The Eye Begins to See: Reflections upon a Third Visit to El Sistema

The Eye Begins to See:
Reflections upon a Third Visit to El Sistema

By Eric Booth

I observed more closely this time, on my third trip to Venezuela’s El Sistema. On the first trip I was goggle-eyed at the blaze of accomplishment—400,000 students, 20+ hours a week of music making with high quality attention, fierce unanimity of purpose, palpable joy, and such music by such young people, most of whom grew up in challenging circumstances.

On the second trip, my eyes had adjusted somewhat, and I could see more. I could see the group aspiration, with students teaching other students in countless subtle and overt ways, speeding the ensemble toward ever-better sound faster than my sense of norms, developed in the U.S., could believe. I noticed that they structure the learning processes so that players “waste no time repeating mistakes.” I could see how loving the teachers were, underneath their driving energy and relentless demand. And I began to feel the joy in the playing, but it didn’t look so joyful during the intense rehearsal hours, until the breaks when it looked like a mix of kids being kids and artists happy in their deep work. I noticed the hunger of the teachers as learners, and the drive in the students to get better by any means they could.

I arrived on this third trip hungry for more gritty detail, more understanding of how they create such profoundly nurturing learning environments, their “nucleos,” how they foster students’ intrinsic motivation to achieve, and how they accomplish seemingly impossible things like students taking up wind instruments at age six, and youth orchestras playing well within four months of starting their instruments. I also carried in my mind two critiques I had heard from those who were skeptical about the Venezuelan “miracle”: 1) that the only pedagogical tool they really had was repetitive drill, and that 2) El Sistema imposed classical music on kids who have broader musical interests, kids who should be learning Venezuelan musical traditions too. I wanted to check out the veracity of those critiques—both were answered on this trip, decisively.

Is it mere repetition over those many hours of group practice that leads to such results? Is “do it again” the strategy El Sistema teachers and conductors use predominantly? As on past trips, I saw repetition everywhere this time too, fast-paced and persistent; but as I observed more closely, I found it was more than simple repetition. With almost every repetition of the hundreds I saw, at all levels of development, the teacher/conductor asked for a nuance of adjustment or refinement, every time. Not once did I see a teacher ask them to just “do it again”; every time it was “do it again, and…”

A group of four 12-year-old boys had picked up their French horns just a week before I watched them at the Sarria nucléo. They sat in a circle in the courtyard with their teacher and worked on scales. The teacher pushed them hard, clapping out the beat, working the scale over and over. Yet, before each repetition, he gave them a suggestion for adjustment—a different attack, different volume, different length of notes. Sometimes his prompt was just a single word to give the next repetition focus. “Sharper.” “Quieter.” And when they needed a break, he usually gave it to them by having one play the scale at a time so the other three could rest, maximizing the use of time.

It was repetition but it wasn’t. It was guidance attuned to tiny steps of learning. It kept the repetition interesting and challenging. Watching the students, I could see that the teacher kept the repetition from becoming a drill, as they found each variation challenging and fun. They were getting better before my eyes in the ten minutes I stood and observed. The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the founder of “flow” theory, posits that optimal engagement, the zone in which we learn and perform best, and enjoy most deeply, lives exactly halfway between boredom and anxiety. I confess that I have seen many students in music programs in the U.S. spend a lot of moments in boredom and anxiety, sometimes veering directly from one to the other without passing flow. (Of course there are excellent music programs in the U.S., which use the same approaches I describe here; but in my experience, they are not the norm as they are in Venezuela, and the don’t manage that predominance of flow some twenty hours a week.) The guidance I witnessed in Venezuela maximized the moments spent in flow, no evident boredom, no evident anxiety—even though scales can be boring, and playing a new instrument can make one anxious. Flow was maximized by fast-paced musical challenge that met them precisely at the leading edge of their interest and skill. And remember, students spend twenty-plus hours a week in those nucléos, engaged in practice like this. Many programs in the U.S. use similar repeat-but-add-a-challenge practices, and some even attain the shared enthusiasm of hard driving aspiration, but the quality of attention and investment, and the speed of improvement, were beyond I things I witness in all but a few U.S. programs.

