Influencing communities through music

On January 3, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times


By Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

Music is an incredibly important part of the fabric of this city. It’s more than just entertainment; it’s part of our culture and our way of life here in Somerville. In recent years, we’ve increased music education in our public schools, allocating more resources to what we view as an important tool for boosting academic success from a young age. And that’s just one reason why we’ve supported the international El Sistema program and why we’re piloting it in our own East Somerville Community School.

Founded by Venezuelan musician, Jose Antonio Abreu, in 1975, El Sistema is an intensive music education program taught Monday through Friday after school at the ESCS. Open to all students in grades 3 and 4, El Sistema Somerville currently gives 42 students the opportunity to be in a real orchestra, and learn real music. By next year, we hope that we’ll have 70 instruments, a full orchestra.

Music promotes teamwork, helps develop language skills, and practices the academic skills of discipline and responsibility. To my mind, it is an essential part of the education curriculum of Somerville.

This year’s holiday concert for the East Somerville School, at which the El Sistema Somerville student orchestra played a concert entitled “A Community in Harmony,” reinforced what I already knew to be true, that music enriches and enhances the lives not only of our young students, but of our entire community. Somerville’s Program Director, Diane Cline, has made tremendous progress in getting this program up and running here in Somerville, and I thank our colleagues at the El Sistema Charter School in Boston for helping to bring this innovative program into our city.

El Sistema currently allows students access to 20 violins, 8 violas, 9 cellos and 2 bass cellos, with more than a dozen volunteers, mostly young people, devoted to bringing classical music skills into the lives of these students. The program offers a sliding scale of needs-based enrollment cost, and is open to all families who wish to give their kids the gift of music. Its intensive schedule and training allow for advanced musical education, but also provides other important support services to underserved young people in this and any other community served by El Sistema.

Walking into Diane’s classroom, it is immediately evident how much this program means to its 42 participants. Chord charts for string instruments are displayed proudly on chalkboards, and dozens of kids sit, excited and organized, ready to play their next song. It’s poetry in motion and good in vibration: a perfect introduction to the world of music. And most importantly, these kids are allowed to grow the way they need to in order to get ahead, and learn valuable social skills.

This is more than just an education initiative. Imagine a city where instead of turning on the TV, our youth are encouraged at an early age to practice to music of Handel, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Rather than classical music being a distant, stilted thing as it so often is to so many youth, it can become something more inviting, more powerful and more fun.

As this fledgling orchestra grows, I’m positive that we will make a real difference in the lives of these students. The only way for the kids to know about the highest level of achievement in music is to learn the real power of a traditional orchestra. Orchestra is a powerful metaphor for a harmonious society. Even now these kids are learning that when they are one among many, the music makes them more powerful than the sum of their parts.

Music is a valued part of our heritage and culture in Somerville. Walk through any square on any given night and you’ll hear artists young and old expressing themselves through their music. It has helped bind together the musicians in our community for decades and given Somerville a sound and style all its own.

El Sistema is a new and powerful tool in our schools to foster musicianship in its most fundamental form in our youth. It not only gives our kids an alternative to other afterschool programs, it grants them the chance to learn, at an early age, the value of working with others towards a common goal, teaching lessons of empathy, self-confidence and above all, it gives them the chance to experience the beauty and elation of performing the music of some of the world’s most adept composers. I can’t wait to see how this program unfolds, and I think they’re doing a great job.


8 Responses to “Influencing communities through music”

  1. Harry says:

    “an important tool for boosting academic success from a young age”

    Mr. Curtatone, there is no scientific evidence for your claim. There are much more important areas to improve than music, math and logical skills being the top ones. Work on those, if you want to boost academic success and help generate critical citizens who can understand and change for the better this complex world (but perhaps the point is precisely not to generate such citizens).

  2. Boston Kate says:

    Instrumental and vocal music classes are often referred to as “extracurricular” classes. Music is anything but “extracurricular”. Music classes offer many benefits which make them very indispensable. Performance programs enhance a student’s sense of self-esteem as well as their social skills. Students become a part of a positive group and organization. Not only do students profit socially from music programs, but they also gain academically.

    Music is an important avenue to individual success. Music should be made available to all students in all schools. Music programs hold an influential place in school and academic structure. When consideration is being given to program and budget cuts administrators, parents, counselors and teachers need to know that music education is not just an “extra” elective to fill students’ schedules, but a vital part of a complete “academic” education.

