Category Archives: Teaching


Papa Jo Jones drum solo:

I was shown this clip of Papa Jo Jones today in my lesson with Pedro de Alcantara. This is footage of a musician totally relaxed with himself, joyously at one with the music.

Pedro de Alcantara is a multi-talented cellist, composer, author, Alexander technique specialist. See his website for more details:

It must be at least 15 years since I had a cello ‘lesson’ as such, so it was interesting to experience again the pressure of potential criticism at close quarters.

What I have taken away from this lesson is a challenge to free my head and neck from the ‘tyranny’ of watching my fingers as I play. The youtube clip shows Jo Jones with an open and free posture and he never bends to look at the mechanics of what he is doing. He is relaxed and having fun with his music.

Something fascinating to me is that the actual sound changes with excess tension in the neck. The string doesn’t respond as well, producing a thin, nasal tone. In the course of the lesson, when some tension had dissipated and my head felt free, I finally found this fuller, warmer sound that I want.

Thank you Pedro for a wonderful lesson and for your patience with my nervousness.

Thoughts on El Sistema and Changing Lives

donateamusicinstrumentFollowing on from my short review of Tricia Tunstall’s Changing Lives, here are some further reflections on El Sistema and its application to music teaching in the UK. I’ve also been inspired to browse the website of Sistema England, and read of the programmes that have been launched around the country (currently running in London, Norwich, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, Newcastle, and Telford).

The possibility of using music to benefit young people and society in such an obvious way is compelling for me. To reach minority groups and underprivileged children is a dream for many UK music teachers as the take-up of classical music is usually limited to middle-class children.

Moreover, the emphasis on building social skills through ensemble playing in the El Sistema model is revolutionary. I notice that children feel a pride in their contribution to the group and engage with the music at a deeper level when playing in ensembles. But to use the orchestra structure as a tool to teach important life skills, instead of waiting until the children have already developed social maturity, is new to me. I have recently tried this with my own kids (age 6 and 9), and we struggled to agree on the same piece to play, let alone play in time. But if we keep practising, what benefits might there be for us as a family in terms of relating together?

Musical skills are obviously deepened through ensemble playing. Keeping time and playing sensitively with others demands a complex awareness of what is going on and technical control. This is a great strength of the El Sistema approach, and an inspiration to me in my own instrumental teaching. Too often in one-to-one lessons, ensemble skills are low in priority, icing on the cake for advanced students rather than integral to musical endeavour. As a teacher, I need to work harder to find ensemble opportunities for my students.

Yet another point about El Sistema that challenges me is the solution to the issue of practice. Many of my pupils struggle with their individual practice.  In the El Sistema model, students do their initial training in supervised groups, 5–6 days each week. There is no private practice at home until pupils are fairly advanced. This must be of benefit to pupils whose parents don’t have a background in classical music or for other reasons can’t supervise practice at home.  Also I can imagine that when discouragement set in over a difficult musical passage, the group dynamics might well pull a young child through to success, rather than giving up.

Not the least inspiring feature of El Sistema is the enthusiasm for classical music that is flourishing in the poorest communities in Venezuela. By all accounts there is incredible passion for music amongst the students. Could classical music be re-energized in the UK through El Sistema programmes? Pop culture seems to be ubiquitous and pop music the background noise to almost all aspects of life. As a classically-trained musician, I would love to see more people actively listening and expressing themselves through music, and I’m sorry for the prejudice that people often have of classical music as stuffy and irrelevant.

So – what about an El Sistema programme for Oxford? Is that a dream too far?

Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music

Changing LivesThis is a thought-provoking and inspiring book about the power of music to enact social change and impact children’s lives.

In Changing Lives Tricia Tunstall chronicles the El Sistema organization in Venezuela, which enables children from the poorest communities to join after-school youth orchestras and choirs, giving them lessons and instruments free of charge. There are currently more than 300,000 children taking part in El Sistema orchestras in Venezuela and the movement is spreading around the world.

Founded by José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema philosophy is that music is a powerful agent of social development ‘in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings.’ (Abreu, quoted p.273) Although artistic goals are in one sense secondary to the social goals of El Sistema, the children and the orchestras do achieve the highest standards (as evidenced by the flagship Simón Bolívar Orchestras and conducting superstar Gustavo Dudamel).

Changing Lives documents the beginnings of the El Sistema movement in 1975 and its rapid expansion under Abreu’s leadership. Several chapters relate Tunstall’s visits to ‘nucleos’ (regional centres) of the orchestral programmes, encountering children and families who have been profoundly affected by the musical education offered them. The final chapter explores the recent development of El Sistema programmes in the United States.

The El Sistema approach differs from traditional pathways of musical education in several ways. The orchestras and choirs are fundamental to the programme; in essence the first focus of each ‘nucleo’ is developing functioning orchestras rather than on teaching individual players. Thus teamwork and cooperation are skills emphasized from the beginnings of music learning. Abreu has said ‘[orchestras] are examples and schools of social life. From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he is no longer poor. He becomes a child in progress, who will become a citizen.’ (p.xii) The El Sistema orchestras rehearse together on most days for several hours. Absolutely everything is provided free of charge (including meals) and social support is available to vulnerable children. Young people who would be otherwise on the streets at risk of gang membership, drugs and violence are brought into the programme. Estimates are that 70–90% of El Sistema children come from a background of poverty (p.36) and these children show good improvement in their academic achievement and long-term outlook.

Changing Lives is a great introduction to the El Sistema movement and a must-read for anyone interested in the future of music education. The El Sistema approach offers fresh ideas about classical music and society, and warrants more in-depth study on the long-term benefits to children. How exciting it would be to see investment in music around the UK for all levels of society. I would love to see the organization Sistema England flourishing and expanding in years to come.



ESTA Conference 2013: Simon Fischer: Basics

I attended Simon Fischer’s presentation on ‘Basics’. This was an entertaining and informal session filled with anecdotes and humour. According to Fischer, some super soloists are complete naturals, and almost don’t need a teacher. For the rest of us, given intelligent practice, we will achieve a certain (lesser) competency. The basic elements of beautiful string playing are: pitch, sound, rhythm, and ease. Simplicity in the communication of these concepts is the key to good teaching.

Simon Fischer photo