Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Venezuela: Estado Lara

We spent our third week of our trip in the city of Barquisimeto, in the state of Lara. The núcleo, which has nine orchestras, is always full of activity. The second day I got to work with the talented cellists in the regional state orchestra on “The Planets” by Holst. Sectionals here usually last a couple hours with no break – no one wants to take a break. I also got to play in the orchestra during a few of their rehearsals. Liz, another member of my group, had fun playing in a seven-person bassoon section.

While in Lara, we traveled to 3 núcleos. Carora and Sarare were about an hour away, and Santa Rosa was only a few minutes away from the main núcleo in Barquisimeto.


Our first trip was to Sarare, which was outside Barquisimeto. Once we got to town, our taxi driver started leaning out the window and asking people on the street to point him in the direction of the music school, but no one knew where it was. Then we started asking, “Where is the orchestra?” and people began to point us in the right direction. As we got closer, we continued to ask people on the street, and they all knew where the orchestra was. This happened when we visited Carora as well. The orchestra is a source of pride for all the residents.

In this case, the orchestra was a group of about 20 young students under the age of 16 playing very basic repertoire, and rehearsing in an empty discotec. They gave us a short performance, and then we decided to hold an impromptu “seminario,” or workshop. We would work in small groups for 45 minutes and then get back together for a full orchestra rehearsal. We split off for sectionals: David with the brass, Liz with the winds, Graciela with violins and violas, and me with the cellos. The three cellos and I squeezed into one of the offices to rehearse. Two of the cellists were missing an “A” string, and had taught themselves to shift up to fourth position in order to play the piece they were working on. In the middle of the sectional the electricity went off and it was pitch black in the office. Luckily, the cellists had the piece memorized, so this wasn’t a problem. Things like missing strings and lack of light do not deter people here. No matter what you have to keep making music.


Carora is a beautiful colonial town with a huge núcleo of about 700 kids. The most striking thing we saw there was the choir program. They have four levels of choir: Baby Choir which is for ages 3-5, the Pre-infantil Choir for ages 6-9, the Infantil Choir for ages 9-15, and the Juvenil choir for age 15 and older. In the youngest choir there were some children with special needs. The Infantil Choir is often conducted by one of their members - a twelve year old. The oldest group was very advanced and they were singing a gorgeous piece by Palestrina. We were shocked to find out that the choir program was only two years old. All the groups (except the youngest) were singing in multiple part harmony with spotless intonation, and had a large repertoire. The oldest choir was currently working on Mahler 2. I’m sure this is due in large part to the wonderful choir director who has been working with them every day.

Santa Rosa

Just a few minutes away from the enormous núcleo in Barquisimeto is the neighborhood of Santa Rosa. The núcleo here is comprised of a couple buildings located right in the central plaza. The plaza is a bustling place, filled with kids playing music. There weren’t many rooms in the núcleo building, so students gathered together outside for lessons or group practice sessions. Everywhere you looked – in the plaza, on park benches, under awnings, in outdoor cafes – there were students with instruments. The núcleo is only seven months old, but the activities there demonstrated how much can be accomplished in a short amount of time. I think that one of the reasons they are able to move so quickly is their proximity to the main núcleo in Barquisimeto. Unlike many of the smaller and more remote núcleos, Santa Rosa has no problem getting consistent teachers. Many of the teachers are themselves students in Barquisimeto.

There are two orchestras at Santa Rosa. Each orchestra rehearses twice a week for two hours. Students have sectionals for two hours once a week, and each student has a private lesson for one hour once a week.

Back in Caracas I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, when an ad for coca-cola came on the TV. It said “There are more orchestras in Venezuela than in Germany and Austria together.” From ads on TV to residents of small towns, Venezuela is a country that is proud of its orchestras – and with good reason. Our last day in Venezuela we heard the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, one of the top children’s orchestra in the country, play Beethoven 9 together with a massive chorus. The combination of passion and extremely high-level playing made this concert both moving and unforgettable.

