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Hitting the right note in musical education

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Tlalli Garcia, 7, seems to be expressing her feelings about her cello during an after-school orchestra program at Dolores Gonzales Elementary School. The program, called the Young Musician Initiative, gives students from kindergarten through fifth grade the chance to learn about and play music. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Tlalli Garcia, 7, seems to be expressing her feelings about her cello during an after-school orchestra program at Dolores Gonzales Elementary School. The program, called the Young Musician Initiative, gives students from kindergarten through fifth grade the chance to learn about and play music. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Playing the violin is hard, 9-year-old Ricky Sanchez says.

But that hasn’t stopped the third-grade Dolores Gonzales Elementary student from spending at least four days a week practicing so he can perform in an orchestra with his classmates.

“It’s really fun,” Sanchez said. “Last year, we got to play at the zoo.”

The New Mexico Philharmonic started the after-school orchestra program, called the Young Musician Initiative, last winter at the Downtown-area school, where nearly all the students come from low-income families.

The goal was to give children opportunities to play an instrument, make music with their peers as an orchestra and receive musical training from experts, said Maureen Baca, president of the New Mexico Philharmonic.

“We really want to reach the kids who need it the most,” Baca said.

There are 43 children enrolled in the program and they practice Monday through Thursday from the end of the school day at 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. The young musicians meet in a gym, where they eat a snack and practice. On Thursdays, they play together as an orchestra.

When they’re not playing at school, they’re playing at home. Baca estimated the New Mexico Philharmonic raised about $12,000 to buy the kids instruments so they could take them home.

Dolores Gonzales Principal Lori Stuit said she is happy to have the program. Among the benefits has been a positive impact on student grades, Stuit said.

Between January and spring 2013 – the first semester the program was in place – teachers reported that 46 percent of students in the program had improved math scores and 62 percent improved their reading scores.

Stuit said the program has improved their concentration, self-confidence and sense of community with fellow students.

“I think many schools would benefit from having this program,” Stuit said.

El Sistema

The Young Musician Initiative is modeled after a Venezuelan method of teaching children orchestra music called “el Sistema,” said Alexis Corbin, who directs the program. She is also the operations coordinator and personnel manager at the New Mexico Philharmonic.

Founded by Venezuelan economist and musician José Antonio Abreu in the 1970s, el Sistema has grown in popularity in South America and, more recently, in the United States. The program focuses on ensemble participation and preparing for concerts.

Corbin said she and the other Young Musician Initiative instructors – many of whom are affiliated with the Philharmonic – have received training from musicians steeped in el Sistema curriculum. She said they have traveled to Los Angeles and Philadelphia for training seminars.

From left, Jasmine Ruiz, 9, Eric Lewis, 11, and Lily Garcia, 11, are pictured with their violins during an after-school orchestra program at Dolores Gonzales Elementary. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

From left, Jasmine Ruiz, 9, Eric Lewis, 11, and Lily Garcia, 11, are pictured with their violins during an after-school orchestra program at Dolores Gonzales Elementary. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

While the Young Musician Initiative has a healthy number of participants, Corbin said it can be a difficult commitment for families. The kids are required to attend four and sometimes five days a week. Some families say they miss the time with their children, Corbin said.

A chance to perform

Because an important part of the el Sistema method is performing, Corbin said students play for their parents several times a month.

They also have performed at larger shows open to the public, like last Mother’s Day concert at the Rio Grande Zoo when the students performed as the opening act for the New Mexico Philharmonic.

Sanchez, the young violinist, said playing at the zoo was both nerve-wracking and a blast. “I felt glad and excited” afterward, he said.

Baca said the New Mexico Philharmonic hopes to expand the initiative to other schools, including middle schools and, potentially, high schools.

“Music can change the life of any child,” Baca said.

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