from many traditional music education programs already in effect throughout the United States.

Nonetheless, providing the reader with a rich account of El Sistema, Tunstall successfully leverages her background in the arts and her expertise on the Venezuelan system to deliver a laudable portrait of the elusive model and, perhaps equally important, the program's visionary leadership. In addition to being a pleasure to read, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music will likely serve as an invaluable historical document and inspirational resource for artists, activists, and educators interested in the potential of the arts to effect social change.