El Sistema's Heartfelt Culture

February 7, 2014

I will admit that I went to Venezuela free of expectations, having only the simple desire to absorb as much as possible from El Sistema’s educators.  Indeed, the strings teacher in me took a keen interest in observing the pedagogy of this program – the approach to the beginning paper orchestras, the scaffolding concepts used in group classes, orchestra rehearsal techniques, etc.   Subconsciously, my analytical self was trying to draw parallels between El Sistema’s jaw-dropping professional orchestras and the classes I saw in the barrios.  How did the students progress to a level of such remarkable, passionate playing?  What was the hook that engaged these children and transformed their lives?  Although the teaching I saw did not strike me as particularly innovative, I had seen how El Sistema had cultivated a new generation of musicians and citizens.  I wondered how I would help reinvent this movement in the United States if I did not even understand its fundamental intricacies. Finally, it dawned on me:  the distinct, extraordinary principles of this system lie more in the power of its culture than in that of its pedagogy or curriculum.

 

A program that has been in existence for nearly forty years, El Sistema boasts a rich, multi-layered history of community practice.  Indeed, it is the dynamic interplay of elements in this program’s culture that has led it to such tremendous heights.  One of the most revolutionary aspects of El Sistema is the pervasive sense that all generations—students, novice teachers, master professors, and nucleo directors—learn from one another in an environment free of egos.  This idea of “omni-directional mentorship” (a term coined by Edward Clapp, a doctoral student at Harvard) was ubiquitous in every nucleo the fellows visited, manifesting that professional development is a life-long process in Venezuela, with everyone helping one another in their efforts to grow and contribute equally to a shared mission.  As Jésus Perez, the nucleo director in Mérida, said of his relationship with his students, “There is a big difference between leadership—which gives everyone the opportunity to participate—and tyranny… It’s important to be friends with the kids.  I try to learn from them, and they try to learn from me.”  

 

This concept of learners becoming leaders and leaders becoming learners was also mirrored in an experience I had playing in the chamber orchestra in Mérida.  A new initiative of viola professor, Marvicpermar Urbina, the ensemble provides an avenue for the nucleo’s strongest string players to play in a smaller, more intimate setting.  Marvic (as she is lovingly called by her students) is a master teacher and tour-de-force violist, having studied and performed internationally.   However, instead of simply coaching students, Marvic plays in the conductorless chamber orchestra herself.  Quite remarkable was the dynamic interplay I observed as the role of orchestra leader passed between the student concertmaster, principal players and Marvic, with all given equal artistic responsibilities.  When Marvic would stop the rehearsals to work on passages, she would elicit feedback from the students, listening to their comments, and moving the rehearsal forward in a democratic fashion.  Indeed, the chamber orchestra was as much a learning experience for Marvic as it was for her students, and the youngsters were empowered by their ability to contribute to the experience.

 

Another integral component of El Sistema’s culture is the pervasive attitude of fearless, passionate drive.  Although Americans are known for being ambitious go-getters, we are generally taught to play by the rules, following a structured path to success, taking calculated risks, and even tempering dreams to stay within the confines of societal norms.  Of course, there are Americans who prove to be extraordinary exceptions to this stereotype, with those groundbreakers generating new ideas and initiatives.  This notion of fearless ambition, however, is not nearly as omnipresent in the U.S. as it is in El Sistema.  Instead, these Venezuelans demonstrate a propensity for dreaming big, embracing challenges as opportunities, and having the tenacity to move forward at a feverish pace in order to make their visions a reality.  This mentality exists in all aspects of El Sistema, from program structure to pedagogical philosophy to artistic programming.

 

One particularly strong example of this paradigm is evident in El Sistema’s Simón Bolívar initiative, a massive expansion project with the goal of increasing national enrollment from 468,000 students to one million students by 2019.  When speaking of the Bolívar project, Victor, the nucleo director of Ejido, simply smiled and said that he had already reached his first marker, adding over three thousand students in his municipality within four days.  Exuding quiet confidence and determination, he was resolute in his conviction to help as many students as possible. Victor’s spirited desire to make a difference allowed him to believe in the impossible, never leaving him overwhelmed the magnitude of the task at hand.

 

The pedagogy of El Sistema similarly reflects this notion of fearless drive.  Children perform constantly—often giving multiple performances each week—in an effort to constantly improve upon what they know and are able to do.  Students discuss with great pride the challenging repertoire they are studying and the new artistic projects they are cultivating (e.g. a student-led, rock orchestra initiative of Beatles music), never daunted by the difficulty of these initiatives nor concerned about having all the necessary prerequisites (i.e. the technical skills or resources) in place prior to starting.   Instead, they embark upon their studies with true chutzpah and zeal.  Because students develop and experiment at such a fast pace, they are simply striving to do their best—not to obtain perfection—with each new performance and piece learned.  Without fear of mistakes, students and teachers are freed to take on new artistic challenges, stretch their boundaries, and enjoy the journey of learning as much as they do the product of their hard work.

 

Although it may have been an American company that developed the phrase “just do it,” those of El Sistema seem to embody this motto on an entirely new level, bringing a boundless energy and unrestrained joy to their work.  Their determination is further heightened by their incredible desire to learn from one another, creating a breeding ground for shared inquiry and support.  Eric Booth, a leading scholar on teaching artistry, famously wrote that “80% of what you teach is who you are,” implying that a teacher’s personality influences students more than what he actually teaches.  In many ways, this philosophy can also be applied to the culture of El Sistema, as it is the program’s heartfelt customs of human interaction that define its core essence much more than any pedagogical practices.  

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