What I watched this small group of boys doing was close to what an unusually motivated student in the U.S. might do on her own, in dedicated private practice at home—inventing new ways to experiment, to repeat the drills while keeping the process fluid and fun. Except this was many more hours a week, and wasn’t a rare exceptional student alone in her room; this was a group of friends, and was filled with high quality of attention all the time, and had a teacher’s immediate feedback, plus they were sitting outdoors and having fun. The teacher was having fun. They were laughing. They were trying things that were too hard for them and laughing at the result—failing playfully—and then trying them again and succeeding. Yes, I was witnessing musical ambition, but what I was really witnessing was exquisitely calibrated pedagogical play. The students were neither compliant nor particularly self-disciplined; they were hungry to get better and were excited that they could feel the improvement not just in their ears, but in their bodies too. Pubescent boys who might otherwise be putting that energy into playing a video game together, or into riskier games, were pouring that same energy, with their twenty-something year old teacher, into winning at the game of making beauty with a French horn, even as one-week beginners.

Let me add that the young teacher was not some brilliant highly trained pedagogue. He was a young horn player, who teaches the way he was taught in El Sistema . His suggestions were pretty plain and obvious. El Sistema doesn’t require extraordinary instruction. The quality of the learning environment and the motivation and attitude of the learners are just as important as the quality of the teaching. I have yet to see a teacher there who is flat-out bad, and I have seen a number who are excellent.

Venezuelan music
There has always been a presence of folk music in El Sistema. Since local nucléos have some autonomy to shape their own musical focus and curriculum, there has always been some variation in repertoire among nucléos. Some sites have placed greater, even predominant, emphasis on folk music, while other nucléos would present Venezuelan songs in choral repertoire, and some would include Latin American compositions in the orchestral repertoire. Reported history has it that over decades folk music has always been more common in the more remote nucléos; indeed folk musicians are more likely to be faculty in the more remote sites, teaching folk and classical side by side.

It is worth mentioning that increasingly musical genres are proliferating within El Sistema, with jazz, rock and roll, and baroque ensembles gaining visibility and increasing priority. I recently got an email from a young colleague Paul Yang who had visited the same top regional orchestra in the state of Lara I will describe below. He wrote in part:
"Where else but El Sistema will you find one of the country's finest percussionists staging a concert hall performance of Yngwie Malmsteen's Concerto for Electric Guitar in between his other duties? (I played a small part in this when I was there last year in fact, sitting in with the Regional Orchestra of the State of Lara for one of the songs in Barquisimeto's Teatro Juarez. The concerto was preceded by a 40-minute set involving full orchestra and a heavy metal band in latex and black lace. Talk about programming!). There is an immense freedom of expression and exploration there."

In the last two years the focus on Venezuelan music has dramatically increased. One Venezuelan told me this: “The focus on Venezuelan and Latin American music has been growing for years. The reason we didn’t talk about it much was that Abreu didn’t feel we had yet achieved a level of excellence high enough to present it widely to the world. Now we are getting good enough, and we have something new and excellent to share.” It is reported that increased government funding in recent years has come with an interest for increased folk music focus, which aligned with the growing priority within El Sistema. Here is what I saw.

I saw folk music everywhere. In visiting a Venezuelan nucléo, it is common for the director to escort you around, having ensembles in each room perform when you arrive, to show what they can do. On my earlier trips I felt awkward about their waiting and then performing for me, feeling that I was interrupting their rehearsal; but I had it explained to me that frequent performance is an essential part of their ongoing learning (I have written about this feature extensively elsewhere). Also, I was told it is important for them to feel that people from New York are interested in what they are doing and admire their accomplishments, and they want to return the favor by sharing the best of their work. On this trip, almost every ensemble included a Venezuelan-based composition in the repertoire they were working on and sharing. Complex rhythms seemed to be everywhere—especially 7/4, which baffles my non-musician’s brain and fascinates me endlessly. Every chorus sang Venezuelan songs. The hand bell choir, in their first week of learning any instrument, performed a folk tune. The flute orchestra played complex arrangements of folk tunes and new works by Venezuelan composers. The kid practicing clarinet by herself in a hallway was playing music by a Latin American composer. And much of this observation was in Barquisimeto, where folk music has had a lower profile than in other towns over its distinguished history.

