Peerless pressure

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.

2 thoughts on “Peerless pressure

  1. I observed a Summer Suzuki Institute in which the teacher asked parents in a group lesson setting to take turns working with each others children on a violin learning activity. At the end of the exercise in musical chairs, the teacher asked parents and students what they observed. For some reason parents noticed that they were more patient with their child’s fellow classmates. The children concurred in this observation. So the teacher asked the parents to treat their own children as if they were working with one of their peers the rest of the week while they practiced together.

    I notice this also works with siblings. As siblings we can be quite tough on one another and reciprocally uncooperative or unappreciative. Almost unmerciful. I often tell parents in my own studio that the reason your children need group lessons is so they can form social groups in which they are not faced with drawing direct comparisons with their siblings. They need safe places in which they can be judged fairly on their own merits. In mixed level Group lessons students also have the opportunity to hear and see more advanced students that they can aspire to (with less of the emotional baggage they may have associated with a sibling.
    When I am asked by parents of more advanced students why they should participate in classes and activities with less advanced students I explain to them that this is an opportunity for your child to develop musical leadership skills. Perhaps it is a place where they can learn to develop and practice more empathetic sibling skills. I many cases mentoring younger students is a much more demanding responsibility at an emotional level than merely competing with ones skill level peers. If facilitated skillfully by the teacher more advanced students are expected to use some of that frontal lobe emotional intelligence.

    What surprises me is that we Americans have done such a good job of valuing individualism and self reliance that the families of first born immigrants who have traditionally valued cooperative learning styles are throwing the baby out with the bath water. I find that I have to reassure minority parents in my urban Suzuki program that attending a group lesson with more than one level of student is just as valuable to their children as the level specific instruction.

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