The importance of the orchestra in Venezuela extends from the Teresa Carreño all the way down to the small orchestra of beginners in Sarare. I was shocked again and again at some of the smaller núcleos, when I would give a cello lesson to a student who was working on a very basic piece and then see them later in the afternoon sitting in an orchestra and playing Beethoven’s third symphony. For me, the “magic” of El Sistema happens in the orchestra. The children who are more advanced raise the level of everyone when they sit together in the orchestra with beginners, and the beginners can play things they never could play on their own. When you work together you can achieve more than you can achieve alone.

Here are some observations about the orchestra from my time in Venezuela. These are meant as generalizations, not as absolute truths about El Sistema:

Students use lots of bow and start at the frog. This produces lots of sound!

Using the same bowings seems to be a high priority in most núcleos.

In rehearsals, students are asked to play stand-by-stand to make sure everyone can play a passage.

There is no impatience or frustration at others who may not be able to play a passage.

There is a mix of ages and levels in the ensemble in order to motivate less advanced students.

They rehearse A LOT.

Put instruments in children’s hands and let them play – don’t limit children and they will always surprise us with what they can do!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Venezuela: Estado Mérida

I’m writing from Barquisimeto, after another amazing week in Venezuela. So far we’ve spent a week in Guárico and a week in Mérida, two vastly different regions.
In the state of Mérida, there are about 4,000 students studying music, 900 of them at the central núcleo in the city of Mérida. We spent a great deal of time at the main núcleo, and we also got to travel to four other núcleos.

In Guárico we traveled around and saw many wonderful things. Although I spent some time teaching, it was mostly a time to observe and get to know El Sistema up close. In Mérida we were put right to work when we arrived! I had a fantastic time playing and teaching. I was lucky to be able to work with the Mérida cellists, and I miss all of them already. I was impressed not only by the very high level of playing I heard there, but also by the motivation, attitude and determination of the students.

Upon arriving, we were greeted warmly by Jesús Pérez and his family. Jésus is the regional director of núcleos in Mérida, and the work he has done is amazing. There’s no mystery to how he achieves results, “We work Monday to Monday.” We saw so many programs at the main núcleo: pre-K and Kindergarten programs, recorder classes, beginning violin classes, choirs, orchestras (from the Mozart orchestra comprised of beginners, up to the 120-piece regional youth orchestra), an extensive Special Education program, many levels of solfege and music literacy classes, private lessons, and a variety of other ensembles (including two cello ensembles). One of the highlights of the trip was coaching the cello ensemble comprised of nine of the advanced cellists at the núcleo. They are preparing Bachianas Brasileiras by Villa Lobos for a concert in a few weeks.

Another highlight was attending a concert put on by the students in the Special Education program. We heard performances by singers, pianists, violin ensemble, chime ensemble, choir, recorder ensemble and percussion ensemble. The percussion ensemble ended the concert by accompanying a beautiful and moving rendition of the song “Venezuela,” sung by one of the older students. Some of the students we heard performing had severe disabilities, but nothing was treated as a barrier to making music. Although this particular performance was a demonstration of all the students and ensembles that make up the Special Education program, many of the students participate in other classes and ensembles at the núcleo, and some also become teachers.

While in Mérida, we were able to visit four nearby núcleos: El Vigía, Fe y Alegría, Santa Cruz de Mora, and Mucuchíes.

El Vigía

Our first trip was to El Vigía, a núcleo about an hour south of Mérida. 200 students attend this núcleo, and between 15 and 20 of them also travel a few times a week to Mérida to play with the regional youth orchestra. In the morning we taught private lessons. Students were working mostly on their orchestra music, and there was not a large emphasis on learning solo repertoire. In the afternoon we got to see a special presentation of the choir, both the orchestras, and the programs for younger students (recorder and violin group classes). After the advanced orchestras performed for us, we got to join them to play Handel’s Halleluiah. The atmosphere here was incredibly friendly. Our hosts brought us special snacks throughout the visit, and gave us gifts of typical food from the region to take home. The students hung around in small groups, practicing and playing together. Everyone seemed to be laughing and having a good time.

