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Youth Music Program Fosters Community Harmony

Published in San Diego Union-Tribune.


Eduardo Garcia Barrios, general and artistic director of the Orquesta de Baja California, believes in miracles. At least he believes in El Sistema, the music education program also known as the “Venezuelan miracle.”


The Russian-trained conductor saw the program’s transformative potential when an 18-year-old student was inspired by an El Sistema-based workshop to find a new purpose in life and enlisted Garcia Barrios’ support.


“He said, ‘Maestro Garcia, I want to make a deal with you, a gentlemen’s deal, a pacto de caballeros,’ ” recalled Garcia Barrios. “‘I’m going to be a great musician. I want to promise you that. I want you to be with me, because this has changed my life. My destiny was to be a drug dealer and now I know I can be a musician; I can be a human being.’”


With its ensemble focus, emphasis on student ownership (the students teach each other), and mission to extend the musical experience into the family and the broader community, El Sistema has demonstrated a potential to not only foster skilled musicians, but to strengthen communities, enhance academic achievement and ease social challenges.


The appointment of El Sistema’s most famous graduate, Gustavo Dudamel, to the podium of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2007 at the age of 26 gave the Venezuelan program international attention. And since then, musicians and educators have been intent on duplicating its success.


“I thought it had to be hype,” said Eric Booth, an author and consultant who has developed arts and education programs for institutions that include Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School of Music. He decided to see for himself and visited Venezuela, where the state-funded program serves 250,000 children and supports more than 200 youth orchestras.


“I’ve come back with the zealotry of a new believer,” said Booth, now a senior adviser to El Sistema, U.S.A. “It is the single most extraordinary thing I’ve ever encountered in my career.”


There’s no need to go to Venezuela, or even Tijuana, to witness El Sistema.


On a recent afternoon at Lauderbach Elementary School in Chula Vista, students involved in the San Diego Youth Symphony’s El Sistema-based Opus program were rehearsing “Pictures at an Exhibition.”


“Most of these kids, you would never see them even talk to each other in school — now they are together all the time,” said Mack Zepeda, whose daughter, Vanessa, plays double bass in one of the Opus-sponsored string ensembles. “They sit together, they share lunch together. And us as parents, we’re getting together for barbecues, outings, birthdays.


“This program is really changing our lives.”


The El Sistema concept — which has been embraced by dozens of orchestras and educational institutions from Los Angeles to Boston — is based on a relatively simple proposition: creating music is a metaphor for creating community, a community that extends far beyond the ensemble.


“If a healthy community can be represented in the making of music, then the gathering of community to support that making of music becomes as fundamental to the music as the music itself,” said Dalouge Smith, president and CEO of the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory.


“El Sistema is not just about the students that are playing music; it’s also about the people who are supporting those students, whether it be their family or their school, or their community members. It’s about the place where they are making music, because community is about a place. And for us, it’s about creating pathways and creating accessibility to that whole experience.”


While the private lesson has been the central archetype of music instruction in the U.S., the ensemble is the focus of El Sistema. It emphasizes collaboration rather than competition; interaction rather than individual achievement. Each rehearsal is essentially a group lesson, and the students are often doing the teaching.


“You make every child a leader and a teacher,” said Lauren Widney, the Youth Symphony’s education and community programs manager. “Say there’s a mistake one student makes in a piece; another student will look over and say, ‘Oh, you forgot to put your first finger down.’ ”


Like most programs outside of Venezuela, the Tijuana and San Diego efforts are just getting started and depend on private funding. The Tijuana-based orchestra started Redes less than a year ago and already has 500 students in 13 instrumental and vocal ensembles (in addition to three youth orchestras). The San Diego Youth Symphony’s Opus, now in its second year, has expanded from two schools to six schools and several hundred students in Chula Vista.


Like the Baja orchestra, the Youth Symphony can cite anecdotal evidence regarding its early success. Still, it is looking for hard evidence and has formed a partnership with UCSD’s Center for Human Development and the Neurosciences Institute that could provide more definitive, empirical data regarding the program’s influence. At the same time, the Chula Vista Elementary School District is keeping its own records.


“We tracked the student achievement data and attendance data on the first set of students at Otay and Lauderbach (elementary schools) and saw marked improvements,” said assistant superintendent John Nelson.


In deciding to expand the program, Nelson and the school board also looked favorably at the high level of parental involvement in Opus. “In the two pilot schools, the parents took ownership,” he said, from organizing transportation for the students to attend 12 hours of rehearsal per week to attending school board meetings to support the program.


With continued monitoring of the students’ progress, combined with the scientific evidence the formal study could produce, the Youth Symphony is looking to achieve the holy grail of music eduction: proof that music is not only effective, but indispensable in improving student achievement.


Smith is confident that definitive data would prompt schools to reintegrate music back into the school day, using the El Sistema format, with the Youth Symphony essentially providing larger ensembles for students who want an experience beyond the smaller ensembles at their own schools.


“In San Diego, they are significantly out in the lead for building strong relationships with schools and working toward integrating the after school with the in school,” Booth said. “It has the potential of being an important national model.”


In Mexico, the Orquesta de Baja California is not so concerned about music in the schools; it faces more elemental issues in its quest to give children an opportunity play music.


One of orchestra’s Redes ensembles rehearses at a community center in Tijuana’s Granjas Familiares, infamous for being among the poorest neighborhoods in a region of poor neighborhoods. The orchestra has reopened a once-abandoned community center so the children would have a place to play music and participate in the program.


“I feel very proud to do this,” said 11-year-old percussionist Luis Angel, taking a break from learning “The William Tell Overture.” He needed a translator, but his enthusiasm and beaming face spoke volumes. “I like having a place where I can feel relaxed.”

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