I took the pictures above at a rehearsal of the new youth orchestra for children under the age of 16, during my visit to Caracas in early July. This young woman was surely one of the youngest, if not the youngest musician in the orchestra: feet barely able to reach the floor, eyes barely able to see over the music stand in front of her to Sir Simon Rattle on the podium. Every few measures she would sneak a furtive peek over at her stand partner, several years her senior but her superior only in age, not ability. Sometimes it was to verify the position of the bow on the strings, other times to double-check the timing of an entry.
This was peer instruction of the kind that happens in almost every single youth orchestra around the globe: informal, implicit, and highly functional. It’s much like the theory of gravity in that it existed and was experienced long before it was named by some musical Newton pondering the disposition of soci0-musical fruit, and as is the case with most ontological exercises (I recognize the tautology) it acquired undue sophistication as a result of the applied terminology.
It’s still an important idea, though, but “peer instruction” as a more specialized, sophisticated concept has taken on a discomfiting degree of traction in other scenarios – that of youth teaching their peers in a more formalized setting. The example that is given most frequently is that “the musician who knows five notes on the instrument teaches the one who only knows four.”
That isn’t peer instruction. Peer implies equality beyond just the metric of age, and of bilateral communication. In the case of the young woman pictured above, her frequent deferral to her colleague was clearly motivated by a youthful lack of confidence, not dearth of skill given her placement at the second desk in the section. The idea of sophomores instructing freshman is encouraged by Fesnojiv primarily as a means of getting maximum benefit from minimal resources. As broad as the network of núcleos has become, it still can’t provide bassoon teachers for every one of the 187 locales, so some compromises are necessary.
And in this context, that’s what “peer instruction” is: a compromise. As an operating procedure it’s employed when there are insufficient resources or when there’s sufficient merit – and in either case, it’s not a peer relation. There’s a world of difference between two young people sitting down together to work through something
versus empowering one to instruct another, and the current rhetoric I’ve read about “changing the rules about who is allowed to teach” suggests the latter worrisome misinterpretation or over-extrapolation. We have the responsibility to ensure that children receive the best, most qualified instruction possible, and in North American and Europe we generally have the resources to do so. Peer instruction is already a facet of life in orchestras, an integral existing part of its social impact. I fully support empowering any person of any age on the basis of merit, but to make more of this than necessary in our programs would be to have the apple fall very far from the tree.