Fe y Alegría

After getting back from our visit to El Vigía, we left immediately for Fe y Alegría, a boarding school outside of Mérida. It was a strange trip. We drove higher and higher into the mountains. It was getting dark, and a thick fog suddenly surrounded us. The terrain grew wilder. We passed through a gate, which was the entrance to the school, and continued to drive through the wilderness. To our left was the vague outline of a large lake. After continuing up the road for a while, we arrived at a large campus engulfed in fog.

Fe y Alegría is a boarding school of 600 students who, apart from their regular classes, study other things such agriculture, mechanics. The núcleo in Mérida started sending teachers about a year ago to give music lessons. The lessons take place every evening, during students’ free time. Since this is a high school, the students are older. Their attendance at music class is irregular, but the location has a lot of potential to develop. The night we were there we watched a group violin class. There were about ten boys playing together. The teacher worked them hard, and they all seemed determined and serious.

There were no rooms available, so lessons took place outside under the overhang of the building. Next to the lessons there was a competitive ping-pong tournament going on (which I got to join for a few minutes) and the ball occasionally went flying towards the violins. Far off to the side was a machine to make popcorn, which one of the students was handing out in small brown paper bags. Despite many distractions, the other students looked on at the lessons with interest, and I hope that in the future this program can grow into a large and well-developed núcleo.

Santa Cruz de Mora

We spent an afternoon at the núcleo in Santa Cruz de Mora. Classes took place is a large, octagonal building which had one large room in the middle, and smaller rooms off to the side. Directly in the center of the roof was a small stained-glass window, which reflected beautiful colors onto the floor of the núcleo.

This is the first núcleo where we met a teacher who was a foreigner from a non-Spanish speaking country (in Calabozo there was a teacher from Cuba). The piano teacher was a Japanese woman who is part of a program that sends volunteers with various specialties to Venezuela. She had been there a year, and will be there for one more.

Many students studying at the núcleo are from the hillsides and smaller villages surrounding the city of Santa Cruz de Mora. Because of the rain, many roads were impassable (we barely made it ourselves), and some students had been having difficulty getting to the núcleo. The more advanced orchestra was playing the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, and because of the roads, many parts were missing. Also, the piece was very challenging for many of the players. What surprises me again and again as I travel to núcleos is the ability of the orchestra to play very difficult pieces at a high level despite so many obstacles. Neither the difficulty of the piece nor missing parts deterred anyone for a moment. Students played their heart out, and a huge sound came out of the small orchestra.


Mucuchíes is a very special place. From Mérida, a road winds higher and higher through the Andes Mountains. We stopped in a small town perched on the side of the mountains. The air was thinner up at 3000 meters, and the town felt quiet and unhurried. When we arrived, the núcleo director told us a little about the program in Mucuchíes. There are 488 children studying music, and 38 of them in the orchestra. Music classes start at 2pm every day, and orchestra and choir rehearsals are from 4:30-6:30pm. When they are not in school or studying music, most of the children spend their time farming.

The director had prepared a special performance for us. First we heard the choir. There were about 30 children between the ages of 7 and 15. The songs were combined with movement and the children sang enthusiastically.

Next we heard the orchestra and I was blown away. The núcleo is only three years old, and no child sitting in the orchestra had been holding an instrument longer than two and a half years. They were playing advanced pieces, but the difficulty didn’t stop them from playing with all their heart. Everyone played with the same bowing and used their entire bow. During the concert the room was filled with passion and energy.

After the concert we were standing outside talking to the orchestra members. A 10-year-old girl walked over and asked if she could sing for us. We gathered around and she sang two Venezuelan songs. Her voice was absolutely beautiful, clear and expressive. Apparently she will be starting the cello soon. I would have loved to spend a week at Mucuchíes, and I had to force myself to get in the car to leave. I hope to be able to go back someday.


