On March 11, in the music room of Blythe Elementary in Huntersville, 25 first- and third-grade children stepped on stage to receive the gift of a new violin. The children are the first class of MusicalMinds NC, a free, classical music program for “at-risk” children modeled upon the famed El Sistema schools of Venezuela. On stage with the children was Eduardo Cedeño, conductor of the Lake Norman Symphony Orchestra and one of El Sistema’s first students.
El Sistema was founded in 1975 in Caracas, Venezuela, by José Antonio Abreu, a 36-year-old economist and passionate musician, who wanted to bring music to barrio children trapped in generational cycles of poverty. From the first nucleo of eleven students, Dr. Abreu vowed that he would grow one of the greatest orchestras in the world.
He has succeeded. The world-renowned Símon Bolívar Youth Orchestra is a product of El Sistema, as is the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras, flourishing in Venezuela today with close to 300,000 young musicians in 200 youth, 60 children's, and 30 professional adult orchestras. Due to its monumental success, the El Sistema model has spread to more than 25 countries around the globe. Non-profit organizations across the United States have formed to initiate similar programs.
The first goal of El Sistema is not to make musicians out of kids who, for any combination of social, economic, or psychological reasons, are at-risk of dropping out of school; the first goal of El Sistema is, in the words of its founder, “social rescue and deep cultural transformation.”
Dr. Abreu understands that poverty is alienating, debilitating, and self-perpetuating. Developing a child’s talent, he believes, strengthens and elevates his spirit. Empowered with a higher ideal of himself, he is more likely to succeed in school and in society.
Eduardo Cedeno, who entered “The System” in its founding year, says of Dr. Abreu: “He removed all doubt that I could become a violinist. Other people tell you that you can’t make a career out of music; you ought to get a real job. But after I met Señor Antonio, I never looked back.”
Many El Sistema students have gone on to major international careers, the most famous of whom is Gustavo Dudamel, director of the Símon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and honorary conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden. Dudamel conducted the Simón Bolívar Orchestra at the recent funeral of President Hugo Chávez.
El Sistema achieves its remarkable results by integrating the philosophy that learning is best achieved in an atmosphere of love, approval, and fun with a methodology of disciplined teamwork and perseverance. The emphasis on ensemble work furthers the child’s personal and social development. According to Dr. Abreu, in the discipline of orchestration, they learn that their personal success can be achieved only through working in harmony with the group “because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence.”
Public performance is a requisite, as it helps the children become comfortable performing for audiences. Public appreciation also contributes immeasurably to their self-esteem, and the field trips in conjunction with public performances grow the child’s world and his vision of his place in it.
Bringing El Sistema Home
In 2008, members of the Lake Norman Kiwanis Club saw a 60 Minutes segment on El Sistema and became enthused about the possibility of launching such a program locally. For children dead-ended in poverty, a program of musical instruction modeled upon El Sistema could have not only a lifelong effect upon the children involved, but also far-reaching effects upon their communities. Such a program was profoundly resonant with the Kiwanis Club’s dedication to “saving the world, one child and one community at a time.”
Through the untiring efforts of the Lake Norman Kiwanis Club—in particular, Board Chairman Robin Noud and Vice President Tim Huber—and with the support of local and county officials, organizations and individuals, the first class of MusicalMinds NC opened at Blythe Elementary in November 2012. As all musical curricula in El Sistema begins with “simple arrangements of big pieces with big sound,” the children began their musical instruction with 5-gallon plastic buckets and drumsticks.
The students were chosen by their teachers, who were asked to suggest two children from each class who might benefit the most from the program. “When 25 parents had signed up their children,” Noud explained, “we decided it was time to begin.”
The children meet four days a week after school for a snack, 45 minutes of homework, and an hour of music lessons in rhythm and running the scales. Noud explains: “The name MusicalMinds was chosen to represent the fact that this wasn't just about music, but also about improving attendance, test scores, graduation rates, and positive decision-making skills. Or put another way, to show the correlation between music and education.”
The presentation of violins on March 11 was presided over by Noud, Executive Director Susie Showman, and Assistant Principal, Anthony Perkins. A gift of Davidson United Methodist Church, the violins were handed to the children by Frank Albert of Davidson Violins. Albert is a performer with the Salisbury Symphony and the children’s volunteer strings teacher.
The kids were well-rehearsed and well-behaved. At a word from Albert, they opened their violin cases, carefully lifted the violins by the neck and assumed the “rest” position with the violins under their right arms. Albert then put them through an exercise in preparation for assuming the “ready” position. A string or two was plucked. The children were gently admonished not to touch the strings, but here and there, the soft, tentative plucking continued.
Then at Albert’s signal, the children cupped their left hands to the shoulders of the violins. “Now turn your violins up and onto your left shoulder,” he said. Like little soldiers they complied, with varying degrees of success. Eduardo Cedeño stepped forward quickly to help one of the children move his violin into the correct position.
“When we were starting the program,” Noud said, “we didn’t know about Eduardo. Then somebody told us that a former student of El Sistema was living right here.”
An international prize-winning tenor, violin soloist and orchestra conductor in the U.S., Europe and South America and a founding member of the Símon Bolívar Orchestra, Eduardo Cedeño is actively engaged in the Statesville, Davidson, and Mooresville communities as both music teacher and orchestra conductor. Eduardo, as he is fondly called, has known and worked with José Abreu since the founding year of El Sistema.
Eduardo understands that the obstacles to fulfilling life’s “impossible dreams” can be overwhelming, but in answer, he will lean to you and, holding your eyes, quote his mentor. “Senor Antonio taught me that the bigger the dream, the bigger the challenge.” Clearly, the implication is, embrace the challenge.
So he was there on March 11, reaching to move a violin from a child’s right to his left shoulder. Finally, the children laid their cheeks gently to the gleaming wood of the violins – in taking ownership of his music, Dr. Abreu teaches, the child takes ownership of his destiny – and they began to sing,
“This is my violin, this is where I put my chin…”
In his opening remarks, Assistant Principal Perkins said to the assembled parents and teachers, “We have hidden treasure here. How do we know what we are growing in this garden?”
This story is produced through the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance (CAJA), a consortium of local media dedicated to covering the arts.