In Barquisimeto, a percussion ensemble of six teenage boys asked to play three pieces for us on the covered patio where they were practicing. They had the whole cool teenage boy thing going, dressed just sloppy-right, with Bieber hair, all but dancing their performance, and they could play those marimbas, vibraphones, xylophones, and hand drums. One of their pieces was an arrangement of a Venezuelan folk tune “El Diablo Suelto,” which they played with exactly the same delight and flair as they showed for the Bach piece and the Disney song from The Little Mermaid. We applauded so hard they played three encores, one of which was their own extroverted arrangement of a folk song widely sung in Venezuela. Of all the music they were inspired to work on to create their own arrangements, they chose a folk melody—this group of six young dudes were owning the hipness of working with folk music to create their musical identity. Then they took all that energy back in to the orchestra in which they all play, as I saw them play a Mahler V movement two hours later. And the percussion section was strong.

Then in Guatire/Guarenas we hit the Venezuelan music motherlode. They have an ensemble dedicated to performing the key traditional music that lives in different geographic areas of Venezuela. There are ensembles of this kind around the country. Here are three extraordinary features of this new national program, called Alma Llanera, a name adopted from the title of a famous Venezuelan folk song:

1. The music was excellent and very different than anything else I had seen in El Sistema. It delved into what was described to me as “the intersection of music from various African sources mixed with indigenous peoples’ traditions.” My untrained ear couldn’t distinguish specific elements, but I could feel the rhythmic tang of the two different continents in the loud pounding percussion. Students in this ensemble had a range of age and expertise (as one might well find in a setting in a remote town), small boys learning the rhythms and participating with shakers, while older boys pounded drums of various indigenous kinds, right up to some made from oil drums, developed in the oil boom economy of Venezuela. The girls, ranging from roughly eight to fifteen, sang, trading riffs into a microphone they passed, with the others singing backup, everyone stepping and almost dancing the rhythm all the time. The singing had a kind of keening-shouting of the lyrics that I have heard in recordings from West Africa, but the rhythms and harmonies had a Latin feel. (I wish I had more musical knowledge to describe the music in articulate detail, but soon the scores will be available, so you can sense them for yourself.) I was informed by the ensemble director that the traditional structures, timbres, and performance practices of each regional tradition, were carefully respected. But the energy didn’t feel like historical fidelity—it was fresh, loud, brash, and extroverted. The young musicians played differently, seemed different, than these very same kids in their orchestral work. The commitment to discovering the truth of these Venezuelan traditions seemed as strong and unafraid as the commitment I see in their creating Beethoven wholeheartedly—same artistic enthusiasm, poured into a very different vessel.

2. This ensemble is part of the larger Alma Llanera project sponsored by Fundamusical. The ensemble director could barely contain his excitement in explaining that we were seeing an example of the unprecedented national project launched two years before. Ethnomusicologists around the country were capturing the music of the different regions and transcribing them meticulously. They were not only creating a library of music that might otherwise be lost, but also were creating youth ensembles to learn the music and to play it well, to keep it alive. The conductor showed me with pride that the pieces we had seen his ensemble play were fully scored. They were going to make them available on the Fundamusical website, along with audio and video recording, so musicians around the world could learn these regional traditions too, led by Venezuelan youth, inspired music ethnographers, and a Sistema that cares about its musical roots enough to make it a national priority for hundreds of thousands of kids and communities. [I immediately thought how exciting it might be for a U.S. nucléo to learn one of these pieces, and exchange their version with the Guatire/Guarenas kids—if such a project interests you, please let me know.] Yes, something could be lost in documenting aural traditions in formal scores, but certainly something of true value is gained, in preventing the permanent disappearance of this music.

