El Sistema USA Conference Day 1

The conference opened this morning (May 6) with an extremely interesting panel discussion on Musicians as Educators: The Many Faces and Approaches of Teaching, moderated by Eric Booth, with panelists Robert Gupta, the youngest violinist ever accepted in the LA Philharmonic and an avid teacher, David Malek, an Abreu fellow, and Arlen Hlusko, cellist, student at Colburn Conservatory, and mentor with YOLA (Youth Orchestra of LA).

The discussion began with an El Sistema tenet — if you know how to play 4 notes, teach someone who only knows how to play 3 and you’ll be better prepared to learn your 5th note. This tenet represents a very different mindset about what experience means, and who is designated as a teacher. In fact much of the discussion focused on the polarity of excellence vs. access, and how much of the teaching done in El Sistema involves peers.

Robert talked about how he becomes a better performer by explaining his philosophy about making music — “being a teacher makes me a better performer. The teachers who influenced me the most were not great pedagogues but rather great artists.”

David, a clarinetist who has taught at the university, high school, and elementary levels, talked about his experience in Venezuela and how finding what is true for “the little guys” he was working with improves his artistry.

Basically, much of the El Sistema model is to put instruments in the hands of very young children and get them to play in ensembles immediately. It’s messy and chaotic at first but somehow it works. It’s really contrary to what most of us grew up with — learning from a private teacher, then joining the school orchestra, and finally auditioning for youth orchestra. If you didn’t win the audition, too bad. In Venezuela youth orchestras can have 16 clarinets — it’s very inclusive and non-competitive.

Everyone agreed that basics of technique are important, but the El Sistema model gets kids passionate about music right away by having them perform together. During an orchestra rehearsal, the teachers are moving through the students, correcting things as the kids are playing. Arlen talked about the total focus on perfection of most conservatory students — spending hours in the practice room alone perfecting intonation, rhythm, bow strokes, etc. But there’s not a lot of passion in spending 7 hours a day doing this.

Discussion of how to get musicians in professional orchestras interested in participating in an El Sistema USA project was inconclusive, to say the least.

The understatement of the morning was, “Taking the students at their level and just letting them play [in the ensemble] doesn’t work in our conservatory system.” (The gem of the morning was Robin Williams’ description of Juilliard: “jail with cellos.”)

Other thoughts:

Fear should never be part of teaching music – students get so wrapped up in trying to achieve the perfection that they freeze – not fear but discipline.

Never underestimate the power of pretending – David described how he got the little kids in Venezuela to pretend they were the Simon Bolivar orchestra and they suddenly sounded great.

The afternoon involved discussions with leaders of California youth orchestras who are pursuing an El Sistema model — more about this later.

Tomorrow will be sessions with the Abreu fellows and much more nitty gritty about exactly what the El Sistema model is.

The concert was great though Dudamel pulled a muscle in his neck during the Dvorak cello concerto, so I didn’t get to see him conduct Pathetique after all.

About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians: shortbeachwebdesign.com.

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here. web.esm.rochester.edu/poly/author/ann-drinan

Leave a Reply