Sunday, March 11, 2012

Seeing El Sistema: Motivation and Staying Awake

Pedro Vasquez, the tuba teacher at the Conservatory/Nucleo in Barquisimeto, and his lovely family, took some of us out to a beautiful spot on a hill overlooking Barquisimeto tonight. It's a hotel of sorts (more like cute little cabanas) with a courtyard with live music and a restaurant. The owner-- a plastic surgeon -- has a wonderful old car collection, and many of the cars were parked around the place. (One of the other Fellows may post an incriminating video that involves several of us dancing on the outdoor stage at the request of the MC.)

We chatted at length that evening (in Spanish! Success!), and - unprompted - he offered this to me:

"The two most important elements of El Sistema are... Not being tired, and motivation."

According to Pedro, he and his colleagues work 7 days a week, Monday-Sunday, tirelessly. And even if they feel tired, they never let the kids see that. "They see us committing to them 100% and they see us invested in working with them to constantly grow on their instruments and in their lives."

He went on to explain that embedding motivation at every level is an essential part of El Sistema. The child in the beginner's string ensemble feels motivated when, after a week of working on scales, he can play something he's never played before in a short period of time. As he becomes more advanced, he finds motivation through performing a full piece with the orchestra that they have worked hard on. Maybe he has a chance to play with older students in a side-by-side with a more advanced orchestra.

The older students who teach the younger students earn money for their work-- another motivating incentive. And more seasoned teachers in the Sistema find motivation through their multi-faceted careers: as teachers, playing with their chamber music groups in international festivals, performing in their orchestras, working with world-renowned musicians who come to perform and teach in Venezuela. One story in particular surprised me: the horn players in the professional orchestra in the state of Lara were given brand new horns (any model and make they chose) as a gift from the Interamerican Bank, one of the main supporters of Sistema.

But getting back to the “getting tired” idea. I didn't quite have the Spanish skills to convey “do you ever experience burn-out?” but my sense was that the leaders I spoke with (teachers, administrators, administrator/teachers) find great joy and energy from having multi-faceted careers and some of the rewards that come with them. Some have even gone back to school to get advanced degrees in pedagogy or business, enjoying the experience of being a student again.

The lesson on that hill with Pedro: stay awake, and constantly seek motivation whenever and wherever you can.

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