I was teaching a bubbly little girl named Carla, who was keen to polish a piece for a performance at the Santa Cruz núcleo. We sat outside under the brick-brown awning of the building due to lack of space inside, which in Venezuela never deters enthusiastic teachers and children from continuing on with the music, and within one minute, we hit a stubbornly rough spot.
She was having a difficult time differentiating between a quarter note and an eighth note, and although we worked on the phrase for thirty minutes, we were still hitting a wall in understanding. I realized that I was making her practice the same thing over and over, and a quote popped into my mind: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a difference.” Good old Einstein.
In a moment of desperation, as teachers often experience when they’ve run out of tools in their toolkit, I called out to Darwin, a 14-year-old trumpet player. As the most experienced player in the wind section at four years on the trumpet, he had been tremendously helpful in a wind sectional a couple of hours prior to my lesson with Carla. I was hoping Darwin could offer Carla a level of scaffolding I was failing to provide.
As soon as Darwin entered our lesson, however, he offered more than just that; he actually gave the most inspiring lesson I have ever seen. Experience in peer mentoring dripped from his mannerisms as he began to guide Carla through the phrase, and I eventually gave him my seat and sat back to observe. He taught calmly, patiently, breaking down the rhythm with her, helping her put it together, and applying it to a new scenario. He also brought up issues such as airstream and breathing that I had personally forgotten about because I had been fixated on the rhythm. I couldn’t believe he was fourteen years old, and I was humbled as I watched him teach with more expertise and grace than I had. He never showed a bout of anger or frustration, as if he had internalized that failure was a part of learning, and he celebrated each incremental improvements with enthusiastic “Eso!” Teaching was the most natural thing for him.
El Sistema has succeeded in infusing an enthusiasm and a knack for teaching in the fabric of the musician. Children who know two notes are encouraged and asked to teach children who know one note. Teenagers who have three years of experience on their instrument are asked to lead large-group sectionals. Many times, children spontaneously sit down with others and begin teaching. There is no judgment or an “Aha! I’ve got you” competition. It is simply about learning. How empowering it must be for a child to always have opportunities to be both teacher and student. This is the foundation for omnidirectional mentoring at its best.
Sistema Fellow '14