Two dozen papier-mâché violins rotate in 48 diminutive hands as 24 second-graders chant in unison.
“This is my violin,” the kids sing. “This is where I put my chin. E, A, D, G are the four strings, and the F holes let it ring. Here's the front and here's the back, if I drop it, it might crack! So I hold it close beside me, rest position you now see.”
Two boys mischievously drop their mock violins when they recite the line about dropping them. The teacher gently admonishes them. Today, the class will get real violins, and the room brims with squirmy anticipation.
It’s a balmy Friday afternoon in August at the end of the first week of school, and the afterschool program, called Bravo Youth Orchestras, is just starting its second year at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. Outside the school, soccer games spring up and there is languor in the air. But inside, there is rigor, as 60-some second, third and fourth graders study the violin. They’ll be there for two hours today, as they’ve been all week long. And they’ll do this every day for the rest of the school year.
Bravo is modeled on El Sistema, a Venezuelan youth music program that for over 40 years now has transformed the lives of kids in impoverished barrios, turned out world-class musicians, spawned imitators around the world — but only recently broke through in the United States.
Rosa Parks Elementary could use a breakthrough. It consistently scores in the bottom 5 percent of Oregon schools on key measures. With 96 percent of its kids on free or reduced lunch, Rosa Parks faces steep socioeconomic challenges — in the poorest school in Portland. The community is full of low-income immigrant families. Kids here speak a combined total of 18 different languages at home.
Principal Tamala Newsome hopes this intense music education program will help jumpstart her school. She has been a principal in this neighborhood for 17 years and has seen a lot happen — not all of it good. The community fought drugs, crime and blight. About 10 years ago, it was reborn with new economically diverse housing units, a thriving community garden, a sports and community center, and Rosa Parks Elementary, which opened in 2006.
But as the persistently low tests scores attest, there is ample room to grow.
And so, while some of these second graders with their mock violins may become concert musicians, and while real musicianship is demanded, no one at Rosa Parks is focused on musical virtuosity as an endgame.
They want something more.
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Bravo in action
The theory behind El Sistema remains loose and multifaceted. Advocates talk a lot about brain development, spatial reasoning, character, leadership, perseverance and broadened horizons. They emphasize the rigor and commitment of hunkering down for 10 hours a week, the social aspects of ensemble play, the stretched horizons and the heightened confidence that comes as kids move into a larger world they have never seen before.
Much research remains to be done to fully understand whether and how El Sistema does what its supporters believe it does. The first wave of research is only now underway.
Meanwhile, Newsome, like many El Sistema advocates across the country, isn’t waiting around. When Newsome heard that Seth Truby, Bravo's executive director, was looking for a Portland school for a launch pad, she chased him down and sold him on Rosa Parks.
“Bravo coming to Rosa Parks is nothing short of amazing,” Newsome said. “We know that music is good for kids, we know the research behind music and math, but the most important thing, I think, is that our kids are getting to do things and go places that were not possible before.”
Next door to the antsy second graders, an advanced group of 40 third and fourth graders warms its voices for 30 minutes of choral work. They’ll learn all their new material by singing the notes here before playing them on their instruments.
"If you can sing it, it's much easier to play it," Truby said. “Choir helps with musical awareness and spatial relationships. They may not know what a sixth is, but they can sing it, and somewhere in the brain they are learning it.”
To be fair, even the older group is somewhat fidgety. It’s the end of a 10-hour afterschool workweek and the first week of school. It’s warm outside, and kids are kids. A few parents and community mentors are sprinkled through the room to help maintain focus.
“But you’ll be surprised at their skill level,” Truby says. “This is an impressive group.”
After 30 minutes of choir, they spend 45 minutes in orchestra sections — first and second violins, violas and cellos — doing repertoire and technical drills. Then they move into ensemble, where all the sections play together.
Ensemble is the key to El Sistema. Working with large numbers of students who can’t afford private instruction, the method makes a virtue of necessity. It has to scale, and so, from the very first day the kids work in large groups, honing not just technique, but also teamwork, sociability and leadership.
El Sistema also prides itself on connecting kids to the larger world. Last year Bravo brought 30 guest artists who performed and shared their own musical history. The artists ranged from folk and jazz to classical and world music.
Students also gain poise and skill by performing for each other. Once a week, in small groups or as individuals, students perform for the whole class. Sometimes they work from the shared repertoire. Sometimes they play their own compositions.
“The kids are very attentive, very focused on what their peers can do,” Truby said, “and they always look forward eagerly to their turn.”
Coming to America
In one generation since its 1975 founding, El Sistema has burgeoned into a powerful force in its home country of Venezuela, gained world acclaim and inspired imitations from Scotland to South Korea.
