The Gravity of Peer Instruction


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.

2 thoughts on “The Gravity of Peer Instruction

  1. I appreciate your efforts to open a conversation on this most useful component of education. The first time that I brought more advanced students into my urban program they were not embraced. Initially they were viewed as other. Potential invaders. Not necessarily as a resource.
    It was not until the less experienced musicians and their parents recognized that they had as much to contribute to the educational environment as those who were older or more technically skilled. My young student of South Pacific inheritance who is a minority among minorities often reminds us that it is about seeking relationship. True mentoring is not limited to top down or bottom up. It radiates through out the experience at hand and even leaves the room and goes out into the community. My younger or less experienced students are filled with curiosity and inspiration in as much as my older or more skilled students learn to be gracious with their expertise and their leadership. At the same time the teacher or facilitator is learning, even humbled by their students. By openly observing ones own errors even the teacher, teaches. If this isn’t enough there are other observers in the environment being influenced. The door of the classroom is open. In the polyphony of relationship the arrays of mentor-ship dance in every direction.
    I submit the expression ‘mutual musical mentor-ship’. A practice of relationship in ones program that allows every participant to feel vital to its success. This can not remain a static relationship in that all of the participants are growing into their responsibilities and contributions to the whole. Like the music, these relationships are in constant motion. Makes even the word ‘mutual’ seem limited.

  2. Informal peer instruction is undoubtedly a very strong influence in music of all cultures . Jim Froseth former chair of music Education at the university of Michigan is a great believer in the idea of Music teaching as a PERFORMING art in its own right and has tried to harness and develop strategies to enable teachers to fully develop the futher this very powerful model ! that is reflected in this wonderful moment that you have managed to capture on camera . ….. ” a real pearl”

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