3. The nucléo director told us that all of the kids in this ensemble also play in the nucléo orchestras. He said that the deep dive into Venezuelan traditional music develops new musical skills that they bring back into the orchestra to give it greater richness.

Sistema wisdom from students
I am neither a musician nor a sophisticated music listener, I confess. And then there is Mahler—a composer one encounters throughout El Sistema. I find the symphonies very beautiful, but I just can’t make sense of the emotional shapes. I have heard some of the world’s great orchestras play Mahler, and I enjoy the beauty of the parts, but my musical limitations have prevented me from having a satisfying experience of the whole. The teenagers from the top orchestra of the state of Lara, the same one that Paul Yang heard perform Yngwie Malmsteen's Concerto for Electric Guitar, performed the fifth movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for us. Actually, they weren’t all teenagers—some of the players were only eleven and twelve. We were in an overstuffed concrete room in Barquismeto, with an audience area so small we were nearly poked by cello bows. The emotional shapes I experienced with teenagers from Lara playing this Mahler made more sense to me than any I had ever heard. I had already taken a good step toward “getting Mahler” while listening to the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestras (both A and B, the older youth orchestra grown up, and the next generation youth orchestra which is now called the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra) play Mahler symphonies. But this group took it up a notch to personal relevance for me. For the first time, listening to Mahler had me in tears.

How could teenagers have so much to say about Mahler? I calculated. The theory of ten thousand hours that Malcolm Gladwell reports in his book Outliers proposes that it takes about ten thousand hours of high quality practice in almost any field to reach the level of competence at which true creative originality and resonant quality begin to appear. The students in Barquismeto, and in El Sistema “nucléos” across Venezuela, cross the ten thousand hour threshold around puberty. So the players in this ensemble had their teenage view of the world to share, enriched by a young life marinated in Beethoven, and Mozart, Venezuelan folk music, and material scarcity, and they had the musical skills to eloquently express their worldview. That was why I wept.

After the performance, the conductor invited us to speak to the group, and suddenly then, they were just kids. When I spoke, I expressed some of my appreciation of their performance, and decided to ask a question of them. “In the U.S., we work with young people who are learning how to make music as beautiful as yours. They are just starting, and they don’t yet have a nucléo as excellent as yours. What advice should I give them, from you, to help them learn to play like your orchestra?” They laughed, and looked around at each other, never having been asked such a thing before. They gave five answers in the next couple of minutes. Each one of these answers might have come out of José Antonio Abreu’s mouth, when he speaks about the learning in El Sistema. Yet they were full truths emanating from these kids’ own understanding.

The first answer was “Chasquido al talon!” which got a big laugh from the violin section. “That is a phrase Maestro Abreu used to say to us often, in rehearsals,” said Victor Salamanqués, who was our guide, and who had been in the original Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra with Abreu conducting. “He wanted to us to go for the intensity of the sound!” As the students demonstrated what it meant; it was explained as digging in with the bottom end of bow in a muscular way to get a strong, assertive sound.

When Tricia Tunstall reported this response to Maestro Abreu a couple of days later as the first piece of advice from those kids to U.S. students, he laughed out loud and nodded in recognition, as in “I guess I made the point.” Indeed, he had. It may be a technical suggestion, but it carries a world of import. It says “go for it” and “don’t be cautious.” The kind of courage and fearlessness symbolized by that bold gesture with the frog end of the bow pervades the learning in Venezuela. There is so little energy, psychic or physical, diverted by fear of mistakes. And when mistakes happen, it is no big deal. To those who feel that El Sistema work is just good traditional youth orchestra work with more hours pumped in I say, “There certainly are overt similarities, but look at that fearlessness and that first piece of advice to tear into every musical moment.” That is not the typical spiritual and physical state of the students in U.S. youth orchestras. How do you create a learning environment of individual and group fearlessness, breathing a “go for it” expressive ambition for individuals and whole ensembles? Not in just one remarkable local program, but for a whole nation of hundreds of youth orchestras? The Fundamusical leaders don’t think of El Sistema as a system, but whatever it is called, we have much to learn from what they are doing with these kids that builds such habits of heart and self.