We spent our last full day in Mérida at the main núcleo. David, an Abreu Fellow who is traveling in my group conducted the regional youth orchestra during their rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. I had been playing with the orchestra that week, and it had been a wonderful experience. This was the last rehearsal we’d be at before leaving for Barquisimeto. David got up to conduct the first movement at the symphony, which he had spent the week studying. After, Jesús (the director of the núcleo and conductor of the orchestra) told him to go on to the fourth movement. David told him that he hadn’t looked at that movement, and hadn’t conducted it previously, but Jesús insisted. The reading went forward with enthusiasm, but near the end of the piece, something happened. We arrived at the final “Moderato assai” and the tempo David took was very fast. I’m not quite sure what happened, but it was like a shock wave went through the orchestra. Suddenly, everyone was looking at each other, smiling, laughing, and playing like their life depended on it. It was like an air-born virus of excitement that spread to every player in a few seconds. It may have been the fast tempo that triggered it, or something else, but whatever it was, playing in that orchestra of over 100 people during the last few minutes of the piece was like no other orchestral experience I have ever had. I was part of an unstoppable wave of musical intensity and energy.

After the wonderful rehearsal, David and I went our to have pizza with a few violinist and cellists in the orchestra. They talked to us about the joy they felt when playing in orchestra. They said that everyone was there because they wanted to be; it wasn’t an obligation, but something they loved and looked forward to. The orchestral experience for them was about coming together to make music. No matter what, the most important thing is to never stop making music with joy and passion.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Venezuela: Estado Guárico

The journey to Venezuela has finally started! On April 27th we arrived in Caracas for a five-week trip. After a few days in Caracas, we split into three groups and began our travels to see núcleos around the country.

The first destination for our group was Guárico. We were here for one incredible week, and are now in Mérida. In Guárico, we stayed in the city of Calabozo, which is where the regional headquarters of El Sistema are located. El Sistema in Gúarico functions slightly differently than most of the other states. There are a few núcleos, each with many corresponding “módulos.” Teachers from the núcleos, some not older than 15, travel in the morning to teach music classes at the módulos, which are outreach sites usually located in schools. This provides access to children who live in remote areas of the state, as well as to children in the cities who may not have transportation to get to the local núcleos. There are approximately 9,000 children studying music in either a núcleo or módulo in the state of Guárico.

This week we visited four núcleos and five módulos. In the city of Calabozo, there are two núcleos: Raimundo Pereira and Antonio Estébez. We are also visited El Sombrero, a núcleo one hour north of Calabozo, and Camaguán, a núcleo one hour south. We saw four módulos that took place in schools during the school day. The fifth modulo, La Negra, was near Camaguán. It took place outside on the patio of an abandon building, and the students studied “música folklórica,” which is Venezuelan folk music. The núcleos in the state of Guárico are known for teaching both classical music and música folklórica. We could have spent weeks getting to know all the amazing programs in the state of Guárico, but we saw what we could in one week. Below are descriptions of the módulos and núcleos we visited in the short time we had.


I. La Trinidad

We walked into a classroom in the school “La Trinidad” and heard a group of young children singing a song that they were preparing for Mother’s Day. The teacher stopped them and requested that they sing with more emotion. “Lo que hacemos con amor siempre sale bien. Lo que hacemos por hacer… no.” (What we do with love always goes well. What we do just for the sake of doing it, doesn’t). The teacher was Maria, a 21-year-old violist who is also studying law. Every morning she comes to La Trinidad to teach choir, solfege, recorder and theory to 200 children in groups of about 20. There is also one group that is taking violin lessons with her. All the students in the class share one violin.

II. Vicario

Jesús, a talented young violinist who studies at Núcleo Raimundo Pereira, is the teacher at the módulo in Vicario. We saw him go from classroom to classroom, staying for 30 minutes in each room. The first 10 minutes in each room he would spend teaching basic music theory. The second part of the class the children would sing a few songs, which he would accompany on the cuatro (a Venezuelan instrument similar to a guitar but much smaller and with four strings).

III. Calavario

We traveled to Calavario, a small town about 40 minutes away from Calabozo. Miguel, who teaches música folklórica at the Núcleo Antonio Estébez, founded this site, and has been coming to teach cuatro twice a week. He is currently teaching music theory in preparation for when the students receive their instruments.

