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El Sistema Branches Out, Takes Root in Flatbush

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The Trumpet Voluntary by Jeremiah Clarke is a ceremonial piece usually associated with wedding processionals or chic cocktail parties. On Saturday morning, it was performed in a different context: by six students from P.S. 152 in Flatbush, Brooklyn as part of a student chamber music competition organized by the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

The students -- all third, fourth and fifth graders – are participants in The Harmony Program, an intensive after-school music initiative modeled on El Sistema, Venezuela's celebrated music-education project designed to help some 300,000 at-risk children. Founded in the 1970s, El Sistema has produced musicians such as Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the LA Philharmonic, and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, which has performed in the world's major concert halls.

The P.S. 152 students were the youngest in Saturday's competition, and they included Carl Charles, a trumpet player from Midwood. "I really wanted to go to the Harmony Program because it would give me something to do in college and high school,” he said. “The teachers are fun. We do lots of cool stuff, lots of cool music.”

The Harmony Program’s founder is Anne Fitzgibbon, a former public policy adviser who left her job to spend a year studying the El Sistema model in Venezuela. “I started Harmony when I was working in the New York City Mayor’s Office and I was reading all the time about how there were communities that didn’t have the resources to provide these kinds of opportunities," she explained. "It struck me as hard to fathom in a city that prides itself as being this cultural capital of the world. We have so much rich artistic talent and yet we have children who never have this opportunity to study music.”

Launched in 2008, the Harmony Program provides daily after-school lessons to approximately 100 children in three economically disadvantaged communities. In addition to Brooklyn, it operates sites at a public school in Harlem and a Bronx community center. At P.S. 152, 90 percent of the 825 students are eligible for free lunches.

Fitzgibbon looks to recruit students with a passion to learn music and willing to commit for two hours each afternoon, five days a week. The Harmony Program provides the students with instruments, sheet music, supplies and training by students and alumni from Brooklyn College’s Conservatory of Music.

Social Change First, Music Second

The Harmony Program is one of an estimated 35 to 40 programs across the U.S. that are modeled on El Sistema that have sprung up in the last three years. These have raised hopes about the ability for classical music to have a broad social impact, but also hard questions about whether a government-supported program in Venezuela can thrive in the affluent, free-market United States, where classical music has become an afterthought.

At a panel discussion on Saturday afternoon as part of the 2011 Celebration of Teaching & Learning education conference in Midtown, several leading figures in the American El Sistema movement attempted to define what distinguishes the movement from other music education initiatives targeting disadvantaged communities.

Venezuela regards El Sistema as "a social change program that uses music rather than a music program using social change,” explained Mark Churchill, the executive director of El Sistema USA, a national umbrella group. “No child sees it that way,” he added. “They think that they’re in a music program. It’s all about learning your instrument better, singing better and contributing to the ensemble. The highest values in music learning are what really brings about the social change.”

El Sistema-based programs are not lightweight. In Venezuela, students’ commitment is four hours a day, six days a week. American students may spend less time but the focus remains on intensive orchestral playing.

Christian Alonzo, the orchestra director at P.S. 152, explained how values of camaraderie and community are instilled through music. “It’s not just about ‘me’ anymore,” he said. “It’s about everyone else. As the orchestra teacher I always tell them everyone is important. If one person doesn’t practice the entire group sounds off. When everyone practices 100 percent then the group sounds perfect. Everyone feels responsible for each and every person in the orchestra.”

Managing Expectations

As El Sistema-inspired programs receive a growing share of media attention, there are signs of a backlash from traditional music educators, who may feel threatened when it comes to fighting for scarce outreach dollars. El Sistema-based programs are expensive, costing roughly $2,000 to $4,000 per child based on 15 to 20 hours per week per child contact. In Venezuela, 90 percent of the costs are covered by the government, whereas in the U.S., all of the funding comes from foundations and other private sources.

Because El Sistema-based initiatives often take place within public schools, some teachers see them as a challenge to their own longstanding efforts. There is also the fact that these are emerging at a time when public school programs face steep cuts. Stanford Thompson, the founder and director of Tune-Up Philly, a new El Sistema-inspired program in West Philadelphia, noted on Saturday how Philadelphia schools are facing a $450 million deficit; he almost placed his program in a public school that will be closed in the fall.

Fitzgibbon and Churchill argued that El Sistema programs are designed to support existing music education efforts rather than replace them. Fitzgibbon cited P.S. 152’s music teacher. “There was an amazing quote-unquote band teacher who really didn’t have enough time or the resources to develop a full band or orchestra program,” she said. “What we were able to do was in the after-school hours train this orchestra of young people. Now [the teacher] can work with them during the school day.”

After Saturday’s panel discussion, Jamie Bernstein Thomas, the writer, broadcaster and daughter of Leonard Bernstein, discussed an upcoming documentary film that she's directing about Tune-Up Philly. She believes that, despite their loose, grass-roots affiliation, American El Sistema programs will continue to expand.

“Venezuela is a country that is fraught with problems,” she explained. “They have the most grinding poverty that I’ve ever observed in my lifetime and crime. You just can’t imagine what Caracas goes through and it’s an incredibly dysfunctional place and yet El Sistema somehow manages to thrive, grow and produce these incredible results. So if this can happen in Venezuela, by golly, it can happen anywhere.”

Hear the P.S. 152 Brass Ensemble play "Trumpet Voluntary":