The next three answers that arose from the orchestra teens were about their motivation. I had asked them why they work so hard, and what they would tell U.S. kids about that. One said, “You have to have discipline.” He meant, you do have to keep at it, not be tempted away by all the other things you could do. A girl answered, “We work so hard because we enjoy the music. The fun is in making the music.” In my first 90-second backstage meeting with Gustavo Dudamel (who grew up in Barquismeto, had played in and conducted this very orchestra I was talking to, and had first stepped onto this little podium to conduct as a joke when a conductor was late), I asked him why El Sistema worked to change the direction of young lives. He answered, “Two things. Every child must feel like an asset. We never forget fun.” And here was this girl clarifying for me that the fun is inside the music making; working so hard, and getting better, and then succeeding in making something beautiful together was the fun. No wonder they never forget it.

The fourth answer came from a boy. “We like playing with our friends.” I was reminded of a line from a Robert Frost poem, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:
“Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”
The teenaged boy was casually reminding us of the expanded definition of play that artists know and live by—live for. The serious play of making things you care about, with a community that cares. Many hours a week. Hard challenges, worthwhile challenges, that resonate as deeply as humans go—Mahler and Beethoven and Venezuelan composers seeking to express the Venezuelan spirit. And doing this with an equally committed group of friends, sharing your accomplishments with a community that values your results. With a world that values your results—as attested by visitors from New York traveling so far to hear them. Abreu’s more succinct version of Robert Frost: Tocar y Luchar, to play and to strive.
On my second visit to Venezuela, I had asked a number of young people of varying ages why they come to the nucléo every day for so many hours, when there were lots of other things they might like to do. I got basically the same two answers, often in the same words, from almost every child. “This is where my friends are,” and “The sound of the music.” They crave the community and the beauty. They are intrinsically motivated to delve into highly committed serious play with their friends because it feels so good and because there is a social compact among them to “go for it.” And they are addicted to the rich beauty they can surround themselves with when they are succeeding; it feeds their minds and spirits, and they can’t describe it in words (few musicians can), but they know the feeling of great music in their bones, and they will invest themselves fully in the processes that produce great dollops of it in their daily lives.

How deeply do the students identify with their musical community? On that second trip, I asked many students, of various levels of orchestra, to tell me about themselves as musicians. Every single one mentioned how long she had been playing in this particular orchestra before she mentioned how long she had been playing her instrument—orchestra first, me second, in terms of musical identity.
There was a pause in the answers from the Lara orchestra. I asked if there was any last bit of advice for those U.S. beginners. A final answer came from a teen girl in the cello section, and it was translated as: “Tell them they aren’t just learning music. They are learning life -- how to live their lives.” And there it is. The aspiration of El Sistema in a nutshell. This girl knew it, lives it, and wants it for other kids across the earth. In her ten years, let’s guess, of pouring herself into music making, she has learned that the inner skills apply outside of music. She grinned. A few minutes later, after the rehearsal ended, she asked to have her picture taken with us, the people who would carry her message back to New York, to the big and “rich” U.S. that wanted to learn from her and her friends. And indeed we do. And are coming to understand how.