    Data has revealed that, for every year a student participated in music instruction, their SAT scores improved. Students with four or more years of music study received an average score of about 544, as opposed to a score just above 482 for those with half or at least one semester of music instruction, thus showing a strong correlation between music and academic success.

  3. Ray Spitzer says:

    “Students with four or more years of music study received an average score of about 544, as opposed to a score just above 482 for those with half or at least one semester of music instruction, thus showing a strong correlation between music and academic success.”

    Well, it depends what the non music students were doing instead of music. If they were doing nothing, then sure, music is better than nothing. But had they done more hours related to mathematics and logic, probably that would have been better then music on the SAT.

  4. David Scott says:

    Thanks to Mr. Curtatone for drawing attention to the exciting state of music education in Somerville. As a music teacher, I value spreading musical values and knowledge throughout society.

    Harry and Ray are right to hold a healthy skepticism for claims of musical study being some sort of magical educational elixir, but let’s explore further.

    People with musical training may be better at learning foreign languages (Marques et al., 2007), they tend to having higher IQ (Schellenberg, 2004), and they are disproportionately represented among Nobel Prize winners (Root-Bernstein et. al., 2008). Proving causality, rather than correlation, is another matter.

    The brains of musicians differ from those of nonmusicians, as established by Thomas Elbert and furthered by dozens of other studies. The sensorimotor cortex, the planum temporale, the cerebellum and the anterior part of the corpus callosum are more highly developed. Again, does this prove that studying music makes you smarter? No.

    Further research is needed to demonstrate the exact mechanisms of the study of music. In the meantime, I am happy to include music in the family of knowledge our children should study. Music provides pleasure, a sense of control, achievement of “flow” (the state of being fully engaged in a challenging activity requiring skill, a merging of action and awareness), social cohesion, and a sense of purpose and personal growth (the pursuit of musical excellence can last a lifetime). Music study among students also brings their families into the community in ways that other academic disciplines do less well. Music has been part of the human experience for a long time — the oldest musical instruments discovered by archaeologists are 42,000 years old — and music deserves attention in our schools.

    When I introduce myself as a music teacher, most adults answer, “Oh, I wish I was musical!” Thanks to El Sistema and the other excellent music programs in Somerville, kids that go through Somerville public schools won’t need to feel that regret.

  5. Rafael says:

    I believe that no one can deny the importance of motivation, dedication and inspiration within a student’s development. Music gives students insight into all of these. The El Sistema Somerville program promotes growth in every student, providing academic support and community awareness.

  6. David Booth says:

    As a parent of two kids in El Sistema, I think this program is fantastic. The dedication of the teachers is wonderful, and the proud achievements of the kids are lovely to see. Incidentally, the program also integrates time for homework, and some time for physical movement.

    El Sistema is analogous to an intensive team sports program, but on an intellectual level rather than a physical level. For those who see the value and benefits of a musical background, it is a great opportunity.

  7. Carol Gyurina says:

    Kudos to the Sistema Somerville program, and the wonderful concert they put on. I have never seen a group of beginning musicians advance so quickly, and play with such enthusiasm and joy. Having early experiences of high achievement and success can only be helpful in having them expect achievement in all areas of their lives.

    There does not need to be a dichotomy between improving math and science educational opportunities, and providing access to high quality arts education. As someone who grew up participating in high level youth orchestras, I found that while a few students ended up attending music conservatories and becoming music professionals, many more of these student musicians became physicians and scientists and engineers.

    The discipline and logical thinking required to excel in music applies to all areas of life.

    Should there be opportunities for kids to participate in science and math and robotics competitions? Absolutely. Is there also a need and a place for high level music programs? Absolutely.

    Let us celebrate all the wonderful opportunities that dedicated educators and community members work to provide our children: from sports, to science, math, robotics, literature, scouting, art and music. Congratulations to Sistema Somerville for bringing a wonderful new opportunity in music to the children of Somerville.

  8. Eric Booth says:

    I work with the what’s called the El Sistema-inspired movement in the U.S., now in some 60 cities, and we are excited at the excellent launch of El Sistema Somerville. Diane Cline has done a great job in adopting the lessons learned in other startups, and has the program off to a great start. The El Sistema movement, in Venezuela and the U.S., is the single most extraordinary phenomenon I have seen in my lifetime, and three cheers for its healthy start in Somerville. And thanks to you for letting your community know about it.

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