Like Your Life Depends on It

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Like Your Life Depends on It


It’s a fact: how much a student cares about a piece she is learning makes a gigantic difference to her learning experience.  It makes a gigantic difference to how she feels about her ensemble and what they are trying to do together; it makes the crucial difference to the way she feels about herself as a musician.  In the first hour I observed El Sistema in Venezuela, the thought shot through my head: “These kids are playing like their lives depend on this music.  Because they do.”  Sistema programs outside Latin America don’t have the same cultural context or program history that readily delivers such a fierce level of commitment, but they must aspire toward such commitment even if it is challenging—the musicians’ passion is the beating heart of Sistema.  It takes that kind of motivation to achieve the social goals of El Sistema.

The crucial question becomes: “How do programs with less conducive cultural contexts nurture that kind of passion in their young players?”  Of the many things Sistema programs focus on, this question has been far too secondary among their priorities.  Frankly, many students are bored by the music they are playing; I see it everywhere I go outside Latin America.  And most are compliant about their music—willing to do what is asked of them, and, we hope, often enjoying it.  But compliance is the opposite of intrinsic motivation; so is boredom.  When music becomes required material students must learn, Sistema becomes school.  The only way we can achieve our social goals is if we can tap the innate passion in our young musicians and help it find its flow through musical self-expression.  This mindset will not work:  “Our programs play music, and then we must also nurture ways to activate student voice, to help their social development.”  The music must BE the student voice.

Let me offer two suggestions for processes that help us select music that matters for students.  First, make exploratory discussion of repertoire an ongoing practice with students.  Don’t make assumptions about their aesthetic passions and tastes; listen to them, and investigate together.  Don’t assume they will have immediately valuable ideas; don’t expect instant guidance from them—these are complex questions with multiple aspects and real stakes, and they haven’t been invited to think about these questions before.  Design a process, not a single conversation, for considering repertoire.  Bring families into the discussions, too; the music has to matter to the community.  Help these partners, young and older, discover what they find aesthetically rich, extending beyond (but not excluding) what they consume in the commercial musical diet.  As I have often said, “Sistema is not a program or a pedagogy, it is an inquiry.”

Second, invest in “teaching artist” activities with the repertoire you choose.  Teaching artists with a background in aesthetic education know how to explore pieces of music with participants young and older in ways that help them discover meaningful personal connections to the music.  Take some time to investigate key pieces of repertoire in these ways, so that your young artists pour themselves into the piece and find their beautiful, powerful voices in their playing.  Finding personal ownership of a piece of music doesn’t happen by magic—clearly it doesn’t; I see bored young players everywhere I go.  But it can happen if we prioritize it, and inquire into authentic connections.  And we have to do this, if we are going to achieve our highest goals.

Author: Eric Booth, Publisher, The World Ensemble