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CityMusic Cleveland project shows music's power as an agent of social change
Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer, May 27, 2010

Five months ago, these kids could hardly sit still.

They continue to fidget from time to time, but they snap to attention when Amitai Vardi speaks in his most forceful voice.

"Instruments up, everybody," says the conductor, who's also a clarinetist in CityMusic Cleveland, the professional chamber orchestra that gives free concerts around the region. "I need everybody's eyes here."

Soon, the young string and recorder players are immersed in the "Spring" movement from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."

"Let's do it one more time and we'll take a break," Vardi says.

"I love you," pipes one of the musicians.

"Only if you do well," says the conductor.

The scene is a classroom on the second floor of St. Stanislaus Elementary School in Cleveland's Slavic Village neighborhood. Twice a week, 30 students in second through fifth grades at St. Stanislaus and two nearby schools join forces to rehearse for several hours after school.

The CityMusic Cleveland Youth Orchestra, part of the organization's education program, is starting to make a difference in the lives of children in low-income communities. The project was inspired by El Sistema, the celebrated music-education program in Venezuela that sweeps youths off the streets and into symphony orchestras throughout the country.

El Sistema was founded in 1975 by Venezuelan economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu, who gathered 11 children in his garage to rehearse classical works and show them the power of communal music-making.

Today, more than 350,000 Venezuelan youngsters and teens are involved after school in these life-changing experiences, which the Venezuelan government pays for to the tune of $78 million a year.

Abreu's program has gained wide attention in recent years, especially since the explosive emergence of its most prominent participant, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Through performances and recordings with El Sistema's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, Dudamel has helped put the program on the global map.

In the United States, the method has been taken up by the L.A. Philharmonic, Baltimore Symphony and other arts institutions. Last year, Boston's New England Conservatory of Music invited 10 postgraduate musicians to initiate its Abreu Fellows Program and help spread the word of El Sistema.

One of the Abreu Fellows doing so is Jonathan Govais, who recently spent three weeks working with teachers and students in CityMusic's education program.

"What they're doing lies at the heart of El Sistema -- going into communities and giving free concerts," says the Canadian-born conductor. "The program at St. Stan's reflects the ideology of El Sistema on a small scale."

CityMusic isn't totally new to El Sistema practices. Last year, Rebecca Schweigert, the orchestra's principal oboe and head of the education program, was introduced to an audience member from Venezuela, Regina Giraldo, a former El Sistema teacher who was studying music education at Cleveland State University. Giraldo is now part of the CityMusic education team.

Govais, 34, also has witnessed the lessons of El Sistema firsthand. For two months this year, he worked with students in Venezuelan towns and cities, and he met with Abreu.

"It's not a music-in-excellence program," says Govais. "It's a program employed as an agent of social change effected by striving for musical excellence. Abreu believes the orchestra is a metaphor for community. There is no individual success without the success of everyone else." Teachers and children in the CityMusic program appear to agree. Vardi, known to his students as Mr. Ami, says the players have come far since they were handed stringed instruments in January. They've improved even though they're not yet permitted to take their instruments -- all donated to CityMusic -- home between rehearsals.

"At the very beginning, we had some big troublemakers," says Vardi. "There were some fights. It's been a huge transformation."

Fifth-grader Cameron Irizarry, 10, says playing violin in the CityMusic Youth Orchestra is "useful and fun. It can teach you to play an instrument if you're going to have a concert career. It shows you how to play cooperatively with others."

The group's sole bass player is Courtney Brewer, 10, a fourth-grader who enjoys doing something after school other than watching television.

"You can learn a lot," she says. "It teaches you how to behave and be patient."

At one point during the rehearsal, Govais -- violin in hands -- puts the young players through strict paces.

"Rest position," he says, prompting the musicians to remove bows from instruments. "Ready position."

Govais plays a rhythm and asks the students to repeat it. Several get it right. He plays a trickier rhythm. The game elicits noisy responses and a bit of lax discipline.

"Why are you using the backs of your chairs?" Govais booms about posture. "Sit up straight."

Barbara Bachtell, executive director of the Broadway School of Music & the Arts not far from St. Stanislaus, said the addition of the CityMusic program greatly enlarges the opportunity for collaborations among other local educational organizations in response to the musical needs of area children and families.

"Now a child can start with Suzuki violin lessons at age 5 at Villa Montessori, continue with lessons at Broadway School and move seamlessly into CityMusic's youth orchestra, no matter where in the neighborhood that the child actually attends school," she says.

"With cooperation and additional resources, other similar collaborations are surely possible."

Unlike El Sistema, which receives generous support from the Venezuelan government, the CityMusic program is funded on a shoestring through donations.

But Govais is convinced CityMusic is on the right track.

"It's essentially a pilot program," he says. "I'm sure it will produce big social dividends. Abreu's attitude is: Do something and do it now. That's exactly what CityMusic has done."