“It’s the culture”
Hundreds of dedicated colleagues in the North American El Sistema-inspired movement relentlessly think about ways to adapt, to rediscover, to transpose, to re-orchestrate (what is the right verb to capture the move to an new continent?) the priorities of Venezuela’s accomplishment in our local soils. The example is so extraordinary, and the challenges of creating programs of equal power so complex, that it can be discouraging. I hear a particular statement repeated often when people marvel at the achievement in Venezuela. “It’s the culture.” It expresses a wistful, almost envious view of the mysterious elements that make the chemistry of El Sistema work so powerfully in the nucléos. We don’t know exactly what those elements of culture are, but we recognize that El Sistema taps and develops something different and positive that we don’t have. Certainly, 38 years of passionate focus and unrelenting determination make an incalculable difference, but often we conclude, with a sense of resignation, that there is just something in Venezuelan culture that we don’t have. I remind myself and my colleagues that there are universal human capacities we tap in El Sistema-inspired practices that succeed in any culture. We feel sure that we can and will accomplish marvels of our own. Yet, I have to admit there is something in Venezuelan, or perhaps it is Latin American, culture that adds an alloy to the mix that strengthens their results. I am loath to generalize about cultural attributes, always a risky endeavor, but here are a few thoughts anyway.

I recently got the following email from my friend, the artist Nina Olff, who lives in the U.S. and had read one of my essays on El Sistema. She identifies something essential about this cultural element.

"I have the gift and the curse of growing up in a culturally mixed family. I experienced some of the strengths of different cultures. Latin American cultures are western by day and native by night. Family, community and expression—the circle is the thing—not the individual or the state of being a 'genius'...everything is connected. It is still Pachamama [a mother figure goddess of the Andes peoples]. It is always balance and harmony...and the gods are in the sun and the earth. My grandfather was from Suriname [a near neighbor of Venezuela] and he spoke in Sranan-tongo and Taki-Taki; he sang, he chanted, he carved pieces of wood, he knew so much about the jungle and was barely literate, but my mother, a brilliant artsy-city girl, respected his deep knowledge for things that were about nature and the land. She was amazed at how much he could do with his hands. When he came to NYC, he married my grandmother, and as we say, became Catholic by day and Indian at night. Maybe those Venezuelan communities are a little like that, and the kids are growing up amid a cultural mix that is filled with song and tradition and the quasi-Catholic gods of the sun and the earth."

Maybe that’s part of it. “The circle is the thing. Not the individual.” They are oriented toward the group and are less pressured about proving individual worth. I have noticed a consistent pattern in dedicated leaders of El Sistema-inspired sites in the U.S. and overseas. The deeper they dig into the work of their programs, the more they realize the essentialness (and difficulty) of engaging families and community. Many, perhaps most, of our children don’t have that kind of Latin American full circle around them; and even for those of Hispanic backgrounds, the pressures of U.S. culture impact that circle. This isn’t really a socio-economic issue; the U.S. prioritizes the individual and the commercial above all else, across all economic strata. In El Sistema-inspired work, we are learning how to create that circle in our sites, doing this beautifully in many cases.

At the same time we are learning the importance of the wider circle beyond the program hours that embraces and raises the child. This is why partnering with other organizations that also care about that embracing circle grows in importance, and why active engagement of families and community grows in importance. We can’t fully succeed in our character development aspirations by ourselves. Yes, we can settle for lesser goals—to make a strong, positive contribution to young lives—and we can do that, and are doing that now, even in our early years. Many good music education programs already achieve that goal. However, I believe we can succeed in the greater ambition, in changing the trajectory of young lives. We have a great start and many resources, but we can’t accomplish this alone.
There is something in Venezuelan culture. It is partly the music. As in so many economically-struggling communities, music abounds. It is always there, even when healthy food is scarce. This is true in many economically-stressed U.S. communities too.

The impact of a culture is also an inner alignment. Carnegie Hall was planning its 2012 Festival of Latin America. Meeting with various artists to identify anchor themes for the whole festival, they sat down with Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov. He spoke with compelling passion about the way Latin American cultures respond to adversity, even extreme challenges, with joy and celebration. The Carnegie Hall team was so inspired that they asked him to be artistic advisor for the festival.

To live for joy, even in material difficulty. That is an element of Venezuelan culture that we don’t have in the U.S., wide-open access to the experience of joy, and a priority on it in every aspect of life—in spite of life circumstances. This contributes to the fun of playing scales together. This activates the pleasure in sectional performance as it slowly improves. This affirms the value of the individual as an asset when families cheer a performance at the ceremonial opening of a new health clinic in a remote town square.

