Sunday, March 7, 2010

What about Percussion, Woodwinds and Brass?

A reader asked in an earlier blog, "At what point do students start learning wind and percussion instruments?" This has been a big question on the minds of the fellows as well. Back in Boston, we'd hear from varying sources that kids might start on brass and woodwinds as early as age six, but what about the challenges of developing lungs and missing front teeth?

During our visits to the nucleos of Montalban and La Rinconada, I asked about this topic and was given answers specific to these two sites. One thing we are learning from our time here in Caracas is that nothing is written in stone and each nucleo is unique, so I preface by saying that this information is specific to Montalban and La Rinconada at this particular moment in time. El Sistema is flexible and continually responds to its students through a collaborative teaching process (see previous posting on this subject). Dantes and Jonathan also posted responses to Dr. Abreu's statement of "El Sistema as no system" in their blogs and both are worthwhile reading.

Recorder and Choir: Laying the Foundation

Percussion is a part of the early childhood classes from the beginning where they learn rhythmic and melodic notation and solfege in a fixed do system. Students also learn to play the recorder as early as five years old to help with intonation and pitch discrimination. The recorder serves as a precursor to the wind instruments. Generally, students don't begin playing a brass or woodwind instrument until they have their permanent front teeth - so it depends on the child.

Oftentimes, it's the recorder that helps students learn to sing in tune. Half the students will sing, while the other half accompanies them on the recorder or everyone plays the first verse and sings the second. It's in these early childhood classes where the musical foundation is laid and discipline, focus and attention are developed to prepare for the demands of the orchestra rehearsal. Students who enter the nucleo at an older age need to sing in choir for one or two years before starting an instrument.

Children Changing Instruments:

Many of the fellows wondered what the process was regarding a child's wish to switch instruments. Rodrigo Guerrero explained that El Sistema allows children to change instruments, but the decision is taken seriously. Here are the steps:
  1. Teacher talks with the student to find out if his or her decision is based on a physical or attitudinal change and is more than just a casual thought.
  2. Student and instructor discuss the reasons with the nucleo director.
  3. If an instrument is available, the child has a trial period with the new instrument.
  4. Ultimately, the goal is student engagement.
    And engagement is what we are seeing at all levels throughout the nucleo. As these young musicians advance in skill level, there is an ensemble ready to meet them. In my posting on Montalban, I documented the orchestras offered there. In this video, you'll see a progression from the early musicianship class and two levels of recorder, to a choir and an advanced wind ensemble. It's a short video, so I hope you'll watch the very last clip of a recorder solo from a 5 year-old at Montalban.


    video

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