Them’s the breaks

Hard at rest in Acarigua


Back in my youth orchestra days, the highlight of our weekly rehearsal was often the break, that joyous moment when we were finally released from our chairs and could abscond to the local shopping mall, in search of discount doughnuts from a bakery looking to clear the shelves right before closing time. The only people who stuck around to practice were the anti-social misfits who would otherwise awkwardly wander the corridors of the university in solitude, reading the overflowing bulletin boards with feigned interest, or the super-keeners who wanted to show off to the conductor. At least, that was the perception.

A bit of time off isn’t a bad thing, of course, but a break should be received as welcome respite, not parole from an eternity pent in durance vile. But there’s a third option I’ve seen, most recently in Venezuela, and of which I was reminded very recently by Chris Nicholls, the infectiously enthusiastic visionary behind Sistema Australia. I was working late one evening when he sent me an online instant message saying: “I’ve got something I really wanted to share with you! We’ve had something really interesting happen at our program – the children have started practicing during their breaks!”

Chris had every reason to be excited: a development of this nature is really something of a breakthrough in terms of the children’s relationship to both the program and to music. At the most immediate level, it means that the children are enjoying the process enough to want more, which is itself an endorsement of Sistema Australia’s approach. But it also implies something else much more significant: that the children are starting to understand they can actually develop mastery over their instrument if they choose. It means they’re discovering the inherent rewards of playing, the intrinsic motivation that will carry them for the rest of their musical lives.

It’s hard to get to this point, in case you thought otherwise, and for a young program to get there so quickly is quite remarkable and rare. I’ve written previously on how difficult it can be to cross this particular threshold, but also how important it is as well. It’s not just a confidence builder, it’s the development of self-efficacy, the understanding that through self-application we can surmount challenges even if we’ve never encountered them before. This is a critical cognitive attribute and life skill.

So as a follow up to his instant message, Chris asked: “What do you think?” My response:”Make your break longer.”

No, seriously. Maria Montessori first identified the importance of unstructured play time about a century ago, time in which students can explore or engage with their environment entirely on their own terms. This is the framework in which they can satisfy their own curiosity, when they’ll expand their technique while they discover the neat tricks or sounds they can create with their instruments, and find out just how capable they are of growing on their own. They may do it through practicing their parts, they may do it together, they may do it through fooling around, but which it is becomes largely unimportant. This is actually a break:

That said, they also need some time away, to refresh and reset mentally and physically, so there has to be an allocation for that too. As a conductor I’ve noticed significantly diminished returns in rehearsals towards the end, which is why if it’s up to me, I’ll schedule a good break around the 2/3rds point (not the halfway mark), and keep the remainder of the rehearsal after much lighter. If I’ve done my job as a conductor, the musicians will still feel motivated to try to work out a few kinks before resting their minds and bodies, instead of trying in vain to fill holes with doughnuts.




One thought on “Them’s the breaks

  1. My High School choral ensemble director , Dr Lew Phelps, got in trouble with the Principal because so many of the sturdents wanted to spend their lunch hour rehearsing with him. He taught every one of 20 students a year to sing German lieder, Cosi Fan Tutti scenes, West Side Story duets, and on and on, all on top of the very toughest choral repertoire. We couldn’t get enough of it, and still get togerher every two years, over 20 of us, to do it again 40 years later. Thanks Chris and Jonathan for the memories.

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