Close to Home: Social change through music education

  • Santa Rosa Symphony Youth Orchestra during a 2009 performance at the Wells Fargo Center for the Art. (The Press Democrat)

At the end of a 2-1/2-hour youth orchestra concert in 2008, the room went black, and when the lights came up for the encore, young orchestra members began Leonard Bernstein's “Mambo” with basses twirling, trumpets spinning, violins tossed into the air in synchronicity and percussive shouts resonating through the ensemble.

These kids were playing games with the great orchestral works as if they were action figures — Mahler and Shostakovich staged in epic battle. This ensemble, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, has become a beacon for a social program in Venezuela known as El Sistema, which has been transforming lives of young people through intensive musical training.

From its beginnings in a parking garage in Caracas in 1979, El Sistema has become a recipe for developing new programs around the world. The Santa Rosa Symphony has recently joined this global movement with the launching of Simply Strings, a partnership with Sheppard Elementary School in Roseland. Simply Strings is deeply integrated with the symphony's four youth ensembles and extensive music for schools program. The symphony provides a free, after-school youth development program for second- and third-grade students with intensive violin instruction, 10 hours per week, for five years. All instruments, supplies, teachers, mentors and staffing are provided free of charge. Every year, a new class of second- and third-graders will begin the five-year program.

The first year's culmination features this class of beginners performing in Weill Hall, alongside Santa Rosa Symphony professionals, conducted by maestro Bruno Ferrandis, for 3,000 of their young peers. This will occur on May 2.

Why choose orchestral training as a youth development tool? José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, points out that the orchestra is “the only entity humans have ever made whose sole purpose is to come into agreement with itself.” At the group level, the orchestra is social; it's team-building, but there is no losing team. The orchestra allows students to express deep, difficult emotions in a supportive environment, developing an intimacy that feels like family.

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