The Sistema Wisdom from Texas Marching Bands
Jennifer Hay, Executive Director, B Sharp Youth Music, Fort Worth, TX
Deep in the heart of Texas, football and band are king. The size of our high school stadiums alone could make most colleges across the nation a little jealous. Two-a-days (and sometimes three-a-days) apply to the football team and the marching band alike.
This is my 4th year with B Sharp Youth Music. I had never heard of El Sistema before accepting this opportunity, but I quickly realized I had many of the tools I needed. I had become an expert in “kids, music, and leadership” through my time teaching band in Texas, and I’ve been able to use this expertise to push B Sharp Youth Music to the next level. Further, I’ve found that many of the skills kids learn in marching band are those most valued in Sistema programs.
For example, marching on the field at halftime (the real reason most spectators come to a football game) is an exercise in focus, multi-tasking, and control. Individual execution must be at the highest level; time management and preparation, therefore, are essential. Creating music requires commitment and discipline. And it takes endurance. In Texas, there is a rule that students cannot be outside once the heat index reaches 105. (Yes, 105!)
These are capacities that are equally prized in Sistema environments. At B Sharp, we teach perseverance in a class called Feelings from A to Z. Our students learn about their emotions and the best way to handle them. Each emotion is identified through a character and story that help our musicians learn that self-control on the inside is just as important as on the outside. Once a student can identify and control her emotions, she is ready for the endurance training that takes place daily in our ensembles and classrooms.
Here’s another example. In marching band, everyone belongs, and everyone participates. There are no “bench warmers”. The expectations are the same for all. To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late (and my own band director always added…to be late is to be very, very sorry.) Students put their trust in those around them to create excellence as a team.
At B Sharp, we pursue these same ideals. We teach a life skills class called Social Skills that arms our students with the skills necessary to contribute at the highest level, such as Following Instructions, Accepting Criticism or Consequence, Staying on Task, and Getting the Teacher’s Attention. These skills allow our musicians to control their own behavior and decisions. This, in turn, creates a more cooperative environment that builds camaraderie in our program.
For a marching band the size of a small high school, assistance from students and parents is key. From drum majors to section leaders, music librarians to uniform crew, booster club leadership to pit crew – “it takes a village” certainly applies. The idea that you need a title to define your contribution doesn’t exist. In band, everyone is a leader through her actions and decisions. Everyone has a responsibility to the team and is necessary to the success of the group. That feeling of ownership is created because EVERYONE is needed to keep the team going. Each individual job well done determines the success of the entire band.
These ideals and values are essential to Sistema programs as well. At B Sharp, we have realized that having a strong foundation through our social/emotional classes is necessary before taking the leap to learning how to become a strong leader. For our students who are ready for the challenge, we added a Leadership class. These students are learning successful habits, what it means to sacrifice, and how to have respect not only for each other but also for B Sharp Youth Music as an organization. We have created opportunities for our students to practice growing from adversity, staying flexible, and being humble “winners” and graceful “losers”. Additionally, through our parent engagement group, B Sharp Men ‘N Position & #sharpmoms, we are fostering conversations about how we can work together to help our students be more successful in school and at home. We are creating an environment where pride in our program and loyalty to the team are the new normal.
Sistema teachers and leaders sometimes think of our work as vastly different from school-based music education. But it’s important to remember that to find resonances between school practices and El Sistema, we need look no further than the marching band.