Saturday, November 7, 2009

Weeks 3 and 4: Shaping the World

The Kid: Pedagogy and Child Development

During the third week of the Abreu Fellowship, we were lucky enough to meet with experts in four music education philosophies: Dalcroze, Suzuki, Orff and Kodály, or Lisa Parker, Linda Fiore, Ruth Debrot and Jonathan Rappaport. Our own lovely Lorrie did such an excellent job summarizing what the different pedagogies represent, that I won't go into too much detail. I will, however, list some of the key underlying themes that particularly relate to El Sistema and that have been a catalyst for my own thinking...

1. Joy: All four philosophies are founded on fun and games. Dudamel cites this aspect as one of the two core tenets of El Sistema.
2. Active or kinesthetic listening: Even when observing, students should not be passive. By moving and interacting with the music, they are able to absorb and understand it. Look at the members of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra dance even when they are not playing!
3. Student ownership and participation: Part of what makes the El Sistema orchestras' performances of Tchaikovsky and Bernstein so moving is that they play as if they had composed these pieces themselves. Excellent music pedagogy is predicated on giving the students the power to be artists immediately. See the New York Philharmonic's excellent effort in this respect.
4. Begin early. In Venezuela, children start coming to the núcleos at 2 years old and dive into musicianship classes and choirs that prepare them to eventually pick up an instrument. Similarly, Dalcrozian movement, Orff vocal improvisation and Kodály solfège provide excellent support to young musicians. In training the ear and developing skills such as concentration, memory and coordination, these pedagogies train students to be wonderful instrumentalists.
5. Suzuki believed that all children have talent; in Venezuela, anyone can participate in El Sistema. Linda Fiore also presented us with a list of non-musical benefits that Suzuki learning brings. I never knew that Suzuki was so socially-minded! One has to imagine that Abreu drew some of his inspiration from him.

Delving deeper into the world of Suzuki, I saw its emphasis on parent participation as problematic. What about the children who come from abusive home environments? What about parents whose substance abuse precludes them taking an active role in their child's musical learning? We posited: the núcleo becomes the family. After all, our Venezuelan friends have been describing their fellow El Sistema grads as brothers and sisters.

As I continued to ponder the implications for teaching children with backgrounds of abuse, I appreciated that all four pedagogies, but especially Suzuki, place great emphasis on routine. One of the most important lessons I learned in Peru was that all children need boundaries in order to feel safe. In an abusive or unhealthy home environment, we often see that parents have not placed appropriate limits and act inconsistently, thus creating confusion for the child. One of the kids at Mosoq Runa, who came to us at 5 years old, started walking the 3 kilometers into town by himself from the age of 3. He used to accompany his mother both to work and to the bars. In this limitless world, anything was possible, and that meant that the worst was probable. As a result, he had terrible nightmares. One of our main tasks was to create order in his confusing life. When we were at the table, play time was over; when he was playing, we let him be. Bath time was at 7pm and bed time at 8pm. In this way, he began to feel safe, and the nightmares faded. Similarly, picking up the violin in the same, precise way every day can create order and a feeling of security for a child from a chaotic home.

As all of these pedagogies are developed for the child's sake (rather than the music's), it was wonderful to meet with a few musicians whose day jobs are in the fields of neurology, psychology and child development.
Eli Newberger and Lyle Davidson provided us with a roadmap to the brain, emphasizing the neurological differences between men and women. As a pediatrician, Eli's knowledge of child development is vast, so he presented us with a short but very useful list:
The 5 Most Important Things that Children Need to Develop Sound Characters and Make Admirable Decisions in the Face of Moral Conflict
1. At least one adult in their life who is crazy about them, will always be there for them, assure them of their worth and advocate for them.
2. Emotional literacy. Boys in particular need words with which to characterize and express emotions.
3. Protection from exposure to violence. Did you know that between the ages of 5 and 13, the average American child will have seen over 13,000 people die on television? Venezuela's núcleos are safe havens, and ours must be too.
4. Inductive discipline, which means agreeing upon the standards of behavior (rather than deductive discipline, which is predicated on punishment).
5. To give back. Catholic activist Dorothy Day, when describing the spiritual transformation that occurs in missionary work, said, "The helpless help the helpers more than the helpers help the helpless."

