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Hartford Symphony Orchestra Brings 'El Sistema'-Style Music Program To School System

CityMusic Starts At Burns Latino Studies Academy

Vanessa De La Torre

November 25, 2011

Six-year-old Raul Mojica stood straight and tilted his head, correctly resting the violin against his chin.

"Does he look like a violinist?" Angelica Durrell asked the first-graders sitting in a classroom at the Latino Studies Academy at Burns Elementary School.

"Yes!" they answered.

Durrell, the lead teacher for a new Hartford Symphony Orchestra program with the school system, then kneeled and took a mock photo of Raul holding the violin. "Tsch-ch!"

Outside, the sun was beginning to set, and one by one, the students got their chance to picture themselves as classical musicians. It's an image that orchestra and school officials hope to cultivate through CityMusic.

The after-school pilot initiative at Burns is inspired by El Sistema, the Venezuelan, state-sponsored social services program that created youth orchestras and has offered free music training for hundreds of thousands of children, most of whom are poor. Gustavo Dudamel, the star conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a product of "The System" and has praised its transformative effect.

There have been spinoffs in at least several American cities, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's after-school "OrchKids" program, launched in 2008. In Michigan, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra has been working with the public schools to start its own program.

Hartford's version is similarly focused on teaching discipline and responsibility as much as the fundamentals of playing the violin and other instruments "a social action program through music," said Jackie Coleman, the city schools' senior executive adviser for the arts.

CityMusic comes as the school system looks to more arts education as a facet of its reform. "The goal is to have music and art programs at every one of our schools, across all grades," Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said.

And for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, under new maestra Carolyn Kuan and CEO Andrea Stalf, there is a push to extend beyond the Bushnell and play a role in urban neighborhoods such as Burns' Frog Hollow section. Although the orchestra has performed for Hartford students, in part through its "Discovery" and "Symphony in the Schools" concerts, officials said, CityMusic is the first time that it has hired instructors for a near-daily, long-term program hosted in the city schools.

The orchestra is funding about 70 percent of CityMusic, with the school system picking up the rest, Stalf said.

Parents of more than 50 Burns students in kindergarten, first and second grades have signed up their children to stay after school for three hours on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The sessions culminate with dinner and time for homework in the school gym. The Kitchen at Billings Forge plans to provide healthy snacks.

The Connecticut Center for Nonviolence also offers a "Peace is Possible" curriculum to students that includes history lessons and art, and revolves around dealing with emotions and resolving conflict. The idea is that a peaceful child can adapt to the challenges of working with others and, potentially, be able to perform in a musical ensemble.

Hartford Performs, a nonprofit art education collaborative associated with the Greater Hartford Arts Council, is a partner for the nonviolence curriculum.

On Monday afternoon, after the choir and music sessions, the task for second-graders was simple: draw something that makes them happy. One boy drew a picture of his house, as an instrumental version of Kansas' "Dust In The Wind" played from a stereo.

"Those tools are about confidence," Stalf said. "The program is ultimately about reaching children when they're still cultivating their sense of identity."

"It's definitely not a substitute for a music class, although we cover that in great, extensive deal."

For now, one of the biggest challenges appears to be the children's focus. Students began meeting with CityMusic teaching artists on Nov. 7 after the October snowstorm delayed the start of the program. Earlier this week, a group of 11 kindergartners learned how to clap on beat and in unison, although a few seemed distracted and didn't always follow instructions.

That's to be expected, at least initially, Coleman said. She was pleased that the first-graders were already handling the violin carefully, with "respect for this instrument, in addition to respect for one another."

The introduction to classical music will be gradual. Students are learning American and Latin folk music, and sang for parents at a Thanksgiving school celebration last week.

Aside from their brief moments with the violin children had to identify the chin rest they will be using "paper" instruments in the next few months. Each has a cardboard cutout of a violin that they have decorated and will use to learn the basics of rhythm, holding the bow and correct posture. Students are expected to receive real violins around March.

Over the next decade, school and orchestra officials said, the plan is to expand the program to Burns' older elementary grades and gradually to the rest of the school system.

Those interested in donating to CityMusic may contact Tracy Wu Fastenburg at 860-244-2999, Ext. 302, or twu@hartfordsymphony.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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