A quick guide to hiring teachers for Sistema programs – by popular demand

Musicians looking for work

Musicians looking for work
Musicians looking for work...


Whenever I’ve presented or written on el Sistema in the past year and a half, I’ve usually described the scope of the program by referring to its 180-plus núcleos. The senior member of the Fundabol who gave me that number in early 2010 mentioned at the same time the expectation for significant growth. How significant? When having an article fact-checked by the Fundabol last week (yes, I ask them to verify the accuracy of anything that appears on paper) I was told the number now stands at over 240. And I thought el Sistema was a moving target conceptually…

That kind of growth is mindboggling, by any standard, but it’s considerably more comprehensible once you understand that the real Sistema, or more accurately, la Red essentially functions as a giant capacity-building engine to identify and cultivate the talent required to launch new núcleos. For those of us (i.e.: the rest of the world) without that advantage, hiring people for programs becomes a much more challenging proposition, as the number of queries I get on that topic would indicate.

There’s no shortage of musical talent out there; if there’s one thing the Western European pedagogical tradition does well, it’s to produce top-notch players. But when a fairly prominent Sistema program in the US feels compelled to replace its entire faculty less than one year after hiring them (no names), the problem surely cannot be a dearth of instrumental competence. Granted, a mass firing and subsequent hiring speaks more to issues at the employer level, rather than that of the employee, but the situation is still indicative of the nature of the problem: musicians are a dime a dozen. Highly adaptable, flexible, problem-solving, Sistema-embracing teachers are difficult to find.

The fact of the matter is that it’s very unlikely programs will find faculty who understand the complete picture from day 1. When the focus isn’t on musical excellence but on effecting positive social growth, criteria become more nebulous. That said, effusive (if not nonsensical) statements like “Loving children into wholeness” aren’t particularly actionable if you’re someone like me, nor are instructions like “Teach with passion!” So when I’m asked about how to hire faculty (I do actually hold a certificate in team management), I refer to four key points.

1) A willingness to learn is far more important than education or prior experience.

The classical music pedagogical tradition is incredibly regimented, and its proponents/products, incubated in an environment of the utmost inflexibility, frequently reflect that in their own teaching. Anyone who thinks there’s only one right way to teach is probably not a good fit.

2) (or 1b) Resumes aren’t very useful.

“The paper doesn’t refute the lies printed upon it”, as my late conducting teacher once said. And even if the CV is truthful, it will tell you more about the what than the who. Remember that this is a human endeavour. My personal suggestion: look for intelligent, grammatically correct, thoughtful cover letters. Look at them for the thoughts, but more importantly, the thought processes. This approach has never failed me.

3)Find complementary skill sets – and personalities.

It’s comforting to hire people who think just like you – and crippling. You need someone with the right attitude but who can still provide a contrasting perspective. You don’t have to be as scientific as rolling out the personality tests but it’s not a bad idea to understand the concepts behind them and keep the principles in mind.

4) MOST IMPORTANTLY – Model the values you’re looking for yourself.

Not a productive approach...

You’d think that after a decade-plus of Dilbert, senior managers would have cleaned up their act. Wishful thinking. In short, you may have to guide and train your teachers, and the best way to do that is a) know what you want and b) demonstrate it unfailingly in personal practice. E.g.: a mass firing is NOT Sistema-like. A mass skills-upgrading session is, on the other hand.


We grow in partnership with the people around us. After every interaction, ask two question: 1) Did I grow through that exchange? 2) Did I help the other party grow too? I almost never answer yes to both in the most stringent, honest, and rigourous application of that test, but on the rare occasions that I do, I feel like I might actually be a decent educator…and person… one day.

2 thoughts on “A quick guide to hiring teachers for Sistema programs – by popular demand

  1. I find myself responding to all of your posts now as I read them because they are truly thought provoking and inspiring. I think it may be important to begin to address the issue of transience because while teacher/musicians seem to be a dime-a-dozen, the obvious sacrifice is consistency. Even in Venezuela staff turnover seems to be rather quick. I went twice over a two year period, and few of the same people were at nucleos that I had visited. Also unfortunate that economics and the heart do not always align…

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