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Time for Cleveland's budding El Sistema music education movement to expand
Margaret Bernstein, The Plain Dealer, April 20, 2013

El Sistema classes are designed to provide high-quality music training to children who can least afford it.

El Sistema, you continue to play with my heartstrings.

I've written in the past about this gutsy and successful effort to save children through music. The El Sistema model, which originated in Venezuela and is now internationally acclaimed, shows how a rigorous, inspiring afterschool music program can change the lives of low-income kids. It provides intense, high-quality music training to children who can least afford it, and gives them the exposure, mentoring and life skills needed to navigate out of poverty.

On Friday, you could see the ever-growing reach of this program as close to 1,000 people walked into the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus -- in the rain -- to hear the stirring sound of strings played by Slavic Village children in one of Cleveland's two El Sistema programs.

I'm guessing you've never heard Michael Jackson's "Beat It" played purely by violins and cellos?

Trust me, you would have enjoyed it. Guest composer Obadiah Baker, a Cleveland native, created a strings-only arrangement of the hit song that won over the schoolkids in the audience, prompting grins and nods of recognition.

Tiranay Campbell, a fifth-grader at St. Stanislaus School, is one of 51 youngsters participating in the four-day-a-week afterschool program sponsored by CityMusic Cleveland. "I like Mozart and Beethoven," said Tiranay, a violinist recently accepted into the Cleveland School of the Arts music program.

But it's especially fun to play a Michael Jackson song, she added. Baker had a pointed reason for choosing "Beat It.”

The song, Baker told me, has a strong message for kids growing up amid urban violence: "Subliminally, it encourages children to be responsible when confronted with peer pressure and to tell their bullies to beat it.”

Playing in the El Sistema orchestra not only teaches kids to play an instrument, they get to meet people like 31-year-old Baker. He's a New England Conservatory of Music graduate and an Army captain who recently returned from serving in Afghanistan.

I've written in the past about the high-profile El Sistema program at Rainey Institute, an arts education center on the edge of Hough. It is lucky enough to be sponsored by the Cleveland Orchestra and has its instruments donated by a local company.

Slavic Village's El Sistema program was actually Ohio's first, but it lacks the enviable philanthropic backing that allows Rainey to put its program on five days a week. Founded by CityMusic, a musical ensemble dedicated to presenting free concerts in Cleveland neighborhoods, this five-year-old program uses donated instruments, not new ones.

Although local merchants have been kind to fix and tune the instruments, an old discarded violin rarely sounds like a new one. "Sometimes you can't tell how good the children are" because the instruments they're playing are so lousy, said CityMusic Executive Director Eugenia Strauss with a laugh. "But that's all we have.”

It's a program with a scrappy personality, dedicated to serving Slavic Village kids living below the poverty line. The kids practice in a rented space that used to be a coffee shop. Passersby who hear the music often inquire about getting their kids involved, which the organizers love.

"It's meant for the entire neighborhood," said David Krakowski, music director for St. Stanislaus church, who has embraced the program and helped it land crucial grants.

And then there's the food. CityMusic makes a point of nourishing the souls of its performers by sharing meals. Kids in the afterschool program always get something hot, from lasagna to hot dogs. Meals are prepared by Strauss or by CityMusic trustees.

CityMusic hopes to eventually buy the old coffee shop building and to add another hour to its program, making things easier for working parents who now have to scramble to pick up their child at 5 p.m. It stretches its limited funds to the max, somehow finding a way to pay for some youths to take part in Cuyahoga Community College's All-City Youth Orchestra.

In Venezuela, El Sistema is government-funded, and Strauss gave me a wry smile while telling me that the cost of incarcerating a juvenile in Ohio for a year is about $78,000, according to a Justice Policy Institute study.

"If I had $78,000, I could run my program for a year, five days a week!" Strauss said. "I would be thrilled.”

Could El Sistema become as widespread here as it is in Venezuela, where every neighborhood has its own "nucleo" or afterschool music program? Cleveland, which struggles with urban poverty and yet is home to world-class musicians and devoted arts patrons, seems as likely a spot as anywhere to produce the public and private partnerships needed to sustain such a movement.

The time seems ripe to consider it. Jose Antonio Abreu, visionary founder of Venezuela's El Sistema program, visits Cleveland May 16-18 to speak at the Cleveland Institute of Music commencement.

And Cleveland Orchestra violinist Isabel Trautwein, the founder of Rainey's El Sistema program, is planning to expand to a second location.

That's what it would take -- more neighborhood centers introducing the free El Sistema programs, creating a network where more kids could take classes from accomplished teachers and perform occasionally with other children in community-wide concerts, most likely at Severance Hall.

This is one program where duplication isn't deadly. By planting more El Sistema programs in poor neighborhoods, it eliminates transportation woes for kids whose parents can't get them to lessons across town.

"The more nuclei you have, the more you will capture children who will benefit," said CityMusic oboe player Becky Mayhew. "That's the beauty of El Sistema."