Takeaways from El Sistema Academy 2020: The Importance of Reflexivity, Fun, and the Dominant Seventh Chord

By Patricia Abdelnour, former Deputy Director of Internal Relations for El Sistema Venezuela

Sascha Goetzel, Franka Verhaven and Ron Davis Alvarez at the El Sistema Sweden Academy.

Every year, El Sistema Sweden organizes a three-day symposium, inviting great teachers from Sweden and elsewhere to share their experience and knowledge with an attendee group of music educators who work for social change. I had the joy of attending this year, and I’m still feeling excited about all the things I learned.

Our hosts, Eric Sjöström and Ron Alvarez (respectively, the Executive Director and Artistic Director of El Sistema Sweden), were present throughout the weekend, making introductions and mediating sessions. Ron led several workshops that were as entertaining as they were profound. Stressing the importance of always leaving kids wanting more, he told us, “We always have to end the lesson with a dominant seven chord,” to spark their curiosity. This idea came back again and again in many of the lectures.

Professors Franka Verhagen from Venezuela and Eva Sæther from Sweden offered interesting perspectives, with Franka describing Music Didactics as carried out in Venezuela and Eva discussing the role of the Sistema teacher as a game-changer in society.

I was especially touched by the accomplishments of projects that work directly with groups of refugees in Greece, Sweden, and Berlin. In Berlin, for example, refugees are regularly taken to concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic—and growing more excited about music with each visit to this magical place. El Sistema Greece has formed an orchestra of Sistema children, combining refugees with students from regular music schools in Athens; they play together each week, creating a powerful landscape of diversity and integration.

Several teachers from the Swedish city of Malmö talked about and demonstrated the beautiful work they are doing with children who live in very challenging circumstances. Michal Stasiak and Katarina Stener-Wejfalk teach eurythmics and brass, and they emphasize fun, flow, multi-activities, a highly varied repertoire, and the efficient use of every classroom minute. Lucia Goenaga and Sara Tufvesson have developed a 60-minute breath-and-movement series of musical exercises that help kids center their attention. Afterwards, they clap, sing, march, and dance, doing body percussion while listening to African beats and a violin to recharge their brains—a powerful way of disconnecting from stress, centering, and learning while having crazy fun!

Teaching artist and author Eric Booth opened with a request that we try to fill in the blank in the following statement: “By far the most important determiner of success in arts education is __________.” His answer: THE MOTIVATION OF THE LEARNER. Eric explained the three factors that can trigger this intrinsic motivation: fostering student autonomy, nurturing the student’s sense of growing mastery, and cultivating a felt sense of the large purposes of making music.

Eric also did a wonderful workshop on the tools of the teaching artist, which include:

  • Breaking down long, difficult challenges in order to achieve small, fast successes—called scaffolding
  • Using warm-ups that activate the artistry of others (How many times have we all been through boring warm-ups?)
  • Ruthless use of fun and pleasure
  • Fast internal rhythm (keep the session going!)

Finally, Gerald Wirth, the artistic director of the Vienna Boys Choir, offered several workshops on choir conducting. He generously and joyfully shared many details about his teaching technique, and he stressed the importance of “reflexibility”—making students aware of the reasons behind every activity, so that everyone can focus with a sense of purpose.

Gerald stressed that his single most crucial message to us was “the importance of good sound quality, right from the beginning.” Neuroscience research, he said, has shown that sounds get imprinted in the brain with just one single repetition, so it is imperative to make sure those first imprinted sounds are of good quality.

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