The etymology of the word culture is closer to farming than to opera. Akin to the brownish agur-agur at the bottom of the petri dish of your high school biology lab, etymologically “culture” is the medium in which you grow. There is something in Venezuelan culture that fosters personal and musical growth in the nucléo labs of El Sistema—omnipresent music, a tropism for joy, a circle of love around every child, and 38 years of dedicated learning that creates a learning environment that produces fast progress and excellence.

Although it is bad essay design, I want to conclude with a handful of disconnected discoveries I picked up inside the Sistema on this trip. They are random short observations that interested me so much that I thought they might be useful to colleagues in North America and around the world.

In answer to my question, Gary Nuñez, Education Coordinator at the Conservatorio Vicente Emilio Sojo in Barquismeto, said that he guessed that about 60% of the kids that come through the Barquisimeto nucléo continue as musicians throughout their lives. I doubted his answer—how could a mid-sized city like Barquisimeto support so many hundreds of musicians for the rest of their lives? Then I realized he didn’t mean “professional” musicians, as in earning their living from playing music; he meant that they kept music-making alive and well in throughout their lives. The same day, I talked to a student in the fifteen-player flute orchestra. He had grown up poor, spent most of his free time in the nucléo, worked his way into the top regional orchestra, and was in college now. He spoke some English (fortunately for me), was studying psychology with a double major in music, and was imagining a career that brought together music and psychology, either in music therapy or perhaps the study of how music works in the human brain. I asked how he managed to fit the flute orchestra into his busy academic life. He said it was hard, and he had chosen to give up playing in the orchestra because it took too much time. But he chooses his classes around the three three-hour sessions a week plus performances that the flute orchestra requires, because “it is so beautiful, I just can’t give it up. We are playing such great music and are getting so good, I had to fit it in.” He is likely to do so for the rest of his life, and so are some 60% of those who find their way into a range of jobs in Barquisimeto and beyond. Gary is right.
Later in that conversation Gary distilled another view of his goals. “We know we create good musicians. But that is not our definition of success. If you are a good citizen, a good son or brother, then you have succeeded here.” Gary and others were abundant with their praises for Maestro Abreu. Gary said, “José Antonio Abreu is the Simon Bolivar of music. He organized us and set us free.”

People in Venezuela’s El Sistema wonder about their impact on community, hoping it is as great as they intend. Rodrigo Guerrero, Deputy Director of Institutional Development and International affairs at Fundamusical, tells the story of a conversation he overheard outside his office in Caracas. At the time, his office was embedded in a nucléo, so kids and parents were often circling around. He listened as two old ladies sat waiting for their grandchildren to finish rehearsal. They were chatting. Rodrigo points out that these were two old people from the barrio who would never have had classical music in their lives if the kids weren’t into El Sistema. He heard them: “What is your grandson working on?” “Mahler One. And yours?” “Brahms. [A pause.] Mahler is difficult.” “Yes, but Brahms is so beautiful.”
When I had walked in an alley on a previous trip, I came to an area of carts where hawkers were selling cheap (certainly pirated) CDs. There were as many classical CDs for sale as there were rap, pop, and reggaeton. One actually barked the Spanish equivalent of, “Get your hot new Dudamel Beethoven right here.”

At Barquisimeto we heard about the two different choruses at different levels. We were told the top chorus just keeps getting better and better. How could this be, I wondered, since they consistently have kids moving out to go into the orchestra, and new kids moving in who aren’t as good? Simple. The top kids of the younger chorus are also members of the older chorus for a year, both at the same time, overlapping. This is so the new singers in the upper chorus won’t slow down the growth or impact the excellence of the chorus when they enter. And through the ever-increasing skill of the conductor, the intention of the singers, and the legacy of excellence they all build upon, both choruses get better every year.

