Knowing what counts

I’ve stopped counting how many Sistema programs I’ve visited. There have been many, many, many, but I don’t see much point in attempting to enumerate them.  I’ve found that passing visits rarely if ever offer enough information to draw any real conclusions about what happens between the walls, if not for reasons of time constraints, then because of the ever-present Hawthorne effect.  I also don’t see any value in tying sheer number of observational visits to my credentials in this sector – that’s essentially the same argument Betsy DeVos used to substantiate her (utter un)suitability for the role of US Secretary of Education. If I have any reputation within this field, it better not be because of a tally of stamps in a theoretical Sistema passport.

Frankly, most of the visits tend to blur together anyway, with the rare moments of exceptionally good and exceptionally bad sticking out. I recall a cello instructor in Vancouver working with a trio of young girls in a manner that showed an astonishing intuitive knowledge of social learning. End pins pointed inwards, he had the students mimic a technique he modeled, and he demanded in the most patient and polite way that they give their colleagues their full attention when not playing, with superb results.  On the other end of the spectrum I saw an orchestra rehearsal at a major program in which the conductor checked every single box associated with progressive music education but entirely failed to make what was treated like a shopping list of requirements even equal to the sum of the parts, let alone greater. The lack of comprehension was shocking. Some experiences aren’t black and white either, like the conductor who from his podium could tell a young bass player exactly how to hit a high note on the top string of the instrument with instant success, but couldn’t coach a cello section into playing notes off the beat. That joins an unfortunately long list of personal observations in which it was clear that the “conductor” of the ensemble in question simply had no idea how to make a group better, short of incessant repetition.

Sometimes odd moments divorced from the teaching of music stick in the mind, like a fleeting visit to the In Harmony program in Lambeth (South London) back in 2015. I was there for only a few hours, taking advantage of their hospitality to rehearse my own visiting student group in an upstairs studio, but on my way out the door I was witness to something that I haven’t forgotten two years later. In a moment of transition between activities, a young boy came up to the program director Gerry Sterling, and asked him whether he had given any more thought to a repertoire suggestion the student had made some time earlier.

The suggestion in question was the soundtrack to a video game called Assassin’s Creed, which, as the name suggests, allows the player to control the exploits of a dedicated killer as he murders specific targets. Grim subject matter aside, the soundtracks for some of the releases are highly atmospheric and evocative.

Gerry’s response in this situation was noteworthy. I’m going to paraphrase here, since detail has faded with time, but he said something to the effect of: “Yes, I did listen to it, and I thought it was quite beautiful. But I need to ask you – do you think performing that music would send the right kind of message to our audience?” It’s a remarkably comprehensive and indicative response. Firstly, it showed that repertoire suggestions were not just invited from the students, but considered seriously. Gerry has been described to me as “The Busiest Music Teacher in London” but had clearly found time to research not just the music, but the context of its presentation. His first step was to agree with the student on the artistic merits of the proposal, in this way validating the suggestion. But rather than simply declining to program the music based on the extreme level of violence in the game, he framed his response to the student as a question, inviting them to consider what precisely was associated with the music. He encouraged the student to evaluate their own proposal based on a different criterion, and unsurprisingly, the pupil concluded that the choice wasn’t appropriate.

The whole process took one minute longer than the bald response of “That’s a terrible idea and we won’t do it” but it revealed a respect for the student, a respect for and understanding of educational process, and a respect for the mission. I’d be surprised if Gerry even remembers the incident himself, but it comes often to my mind in my current work. I can’t really speak to the effectiveness and appropriateness of the pedagogy of the program in Lambeth, my last formal and participatory visit being back in 2010, but I do know the program leadership understands precisely what they are there to do.

So when I’m doing my umpteenth school orchestra or Sistema site clinic of the school year, rehearsing for the umpteenth time the theme to Game of Thrones, a television show whose scenes of graphic violence are exceeded in count only by those featuring overt sexuality, I shake my head internally and appreciate the good teachers all the more. And believe me, those I do count.

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