Dudamel and Little Dudes

Fact #1: my fourth-grade daughter just started playing in her elementary-school band.

Fact #2: last night, 28-year-old  Gustavo Dudamel — a.k.a. The Dude, a.k.a. classical music’s newest rock star — conducted his first piece with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night.

These two events seem unrelated — and tell the truth, they probably are. But let’s give this a shot anyway.

The Dude is a product of El Sistema, Venezuela’s incredibly successful national music program. It works like this: the Venezuelan government helps enroll kids into after-school music programs, and creates a competitive ladder: 100 or so orchestras taught by top-flight teachers. There’s lots of individual instruction.  The best high-school players get to travel the world as the Simon Bolivar Orchestra (seen above).

In short, El Sistema treats music exactly like a sport — complete with heroes, leagues, identities, emotion. You can see it in the way they play.

My daughter, on the other hand, is in an American school-music program. In their school the band is a class, three times a week. There’s a bit of individual instruction, but not much. The horizon of possibility consists mostly of the end-of-term teacher report.

In short, the American school system serves up music exactly like food: it’s nutritional, virtuous, and temporary: the educational equivalent of granola.

It’s clear that El Sistema works; the real question is, how can we make learning music less like eating granola and more like playing a sport?  How about:

  • Master teachers: hire and, more important, copy successful music teachers like Roberta Tzavaras and Gregg Breinberg, who know how to ignite motivation.
  • Interlinked programs. Lots of interaction between the elementary, middle-school, high-school, and college bands. Let the younger kids see who they might become.
  • Elite travel bands. If it’s good enough for baseball, soccer, and basketball, why not orchestra?
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