But it remains relatively new in the United States, said Stanford Thompson, the founder and director of Play on Philly!, Philadelphia’s El Sistema incarnation.
El Sistema exploded in popularity here after 2009, when Gustavo Dudamel — a brilliant young Venezuelan conductor and a product of El Sistema — became music director of the Los Angles Philharmonic.
“That’s when a lot of people began to take notice,” Thompson said. “They were stunned to see a conductor who is not European, who is so young and who didn’t come from any of the top music conservatories suddenly leading the L.A. Philharmonic.”
With Dudamel's ascendancy, scattered American programs became a cohesive and burgeoning movement, Thompson said. When he entered the field in 2009, there were 30 American El Sistema programs. Today, there are over 100.
El Sistema USA, which Thompson chairs, incorporated just two years ago, aiming to build the loose movement into an effective network of U.S. programs, expanding awareness, securing funding, refining best practices and helping local programs flourish.
A robust network
The beauty of a robust national network is that while everyone can experiment, no one must start from scratch. In launching Bravo last year, Seth Truby shadowed a number of older programs.
One of these was El Sistema Colorado, which began in the Denver area in January 2012. Core elements of the Colorado and Portland programs are closely aligned. Both integrate K-1 classroom instruction with an intense, 10-hour-a-week afterschool program for older kids.
The older Colorado program now has two elementary schools feeding into a single middle school and a high school program launching this fall. Truby aims to follow that path, but said he wants to grow slowly and carefully.
With the Colorado high school program launching this fall, students will be getting foour hours of music a day five days a week, said Jan Brennan, executive director of El Sistema Colorado. Those four hours include two class periods during the school day.
"Intensity is critical," Brennan said. "I think that is one of the lessons we have learned from El Sistema. It's a very different experience from taking a lesson once a week."
And amidst the intense music training, however, the focus on student growth, perseverance and broadened horizons remains central in both Portland and Denver.
Last year, the Colorado students played in over 20 performances in the community, including at Red Rocks Amphitheater with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. In Portland, Bravo played a lighter community schedule in its inaugural year, but it is ramping up.
"Imagine those kids going out in the community, standing up on the stage, having something to contribute and feeling the crowd's appreciation," Brennan said. "That alters the life trajectory of these kids. Red Rocks is just a few miles but a world away from where these kids live.”
All of this costs money.
Truby is very quality-conscious. He refers to his teachers as "teacher-artists," and he pays them above market rates for afterschool programs. He also strives for a 10-to-1 student-teacher ratio in the younger grades. You won’t get results by cutting corners, he argues. "Its a real monetary investment," he acknowledged.
His funding comes from the BRAVO board of directors and numerous local donors.
If El Sistema were merely a cultural enrichment, proving its value might not be such a serious matter. But because supporters cast it as a social intervention for at-risk children, it faces a tough data gauntlet before skeptics will come around and donors will go “all in.”
Funded by government in a less data-driven society, El Sistema in Venezuela has never faced the kind of scrutiny American foundations and educators insist upon. Finding data is now the job of WolfBrown, a firm that measures the impact of nonprofit social projects.
Funded by major foundations, WolfBrown will study El Sistema in action over the next two years to determine if the music program can “buffer the effects of risks like poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and unequal opportunities to learn and develop, and build a wider understanding of the role that music can play in individual and community development."
Researchers want to know how and whether the method changes lives. Does it shape identity? Does it build character and perseverance or develop mentoring relationships with adults and peers? What makes one El Sistema program more effective than another? Are some dosages and approaches more effective WolfBrown will also look for musical skill development.
“It will take years to get definitive answers,” said Steven Holochwost, the developmental psychologist spearheading the research. He notes that it took 40 years to assemble the now-definitive data proving the worth of early childhood education.
"We don't see this as the last word," Holochowost said.
Back at Rosa Parks, Truby understands the role of hard data but is excited about what he has seen already on the ground. His objectives with Bravo are both ambitious and difficult to measure.
“We aren’t all that invested in whether they go on in a career in music,” he said. “We want music to be a vehicle for them to experience the triumph that comes after struggle and discipline, to open doors for them to see city hall and the art museum, and to be part of a team.”
Here again are the elusive qualitative measures the team at WolfBrown hopes to translate into measurable data.
But Truby does have two impressive indicators from Bravo’s first year.
First, there is the enthusiasm of new students to join the program. Of roughly 75 first graders who took the mandatory one-hour per week introductory program last year, 35 applied for the intensive afterschool program this spring. Bravo had openings for 24 of those students.
Even more striking, of the 41 second graders who last year launched the intensive afterschool program, 36 signed up again this year for the advanced class.
“That is an amazing retention rate,” Truby said, “given how hard these kids work.”
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