IV. Soroco

This módulo is at a school that was founded only about five years ago, in a community that previously didn’t have a school. The students who attend the school are children of those who work at the dump outside of Calabozo. Sadly, the families live within the dump itself. There are about 50 students who, aside from their regular classes, are singing in a choir and studying music theory. The school is working with almost no resources, and El Sistema has provided not only music classes, but also food and shoes to the students. We got to visit this site twice – once to observe the classes, and the second time to play a concert alongside the advanced student orchestra from the Núcleo Antonio Estébez, which was visiting Soroco.

IV. La Negra

La Negra is a colorful town located an hour south of Calabozo, and a few minutes away from the Núcleo Camaguán. This módulo is focused on música folklórica. There is a choir, and an orchestra comprised of students playing arpa llanera (harp of the plains), cuatro, mandolin, bandola and guitar. The classes are held outside, and passers-by from the town gather in small groups to watch. The atmosphere is very casual. After a short orchestra and choir rehearsal, the students split off to practice together in small groups. I got a mandolin lesson from two young girls, and after a while was able to play most of “Linda Barina.” The 60 students who study at La Negra come every day after school. Many parents come to hang out along the edge of the patio, chatting and watching their children play.


I. Raimundo Pereira

In Calabozo, there are two núcleos, each with about 200 students that come every afternoon from 2:30 to 7pm. We spent two afternoons at Pereira, and got to know the wonderful teachers and students. There are four orchestras: two pre-infantil, one infantil, and a more advanced orchestra that is made up of both teachers and students. We observed choir, all the orchestras, percussion ensemble, solfege classes and wind chamber music groups. We taught and also gave a short performance. One thing I noticed that set this music school apart from any other I had seen before arriving in Venezuela was the incredibly fluid line between teacher and student. A few students from the infantil orchestra also played in the pre-infantil orchestra. Students from the advanced orchestra played in the infantil, and teachers played in the advanced orchestra. At all levels there was a support structure built in, with clear role models to look up to. At a young age students become teachers to students who are only slightly younger then them. The conductor of the advanced orchestra was a 15-year-old who had excelled on the violin. The day we came they were rehearsing the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and she was confidently yet humbly leading an orchestra comprised of her peers and teachers. With only about 20 strings, two bassoons, two flutes, one clarinet, one trumpet and timpani, the amount of sound that this orchestra produced was unreal. Directly before the rehearsal I had been coaching the two cellists in the orchestra on the Breval C Major Sonata (an elementary piece) and was surprised to see their transformation to advanced orchestral players as they sat down to play the Eroica.

One thing has struck me about bow use in all the orchestras I’ve seen: from the pre-infantil at Pereira to the Teresa Carreño Orchestra in Caracas, people use the WHOLE bow. The youngest students practice scales from frog to tip, and this manifests itself throughout all the levels of all the orchestras I’ve seen so far. In the more advanced orchestras students also use the same amount of bow, the same bow speed, and play passages in the same part of the bow. This unity throughout the sections seems to be instilled from a young age. In Núcleo Pereira, the orchestra’s huge sound is most likely due in large part to the way the students use their bows. The run-through of the Eroica, despite the heat and the cramped, poorly lit room, had a special sort of vitality about it that seemed to come from pure passion.

II. Antonio Estébez

Antonio Estébez, the first núcleo in Calabozo, was founded in 1994 by a group of children who wanted to study music. Our host in Calabozo, the academic director of El Sistema in Guárico, was one of these students and he talked about the process they went through to start the núcleo. He was 10 years old at the time, and there were 150 other students around the same age who wanted to study music. After communicating with Caracas, and following the instructions they received, they began to create a music program from scratch: first they played using percussion instruments that they built themselves, then they shared a few violin and began studying music theory, and eventually they started to build an orchestra. The program we saw during our visit is now fully developed with three orchestras, a large choir, an adult choir, a pre-K program, music theory, an extensive folk music program, and secondary piano lessons. The atmosphere was very laid back. One of the main differences between the two núcleos in Calabozo is that the classes at Pereira are guided more by the teachers, while at Estébez, the activities are initiated and guided more by the students themselves.

