Dudamel and Little Dudes

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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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One Response to “Dudamel and Little Dudes”

  1. Dale Kirby says:

    Good article. I think you tie the two incidents together really well. It reminds me of Chapter Four where you compare Japanese schools wanting their students to “suffer” and American teaching being like waiting on the children. I guess there might be a difference in purpose between El Sistema (love that name with its bow to “systematic”) and your daughter’s class. The benefits of her class might be that it is a low pressure way to become acquainted with making music as a cooperative endeavor. Perhaps its non-competitive nature is good for music appreciation? Or maybe the school just needs a Jaime Escalante. :-)

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