Monday, September 24, 2012

Giulia's Penultimate Week - Reflections

Our guest blogger and volunteer from Italy, Giulia Molteni, reflects on her penultimate week with the YOURS Project:

Another week full of activities has just finished at Hibbard Elementary School.  Actually, though fun, it was really arduous and, as everything is at the beginning, full of decisions to make and problems to solve.
First, not knowing when classes were going to be, due to the Chicago Teachers Union strike, it was kind of hard to group teachers, interns, and volunteers. But all of us tried to do our best and were prepared for every kind of activity/warm-up/rehearsal together with the students from our 3 orchestras. .

This week, not only did I continue to observe and help as a volunteer as part of the YOURS Project faculty but I also had very different teaching experiences than I've had before: I taught basic musical fundamentals to both viola players and our intermediate orchestra students; I taught piano lessons to violin players who were really excited about learning something new, and I also stood in for the percussion teacher.
Experiencing teaching in such different situations in only a week was challenging and gave me the opportunity to reflect seriously about what it really means to be involved in an educational program with a specific social commitment, as an El Sistema-inspired program must be.
In the past few days, I've thought a lot about my experiences, and I feel it important to share them with you all, my friends, and especially fellow music teachers.

Even though I don't have any previous experience as a percussion teacher, when I was asked to help the young students I accepted very willingly. Since the piano is a percussion instrument, I usually work a lot on aspects of rhythm, so I suggested that the students perform different exercises together: sequences of basic rhythms, overlapping rhythms and counterpoint to clap, to dance and to play on the instrument. I also taught them a song and made a simple extemporaneous arrangement to encourage them to play together. Finally, I asked them to keep the beat and invent rhythms while I was playing some rag time and brazilian pieces on the piano. In short, I worked on how to play with the others, pay attention to the different nuances of sound an orchestra can create, and how to maintain a solid rhythmical basis throughout a piece. 
Actually, it was really hard to deal with them and hold their attention. A few of them spent part of the lesson talking over my voice, without listening and collaborating together. I know that they are kids, but as a teacher, I feel responsible for educating the students and letting them know how music can really change their life. But all of this requires commitment, responsibility on both sides, and especially enthusiasm and passion, because no one is forced to attend a musical program.

Teaching music is one of the most challenging jobs. Everyday you have to work first on yourself and continue to improve not only the specific and technical aspects of your musicality, but also the social and relationship skills involved. Mostly, you always keep in mind that, when you teach, the relationship established consists of three elements: the teacher, the student, and MUSIC (that includes the philosophy and the goals of the project you are involved in).
So, being interested in delving deeper into the methodology and philosophy of El Sistema, yesterday I visited the website ( and very carefully read each section. I admit that I've never done it seriously so far. Of course, no reading can replace an experience, but, if you want to translate a project conceived in one culture to another, you must be aware of the fundamentals of that project.

Below, I summarize what I feel are the most important aspects of El Sistema that everybody should know and care about:

El Sistema is an organization committed to social development through an innovative and hope-instilling music education program, distinguished by its EXCELLENCE and for having a POSITIVE IMPACT on the communities where it is implemented. Its orchestras and choruses program help the youngest in achieving their FULL POTENTIAL and fulfill THEIR DREAMS of personal and professional realization through music. "Music is not only the product of the talent and virtuosity of its creators. It is the reflection of the soul of the people and, in this case, is the outgrowth of an education program." So these young musicians must be an example of SELF-IMPROVEMENT and VITALITY to their fellows. The guiding maxim "TO PLAY and TO FIGHT" implies FIRMNESS of purpose and PERSEVERANCE. To play and to fight means undertaking music as a collective experience which also involves INDIVIDUAL EFFORT! It entails a relentless pursuit of excellence and, above all, it means persevering until dreams become reality."
And about the El Sistema methodology, the site said that "Kids of preschool age begin with work on BODY EXPRESSIVENESS and RHYTHM. Encouraging the children to keep their bodies active while playing is a key feature of the program in later years. Early instruction includes SINGING and playing with a student's instrument... El Sistema's primary focus is to create a daily haven of safety, joy and fun that builds every child's self-esteem and sense of value. Discipline is relaxed but enforced. ATTENDANCE IS NOT AN ISSUE; the children want to be at their local Nucleo for themselves, their teachers and their fellow students. HARD WORK AND FULL ACHIEVEMENT ARE CRUCIAL TO THE SUCCESS OF EL SISTEMA. However a feeling of fun is never forgotten."

What I reported speaks for itself. I only want to add that everyday we must build with effort and love the projects we believe in, living peacefully within our limits, but never giving up. Day after day we walk with our student along a path that will lead to the most beautiful destinations.

-Giulia Molteni 

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