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.