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El Sistema taps the power of classical music to help US children flourish

A Venezuelan poverty program brings its musical discipline to underprivileged youths in the United States.

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The goal is not to turn out a new generation of classical musicians, though that is one result. And it's not to build a new audience for classical music, though some who are involved hope that will happen, too.

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El Sistema taps what its advocates say is the unique power of music.

"Music offers this exquisite balance of the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, the social, and the spiritual – five very important aspects of human existence," Churchill says.

Academic studies suggest that musical training can be especially effective in developing young minds. "In Venezuela, 75 percent of medical students are graduates of El Sistema," Churchill says.

This fall, the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Mass., a Boston neighborhood, added roughly 2-1/2 hours of El Sistema training to its school day. Children from prekindergarten to fifth grade from all over Boston are selected by lottery to attend the school. The 154 students are not chosen because of any special musical talent.

The children arrive at 8:15 a.m. and leave at 5:15 p.m. "It's a long day, but it goes quickly," says Diana Lam, the head of school. "With the little ones, there's a nap in there somewhere," she says with a laugh.

On a recent visit, first- and second-graders are seen in their classrooms with violins, violas, cellos, and basses in their tiny hands. A teacher claps two sticks together to keep the beat as the children practice fingering and bowing. In another room, under the patient guidance of teacher Levi Comstock ("eyes on me"), miniature violinists practice playing "Scotland's Burning." The tune is already recognizable, even though they have had their instruments for only a few weeks.

Several blocks away, third- through fifth-graders are rehearsing for a holiday performance at the Thomas A. Edison School. The Conservatory Lab, run out of leased classrooms in the back of a parochial school, has no auditorium of its own.

Several fifth-grade students seem pretty sold on the program.

"Music is pretty much my life to me, my career, and it livens up every day," says 11-year-old Joshua Lewis, who plays the viola. Today's popular music is "OK," he says, but he prefers classical music because it's "pretty much like the origin of where music came from. And I like the rhythm and how it comes out."

"I came here to get a better education," says preternaturally mature 12-year-old Asia Raspaldo. She and her parents hadn't realized the conservatory was a music-oriented school until she arrived. "They said, 'Here's your violin and your bow,' " she says. "It was quite a shocking moment. I didn't expect it."

But she's grown to love it. "This school is very talented," Asia says. "It's not only a school, it's a family."

Ms. Lam would like to triple the size of the student body and extend the school through eighth grade, meaning it could hand off its most promising students directly to arts or other high-achievement high schools. A decision on that is expected later this year.

Being able to stay longer, Asia says, "is my dream ... that's what everybody is hoping for. I don't want to leave."

In northern California, the Youth Orchestra Salinas sprang to life last summer, inspired by El Sistema. Its education director, Jenean Watrous, a music educator who had read about El Sistema, eagerly came on board in June after Joanne Taylor Johnson, a local music lover and philanthropist, decided to start a group.


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