Sunday, October 31, 2010

(Un)teaching Passion

In observing El Sistema, one can't help but notice the relentless passion with which the musicians play. Many have asked, "How can we get students in the U.S. to play with a similar level of passion?" Having been surrounded by incredibly passionate musicians, from all over the U.S. and the world, for a good portion of my life, I don't believe that there is a simple "cultural" explanation for Venezuelan musicians playing and teaching with passion. At the same time, I'm well aware that passion is not an outward manifestation for all people--some of the most passionate people I know are quiet and reserved. There are number of answer to the passion question but I want to just focus on one of them in this blog. I would highly recommend reading Eric Booth's essay, paying special attention to the "law of 80%," if you want to learn more about passion in El Sistema.

I have heard a number of versions of an answer to the passion question. My favorite goes something like this: 'In El Sistema, we don't teach passion, we just don't unteach it'. Children are not taught to sacrifice physical movement and other outward manifestations of passion for technique. Yes, technique is important but it should not be a tool that inhibits expressivity. It should instead be a tool that allows one to be even more expressive.

We had a FANTASTIC class on eurhythmics last Thursday taught by Lisa Parker. I was in love with music for the entire duration of the class. Lisa guided us through a variety of musical games and improvisation exercises that taught sophisticated musical concepts, allowed us to listen and think critically, and most important, helped us to move and to feel the music. The whole session was fun and engaging as well. We shouldn't make our jobs harder than they have to be; instead we should embrace the natural movement that occurs when we listen to and perform music.

Speaking specifically about the development of boys, Eli Newberger told us that boys need words with which to characterize emotions. From a very early age boys are urged to "stop crying," to "walk it off," and to "keep it inside." Eli insists that music, and the movement associated with it, is one of the most important therapeutic modalities available to us.

When I taught with the YOURS Project in Chicago we were committed to the idea that the first priority of a teacher is to allow the child to experience success and fall in love with music. If these two goals are accomplished early on, the child will excel at a much quicker rate and teaching will become a joy.

We can synthesize the lessons from El Sistema, eurhythmics, Eli Newberger, and the YOURS Project as follows:

1. Embrace the natural movement that occurs when a child plays music; be very considerate with how you teach technique and which technical mistakes you decide to correct early on.
2. Guide listening sessions to help young musicians develop an active vocabulary of words they can use when talking about music and when expressing emotions.
3. Create frequent performance opportunities during which the students will feel successful. These could occur as early as the first or second week the child touches an instrument.
4. As teachers and performers, we must always maintain a high level of passion and expressivity that students can learn from and imitate.

I'd like to offer a fantastic short story by Eduardo Galeano to conclude this blog post. This story has been a reliable antidote for me anytime I am feeling at all burnt out or passion-less. Hope you enjoy it!

I write for those who cannot read me: the downtrodden, the ones who have been waiting on line for centuries to get into history, who cannot read a book or afford to buy one.

When I begin to lose heart, it does me good to recall a lesson in the dignity of art which I learned years ago at a theater in Assisi, in Italy. Helena and I had gone to see an evening of pantomime and no one else showed up. The two of us made the entire audience. When the lights dimmed, we were joined by the usher and the ticket seller. Yet despite the fact that there were more people on stage than in the audience, the actors worked as hard as if they were basking in the glory of a full house on opening night. They put their hearts and souls into the performance and it was marvelous.

Our applause shook the empty hall. We clapped until our hands were sore.

- "The Dignity of Art" from the
Book of Embraces

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