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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This fall, 70 children are learning music after school through singing and playing recorders and violins, violas, and cellos. A wind instrument instructor has been hired, with the hope of starting a full orchestra in the spring.Skip to next paragraph
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The city of Salinas has seen some rough times. "The gang violence is not going away. There was another shooting yesterday of a teenager," Ms. Watrous says. The youth orchestra program keeps kids off the streets after school and provides a safe alternative.
"The No. 1 rule is having fun," she says. "You're building musical instruction in a kind of sneaky way."
She tells of one 9-year-old boy who bragged when he first arrived, "I get in trouble all the time." He was sent to the principal's office on a daily basis for getting into fights and other mischief.
After two months in the El Sistema-style program, Watrous says, "he really transformed before our eyes from bragging about getting into trouble to his principal actually coming up to one of my teaching artists and saying, 'You know, this child is significantly different from the child we knew from the last three years of being at this school. He has changed, and it's because of this program.' "
Today, the boy volunteers to help out at his school. "And in our program he's our No. 1 helper and supporter and really proud of himself," Watrous says. "It's really marvelous."
Such anecdotal evidence is heartening. But financial backers often want more proof of concrete results. El Sistema USA would like to conduct research projects to try to identify and quantify the specific gains children are making in the programs. It would also like to send more consultants into the field to help build up El Sistema programs and upgrade its website to make it a more useful resource.
All that will cost about $400,000 more than NEC says it can afford to underwrite, says NEC spokeswoman Ellen Pfeifer. For that reason, El Sistema USA eventually may decide to look for a new home at another US institution.
El Sistema USA's other chief role (it doesn't franchise or accredit El Sistema programs around the country, Churchill points out) is to select and train 50 "Abreu fellows" over a five-year period. These young teacher-musicians, mainly in their 20s, travel to Venezuela for study and then fan out across the United States to start programs.
The second class of 10 Abreu fellows will head to Venezuela this winter. There, El Sistema is a source of national pride and receives substantial government funding. In the US, it is still not widely known, and government funds are likely to be difficult to obtain.
The US system "closes some doors, but it opens others," says David Gracia, a new Abreu fellow who grew up in Spain. There, he says, the government provides many social programs. But he also saw little private philanthropy.
Here, volunteers and community groups take the lead, meaning "there are more places that you can get the money," he says.
Whether El Sistema principles will work in the US is "a very, very serious question," Zander says. "Am I optimistic? Absolutely I'm optimistic. Am I certain that it will work? No, I can't say I'm certain it will work. I don't think anybody knows."
Classical music actually has a long tradition of involving the poor, he says. "The musicians in [18th-century Italian composer Antonio] Vivaldi's orchestras were all orphans, because that's what orphans did."
For Watrous in Salinas, funding will last only until the spring. More will have to be raised if the El Sistema-inspired program is to continue.
"I'm excited to be a part of what's happening here and seeing it grow," she says. "I just know it's going to work. You have to have that mind-set."
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