One girl in the Barquisimeto violin sectional was significantly younger than the rest. Sitting in proper position, her legs didn’t quite reach the floor. There was a difficult passage with fast descending notes to be played in crescendo. She couldn’t do it. She didn’t say anything or manifest any concern that I could see. She continued in the sequence of repetitions that added an emphasis or nuance each time around. What she did was simplify what she was playing in order to stay with the group and contribute; instead of struggling to play all the notes of the passage, she just played some, the accented ones. Doing this, she was able to stay with the group and learn each of the nuances the conductor was pulling out of the section. I may have observed the several-bar section repeated 8 or 9 times, and each time it was newly demanding, with a challenge built on what had just been done the previous time; this girl picked up the lesson of each repeat. I realized I was witnessing sophisticated self-management in learning. No one spoke to her about how to stay with the group, and she wasn’t agitated that she couldn’t quite do what the older kids could do. I noticed that her older stand mate nodded one time in her direction as she adjusted her playing to stay with them. The fun was being in the flow experience with friends, and she knew how to adjust the challenge to maximize her learning, to maximize the success of the section, and to manage the arc of her learning over time. She was maybe nine, but she was a full contributor with the teenagers who sat all around her and inspired her to be as good as they.

Tricia Tunstall writes about the time she watched a young nucléo orchestra work on a D scale for twenty minutes. They repeated it again and again. Although necessary, doing the scales sounds about as boring as orchestral practice gets, doesn’t it? Not in what Tricia saw. She saw a fully engaged ensemble having fun, pouring themselves into challenge after challenge that the conductor gave them to add nuances to the way they play.
I recently asked a group of experienced U.S. music teaching artists: What might that conductor have done to make 20 minutes of the D scale exciting and fun, the way that Tricia saw? They had a barrage of characteristically creative ideas of ways to alleviate the boredom of practicing scales. I then informed them that the conductor’s ideas had actually been pretty plain and obvious—playing it faster and slower, playing it with different dynamics and accents—that was pretty much it. No dazzling pedagogy.
So then I asked these music teaching artists about things that would have to be present in that orchestra’s working atmosphere, apart from any brilliant pedagogical ideas, that could make rather ordinary pedagogical prompts be embraced so fully that the orchestra stayed in “flow”—full attention, full creative investment in learning and improving their sound? The answers to this question began to introduce the El Sistema beacon that we can learn from and follow. They began to explore how the onus for high-quality learning can be removed from dependence on the teacher to become an embraced responsibility, an aspiration of the individuals and the group. Intrinsic motivation, of a high, durable, and resilient kind, can be the everyday norm. These music educators began to wonder about the developmental sequence, starting young, that can inculcate such internal norms. This is our challenge around the world, to discover and experiment our way to the pleasures of D scales as a delightful learning opportunity for teenage kids.

At the nucléo in Sarria, we saw things that just are not possible according to our standard norms. We saw a hand bell choir of some 18 mixed-age beginners, including quite a few five- and six-year-olds. They had been practicing for exactly four days, four afternoons that is—their very first week of instrumental instruction. They practiced in a small dark concrete room with a light bulb and no windows, and the door was a rectangular cutout in the concrete. We happened along at the right time, and got to be their first audience ever. Intently, they focused on their teacher/conductor, who led them through the folk song they had learned. They performed without a mistake—eighteen kids, some small, who had never performed with instruments before, rapt with attention and unmistakable excitement, and they made no mistakes. This is not possible, I thought.
We saw the circle of French horn playing boys described above—they can’t possibly be playing scales so well after four days on the instrument.
We saw a beginner’s orchestra, ages maybe 8-12, maybe 40 students. They had been playing their instruments between two and six months. And they played a remarkably solid version of Pomp and Circumstance, with good intonation, with dynamics and accents, and a feel for the march. It was beyond what is possible, at least according to they way North Americans know youth orchestra possibility. And after the performance, with our enthusiastic applause, three sets of kids were brought up to the front for special acknowledgement. These were not the best players in the group; they were the least prominent ones that were singled out, the newest, the least accomplished. We applauded hardest for those moments of special acknowledgement, because these were the bravest in the performance miracle we had just seen.

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