Children from The Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston

Children from The Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Fascinating Stage

Erik says I am way behind on blogging! Hmmm, I must now confess to you, mysterious reader, that I am uncomfortable blogging! There is so much type in our digital lives! How could my silly thoughts be of worth to you? Yet this journey is extraordinary and just as I was curious about the fellowship last year, you may be that next fellow thinking about applying! Or a teacher wondering about El Sistema. For you I keep blogging!

I pasted below a painting, a favorite of mine, "Clairvoyance" by Rene Magritte, which describes exactly what I feel this year is: for many years, I have been looking at an ideal (an egg) that lived inside me, namely teaching musical literacy to children in a way that is unencumbered and joyful. (I wondered how I could feel all year long the way I always felt at summer camp)

The egg has been shown to have a real model (=has been placed on the table) by

Abreu and El Sistema.

This fellowship is the very difficult task of designing the bird inside the egg without ever having seen it. We have the Venezuelan model, but for the US we are feeling our way with very different conditions.

1936: Galerie Isy Brachot, Brussels

A very happy day was going to the Community Lab Charter school, my place to get my feet wet and work weekly, in the astonishing program directed by 2 wonderful Fellows from last year: David Malek and Rebecca Levi. It is only in week # 8 with 120 children, that just learned to play their instruments. They study 3 hours per day, after school, 5 days a week!! Today, I will work with violin teachers and explore how to refine violin set-up issues using Mimi Zweig's brilliant ideas in the next couple of weeks. Head tall, and round fingers, those are our goals! In group teaching you must be such a different teacher! Kids need clear commands: one two ready go, bend your pinky on your bow. Tap pinky tap pinky, now I'm feeling really slinky! I just made that up!
This is completely new to me, but those teachers who lovingly and rhythmically, (the fabulous drumming teacher taught me), throw out one easy command after another have happy children succeeding, and not squirmy children unsure what to do, which is a lot less happy.
I heard a most touching rendition of Beethoven #9 by 11 4th graders getting ready for their first concert. They were so excited to perform in a mansion!
Now, many children have given up part of their daily lunch break to practise and hopefully be the next ones chosen to play in a mansion! Amazing! To read, watch films, listen to seminars is great, but to see a child glowing in anticipation, inspired by a mansion, to try her very hardest to reach a new level !! Stunning! Peer mentoring is a huge part of the work: David tells us of a 10 minute session where they simply told the older ones to help the younger ones, after which time all the kids could play Hot Cross buns. Before this session, many little ones could not. 10 minutes! This is certainly not rocket science, but it is not the way I was taught. It takes me some courage and much feeling of trust to ask a peer for help with anything. To just make this so natural is already a huge part of where I think El Sistema taps into previously unknown energy fields. People love to help!!

Most often people critical of El Sistema say:

1) It will never work w/o Gov'ment support

2) this has already been done, for years, with success, in public schools, why the hype?

1) think of the things in we have without Government support! Think of partnerships in the past: Andrew Carnegie's libraries, privately initiated, then publicly funded. Think of our museums, orchestras, theater, ballet, Universities....funded without much or any government support. I believe, El Sistema (or let's call it "public orchestra programs= POP USA) will start small. POP will grow and prove child by child, family by family, community by community what it can do and make itself relevant. In Venezuela it took 35 years to reach the Heights of today. Our big challenge will be to start small and create, in not too long a period, outstanding results. That term can be defined in many ways, and not every child must become a Heifetz. But somewhere in POP USA's future there will have to be an orchestra of Excellence to show what the work can do for those youths ignited by it. This may lie years and several generations of teachers away, but we must keep this as a goal, I believe. This will justify the broader work of teaching kids to be good people through orchestra playing, at any level.

2) Yes, this country boasts incredible youth orchestras! Most large cities have one or several that do the work described above, beautifully. Let's strengthen these by teaching many more and much younger kids to play (K and 1 in most El Sistema inspired programs starting now). POP USA (my new name, do you like it?) is REALLY not trying to put anyone out. It is seeking to bring excitement to the children, esp. to those children the least served by our existing youth orchestra programs. (in Boston alone, I have heard 3 youth orchestras, each so good, right at NEC! )Many of our highest level youth orchestras are, let's be honest, serving kids with parents who care to provide private lessons to their children and who make it a priority to take them to other places on Saturdays.
In some public schools we have great orchestra programs, but they do not teach the amount of hours POP USA is striving for and therefore cannot become the community to the children that we are hoping to create.

So, the number one difference is the idea of teaching large groups of very young beginners for many hours per day in groups. It makes us dizzy to see so much work that would take months of private instruction to "fix" in one room. But here's the beauty: the kids are focussed on each other, and, unless you get in their way, they will EAGERLY learn from each other, and are happy to be a little bit better than the kid to their side and feel GREAT about helping them!! Adults, don't mess it up! The kids will take us there. They will support each other and every year the younger ones will learn a little bit quicker, if we just guide them a little bit! They'll have peers to look up to and watch. We will need a few years to become these outstanding flexible teachers that will do this work. We must shed much of what we thought about teaching and learn to trust the process of child learning from child. With loving and flexible role models like David and Rebecca, we should be ok!


  1. Hey Isabel, PLEASE keep writing! I love reading your blog - thoughts and ideas. Your description of CLCS is great, and makes me all the more excited to visit next week. Thank you for your answer to question #2, as it is one that has been puzzling me for some time (how to respond to people who ask that question). I was reminded of string lessons that do not follow the El Sistema model (my own from early years included in that category) and cannot wait to really SEE and FEEL the difference.

  2. Great blog, Isabel! Thank you for your kind words. We love having you around school!


  3. Thank you Isabel for sharing your new prospectives on music and community building. We love your blog postings! I like the idea that we learn a lot by witnessing the joy of learning of the children. Just expose them to new stuff to learn in an environement where they feel secure and successful, and they will be amazing. It seems that el sistema has a great experience in creating such enviornments. I just wonder how we can sustain the magic… and travel through those dry times, when children seem to loose their purpose, and work by obligation, or to please other people around them. Bring us back your tricks to Cleveland ASAP!!!