III. Camaguán

After spending a few hours at the módulo in La Negra, we were able to stop for a bit at the núcleo in Camaguán. It took place in the courtyard of a school, where students gathered in small groups according to their instrument. Teachers come to this núcleo only once every two weeks. The students come every day to work together, and the strongest player in each group leads the practice sessions. As I passed by the young group of violinists, I saw a 10-year-old coaching others of about the same age. He was clapping and counting out four beats as his pupils played from the frog to tip and back to the frog. I walked over to the cellos to give a short group lesson on bow technique. All the cellists gathered around. There were many cellists, but only four cellos, some with less than four strings on them. Everyone waited patiently for his or her turn to try out the things I was demonstrating. Despite minimal resources, the desire of the students to be there playing music together was palpable.

IV. El Sombrero

El Sombrero was the last place we visited in Guárico, and our visit was a highlight of the trip so far. Classes meet in a building that is used as a senior center during the day. Like most núcleos, the majority of the classes take place outside in a courtyard, and in a few rooms along the periphery. First we observed choir. The children sang in two-part harmony with a beautiful sound and very good intonation. Orchestra rehearsal took place under a pavilion. Fifty kids between the ages of 7 and 12 were playing violin, viola, cello and bass. We listened to a few songs. Again, students used the entire bow, and they were also able to solfege all the songs they were playing. This site has only been running for a year and a half, but the level was very high. Like Camaguán, the string teachers only come once every two weeks, but the orchestra meets every day.


I feel exceptionally lucky to be here in Venezuela discovering and experiencing El Sistema. This really is the “land of music.” What is happening here is surreal, and difficult to transmit through words, but I hope that the little information I can provide about my experience is helpful. I look forward to sharing more about my weeks in Mérida and Barquisimeto!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I’ve returned from an AMAZING 3-week internship in Los Angeles! I got to visit five El Sistema-inspired programs, all very different and wonderful. I learned so much at each site, realizing that they were all so different because every community is different. I felt that each one truly had a “núcleo,” environment, with a sense of community and joy in making music. I spent the most time at YOLA at HOLA. YOLA, which stands for Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, is an initiative of the LA Philharmonic, and currently has programs running at two sites. The first site, which is in its fourth year, is the EXPO center. The second sight is HOLA, the Heart of Los Angeles Community Center. Christine Witkowsi, a 2009-2010 Abreu Fellow, runs the program there. I also visited the Renaissance Arts Academy, The Opus Project in San Diego, and the Verdugo Young Musicians Associative (VYMA) program.

YOLA at HOLA is located in the Rampart District of Los Angeles, and the program has about 100 students. There are about 55 first graders playing violin and viola, and 45 fourth graders playing wind and brass instruments.

The atmosphere is great: supportive, fun and serious. There are two teachers in charge of the strings, two teachers in charge of the winds and brass, a fifth teacher who is involved with both groups, and the EXPO Center orchestra conductor who comes once or twice a week. One of the greatest things about HOLA is that the teachers are a team! Since there are not very many of them, they are able to work very closely together to create a shared vision for the students.

YOLA at HOLA has its own space. Kids are there Monday through Thursday from 3 to 6pm, and Saturdays from 9 to noon. No one else uses the space during the rest of the day, and HOLA has taken full advantage of that! The rooms are beautifully decorated with kids’ artwork, behavior charts, posters of instruments and of Gustavo, and the mission statement. The students wrote their own rules. The fourth grad rules are: 1. Have fun, 2. Respect each other and yourself, 3. Talk and play when instructed, 4. No food or gum, 5. Play your best!

On Saturdays there is a parent class. While I was there I helped lead and translate in a parent string class. The parents loved it! The last week I was there I interviewed parents about the program, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. One thing that the parents loved was that all students got homework help and academic tutoring every day that they attend the program. Most students come home with their homework finished.

One of the highlights of my week at HOLA was the Park Building Opening. The HOLA Community Center was opening a newly renovated building in the park across the street (not for use by the music program, mostly for athletics). There was a big ribbon cutting ceremony, after which the YOLA at HOLA brass players performed. The mayor of LA was there, and the students got to meet him. It was an exciting afternoon.