A wonderful example of this final statement is teaching music to children with special needs. My friend, Markku Kaikkonen, runs the Resonaari Music Center in Helsinki, where he educates cognitively disabled children and adults in the art of making music. My visit to the center this September was awe-inspiring. I was amazed by the atmosphere of fun and learning in the ensembles and by the never-ending patience of the teachers.
Because of this incredibly positive experience, I was thrilled to spend Thursday afternoon with Kathleen Howland, music therapist and speech pathologist. When I mentioned how difficult it is to communicate directly with those with special needs, she reminded us all that behaviors are a communication. These actions can be difficult to understand, however, so music bridges these communicative gaps. Kathleen also pointed out that every human wants to make their own choices and be self-directed. Again, music can give them that sense of empowerment. She listed many strategies for strong teaching, including:
* Preview and review every new topic.
* Use peer learning.
* Consider the child as a whole (research their backgrounds, their family life, their special needs)
* Do not just rely on spoken cues; rather, fold in visual and musical ones, too.
* Explore a single topic deeply, rather than passing quickly on to new elements. When working with children with special needs, this is particularly important, because they will not be able to progress rapidly. But, as Kathleen says, if the ceiling is low, go lateral and repeat things creatively.

This made us think... In Kodály, they use the same song over and over again to show different musical principles. In Venezuela, they look at the whole child and love peer-to-peer mentoring. These strategies that work for children with special needs work for everybody. The principles are universal. Differently-abled children force you to look at them before the subject matter, because their needs can be so challenging. But, really, you should always see the child before the music.

The Adult: Triangles, Spirals and Spiderwebs
Conversations with Yo-Yo Ma, Larry Scripp and Sebastian Ruth
Larry Scripp, in charting the progression of music in education, has described the newest incarnation of the music educator as the

Teacher Scholar
The artist's desires are to learn and to join a community. The teacher's, to share and to communicate. The scholar's, to research and to analyze. These roles flow into each other in a constantly evolving relationship that results in a greater ability to interact effectively with music, students and society at large.
Yo-Yo Ma also works within a triangular framework, one that he describes as a circuit that must be complete for the lightbulb to turn on.

Communication           Reception
We are often strong in two poles and weak in the third. Perhaps we explain something very interesting very well, but we have not asked our listeners what they thought. Perhaps we have not looked them in the eyes to read their reaction. But when we do, and the lightbulb becomes illuminated, we can 1. provide a memorable experience 2. cause our listeners, students and children to become curious and passionate, and 3. allow them to develop a disciplined imagination and embark upon the path to empathy.

These triangles have clear similarities; indeed, the elements seem interchangeable. What a wonderful idea, that such simple geometry can provide so many opportunities for self-evaluation. But the danger in a triangle is its inertia. Where can it possibly go?
In Yo-Yo Ma's mind, it can spiral up a vector, towards progress, towards empathy. Our ultimate goal is to become better citizens of the world.

Sebastian Ruth, who, like Yo-Yo, has preserved his identity as a performing artist within his educational project, sees himself as part of a vast spiderweb. His institutional links and musical relationships are reciprocal and interwoven. There is something so beautiful about the spiderweb and its potential for growth. In a web, the vectors are multiple, making the possibility of progress greater than in a single spiral. Our El Sistema may look something like an intricate spiderweb, with reciprocal relationships stretching across the nation, whose strength will inspire the world to act with more empathy.

Thank you for reading.

"Los Puntitos del Amor" Paper Orchestra
Mosoq Runa, Urubamba, Peru, November 2008

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