If you think for a moment what it was like to grow up with siblings (with my condolences to those readers who didn’t), you’ll hopefully come to the conclusion that your life was a lot better off because of them. Brothers and sisters are essentially a pre-fabricated peer group, friends, and support network all in one. A major regret of my life is that none of my siblings were sufficiently musically-inclined for us to perform together in the same ensemble. The closest I think I came was my youngest brother who, like me, was an ice hockey goaltender. We never had the opportunity to play against each other, but… I certainly would have won. Of course.
There’s that sibling support for you. But natural rivalries aside, it’s remarkable to think how much learning takes place between brothers and sisters, if only via the modeling of certain skills and behaviours. (I should add that I know not all this learning is positive. Lord knows I was accused often enough of “setting a bad example.”) It’s a function of the different relationship, I think, as compared to receiving instruction from a teacher or parent. If I were to get all technical, I’d hypothesize that instruction from an adult, no matter how well-intentioned, usually reinforces the dominance or authority of the instructor, mainly because compliance is essentially mandatory. Peer suggestions are just that – suggestions, so they allow for rejection and thus acknowledge the autonomy of the recipient.
Peer-based instruction can be valuable and empowering for both parties involved. It’s not teaching by fiat, but mutual discovery and growth. In el-Sistema, the more experienced students are paired with the less experienced to the benefit of both, particularly in ensemble situations, in which a really strong player can raise the performance level of the musicians around him or her just by radiating confidence physically and musically. In the predominant North American institutional culture of musical entitlement and elitism, this kind of seating arrangement can be seen as punitive for the more experienced player, and so segregation by skill is implemented with significant loss of benefit to all. I don’t know how the Venezuelans built a culture so open to peer instruction, but I’m certain it started with the faculty and leadership. I’ve witnessed and worked within the segregation model too, and I can say with assurance that the culture of elitism and entitlement started at the top there too. Strange to say, but it seems the more that you’re handed in a North American music school, the less that’s expected of you. It’s different at NEC – the Abreu Fellows are treated very generously, but the expectations are in fact tremendous. Those expectations go far beyond building nucleos to changing the culture of culture: El Sistema isn’t just a teaching method, it’s an organizational practice built upon contribution and collaboration – and that’s why it works.