YOLA at HOLA asked themselves the right questions from the beginning: What does an ideal environment look like? How do you create the environment you want? What goals do you have for the behavior and attitudes of the kids? They are succeeding in creating a true musical community where the kids are thriving. It was a joy to spend time there.

I got to spend three days working with YOLA at EXPO kids. Expo has two orchestras, and I spent time helping out in the cello sections of both orchestras. Unlike HOLA, the program at EXPO does not have exclusive use of its space. This means no posters on the walls. Students attend three times a week: twice for group lessons and on Saturdays for orchestra.

EXPO orchestras played a concert at a nearby highschool, and I went to help out. The parents planned an enormous potluck dinner. The students played a great concert to a huge and enthusiastic audience. There was definitely a sense of community during the dinner, the concert, and especially in the warm-up room, where I got to hang out with the kids in the younger orchestra. It was a fun evening.

Renaissance Arts Academy, known as RenArts, was like no place I have ever been. The first thing I noticed as I walked in was how quiet it was. I was standing in an enormous room with over three hundred kids, and yet there was very little noise. The building used to be a department store. Along the sides of the building were small practice rooms. The giant open space in the middle was filled with small “classrooms,” which were basically a kitchen cart filled with class materials with a white board hanging from the font, and surrounded by a cluster of desks and chairs. In the middle of our first day there, a guest dancer gave a masterclass for the whole school. I got to watch as the students in a matter of minutes pushed all their classrooms to the perimeter, leaving a larger open space for the masterclass to take place.

RenArts is a public charter school for students in grades six through twelve. Every student focuses either on music or dance, and the music students choose a string instrument. The music students have group lessons every other day, orchestra twice a week, and they all take theory classes.

During our visit we got to spend a lot of time talking to the two directors, PK and Sid. It was amazing to hear about the school, their reasoning behind what they are doing, and how they went about creating their vision. Although PK and Sid didn’t know about El Sistema until years after they started, RenArts embodies many elements of El Sistema: equal access, a high level of music making, intensity, ensemble-based teaching, a sense of community, and the multi-year continuum.

We spent one day in San Diego visiting the Community Opus Project, part of the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory. They currently have after school programs in two schools, with about 30 third graders in each program. Each school has group lessons (violin, viola, cello and bass together) for an hour and a half twice a week, plus the option of classes on Saturday. The strings teacher is wonderful, and worked easily with all 30 kids on four different instruments. This program was different in that it offered only one class to the students, rather than having a schedule where students participated in different activities such as group classes, orchestra, tutoring and musicianship.

One of the most wonderful things I saw in San Diego was the family involvement. Before class starts, when the kids are playing outside and having a snack, an army of parents moved in to reset the classroom for the lesson. Afterwards, they hung around in the back of the classroom and helped the schoolteacher (who taught in the same room during regular school hours) make a poster to use in her class the next day. During the last 10 minutes of class, the kids are supposed to teach something they learned that day to a parent or another student in the class. There was a lot of interest from parents and younger siblings who wanted to play instruments as well. The program director, Lauren, was very generous in trying to get her hands on instruments that she could lend them, with the idea that the student would teach their parents and younger siblings at home.

VYMA Music Project at Longfellow Elementary is a music program in Pasadena that is currently in its second year. There was a small team of experienced and enthusiastic teachers, who were happy to share their experiences with us over dinner. The classes were smaller than at other sites we saw, less that 10 students. Orchestra started off by a performance of the teachers playing a short waltz for string quartet for the students. Then Samvel, the artistic director, led a rehearsal. The orchestra sounded great. The students all practice the orchestra music in their group classes. Circe, a young Venezuelan cellist who helped set up the program encouraged her students to play with lots of energy and movement. Over dinner she talked about what it was like to grow up playing cello in Venezuela, and her experience helping to start the program.

Even though every program was very different, they all had one thing in common. Every program I saw had a very strong sense of community. From the directors to the teachers to the student to the parents, there was a sense of belonging, and of working together towards a common goal.