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 “nĂșcleo,” 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.