Thursday, December 20, 2012

Believing in Limitless Potential

This is a goal of ACME's and I saw it achieved between the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar orchestra members and the kids who attended the seminario in NYC. Something that is not said enough about El Sistema in Venezuela is the arduous work ethic. I observed the percussion sectional and Victor, the SB musician, had one student who was 7 yrs old and just started two weeks ago and a twelve year old who had played for five years and one student somewhere in between those two benchmarks. He treated them all in the same way and had the same expectations of them. He asked each student what types of notes they liked. The oldest student said sixteenth notes and Victor drew a sixteenth note on the board. Then he asked the newest student his favorite. The teacher of the newest student was also present in the room and intervened, telling Victor that he had just started a few weeks ago so he only knows quarter notes and thus those were the notes he liked. Victor realized this wasn't going to achieve success. He then had them play different instruments giving the newest student the timpani. The oldest student received a semi-more complex rhythm while the newest student was meant to beat every 4 counts between the low and high timpani drum. The newest student continued to speed up or get off beat, but instead of reprimanding him, lowering expectations, or excusing him because he had only been playing a few weeks, Victor did something to make it more challenging: he turned off the lights. This was a windowless room and it literally became pitch dark. He then asked the students to continue their patterns but to go from 4/4 to 3/4 (he had talked about this concept earlier). I will admit even I thought this was too lofty an expectation. It took a few times around, but the youngest student was now not only on beat, but able to switch from 4/4 to 3/4 and stay on beat..IN THE DARK! He needed that extra challenge to have the motivation and perhaps (though I am merely conjecturing) the pressure/expectation of his teacher off of him. After successfully doing this for several minutes, I heard a drum stick hit the floor, and Victor made them continue. Aside from the clicking noise of the stick hitting the floor, I never would have known as the student continued to be precisely on beat, now using only one stick. Eventually the youngest student said the obvious "I can't see!" and it was apparent they had reached their maximum with this exercise.

 But that moment taught me so much. 1) That sometimes when a student can't do something, challenging them more will result in success 2) Taking away a sense (vision) made them rely solely on their ears and we should execute exercises in ear training with no sight more often! and 3) not setting limits on a child's potential despite their current ability/experience (or lack there of). The kids ended up practicing 5.5 hours and it was the adults who were insisting the kids needed a break. Something that will stick with me is when I told Victor he had 5 minutes til lunch (After rehearsing for 3 hrs). He replied, "Ya?" meaning already? He couldn't believe we were having lunch after ONLY three hours of practice! Again reiterating the arduous work ethic that is so apparent in Venezuela.

And now an aside, sorry if it's tangential. Originally, some of the "El Sistema tenets" occurred because of lack of resources and yet we who have a replete amount of those resources are striving to do things in the El Sistema way because of the success that brought. Example: peer teaching. We've all seen the benefits peers teaching one another has, it's more efficient and usually more effective, not to mention developing teaching experience from a young age (and fiscally cost-effective!). But in Venezuela the reason this is done is because of the dearth of teachers. They still have conservatories where traditional studying occurs, but with 286 nucleos and 400,000 students and 5,000 teachers, that's a student:teacher ratio of 80:1. El Sistema teaches in an ensemble setting instead of a private lesson setting because they don't have said teachers, practice rooms, and other resources needed. One nucleo is a mango tree, another on top of the city dump. They're not necessarily in schools or community centers as they are here in the US. Yet we have seen the benefits teaching in a social environment has! In fact, it is one of the successful factors Dr. Shirley Brice Heath discovered when she stated characteristics of effective afterschool programs.

So how do we balance our resourcefulness with striving to be El Sistema? This is a question to ponder and I invite feedback!

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