by Mike Telin

ESUC-1The young string players of El Sistema @ Rainey and El Sistema University Circle will be featured during the Martin Luther King Day open house at Severance Hall on Monday, January 20 in a one-hour performance beginning at 3:00 pm.

Two of Cleveland’s El Sistema programs were launched by Cleveland Orchestra violinist Isabel Trautwein, who established her first program at the Rainey Institute in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood three years ago after studying El Sistema principles in Boston and Venezuela during a sabbatical from the orchestra. She established the University Circle program last fall.

Trautwein invited ClevelandClassical to follow El Sistema University Circle. We observed six sessions including rehearsals and private lessons on Friday afternoons between October and mid-November, with a follow-up visit on January 9.

What is this phenomenon called El Sistema? It seems to have taken musical education around the globe by storm and has led to the creation of organizations like The National Alliance of El Sistema-Inspired Programs in the United States— many of which have connections to music schools and symphony orchestras.

“El Sistema” directly translates to “The System,” and has become the common term for the world-wide movement of social action through music, and especially through youth orchestras. Founded in 1975 in Venezuela by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu, the original El Sistema has become a state foundation which supervises Venezuela’s 125 youth orchestras and the training programs that feed into them.

El Sistema is about creating a network or pipeline of music programs that is simple and natural,” Trautwein says, “so it’s all about creating access to that pipeline at a low or reasonable cost, identifying the children who have a love and interest for it, and sending them down that pipeline.”

From the beginning of my observation, I was struck that what was happening in the room didn’t seem so different from the education I and many others received in public schools. So what is so different about El Sistema? “The name has created such excitement because of the dream associated with it,” Trautwein said, referring to the hope that program can solve many societal woes. “At its best it is as good as many orchestra or band programs in the United States have been for many years. There’s nothing really different about the work that we are doing. But I think the media attention has helped get people interested in classical music who might not otherwise be interested, from the funding side and for the children and their families who are involved.”

Trautwein notes that the pipeline has existed in this country since the 50s and the 60s. “We don’t need to re-invent what they did in Venezuela — they had to create a whole education project with orchestras and ensembles. We don’t need to do that, but we do need a way of getting everyone who wants to go on to play in the many great preparatory ensembles in the area. Many have the good fortune of coming from family situations where they naturally go down these pipelines, but they are closed off for many.”

It takes a lot of personnel to run a program that meets five days a week from 3 to 6:30 pm and in addition to the orchestra, offers private lessons. Music mentors from The Cleveland Orchestra include cellist Tanya Ell, violinists Sae Shiragami and Miho Hashizume, whose services are provided by the Musical Arts Association; violinist Charles Morey and bassist Russ Thompson from CIM; and music teacher Linda Simon-Mietus from Hathaway Brown School. In addition to Trautwein, staff members include violinist Stephen Sims, cellist Daniel Pereira and artistic director David Malek. Sessions are held at University Circle Methodist Church.

Malek, who prefers teaching to talking, demonstrates an unbridled passion for instilling in his students the love of achieving perfection. “David is really driven by teaching,” Trautwein said, something that’s also true in her own case. “I’m fascinated by all of our children but I’m especially driven by the children for whom it is most difficult. It’s great when I see someone begin to focus for longer periods of time. Music really consists of a common pulse, a rhythm and a quality of sound. And when they make that connection it becomes greater than all of us. I can point to the children who I feel have made that connection.”

Steven Sims’s interest in the program originated in Suzuki. While studying for his master’s at CIM, he learned that the philosophies of both José Antonio Abreu and Shin’ichi Suzuki coincided. “Both began as high musical ideas with a social agenda,” Sims said. Suzuki is quoted as saying, “I want to make good citizens. If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.”

Sims notes that sometimes people want instant results. “They don’t want it to take thirty years,” adding, “in the beginning things are going to be messy.” At first it was a bit wild but he says, “now the kids are getting used to being part of a real rehearsal,” adding that it’s important at this stage of development to be in structured rehearsals. “We have the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra and Contemporary Youth Orchestra, but this is the first step in getting them prepared to be part of ensembles like those.”

Everyone who has studied music knows that it takes a lot of repetitive, daily work to produce results. What do the students themselves get out of this experience? Where do they hope it will take them?

A student at Village Prep, Noah Hutchinson told us that he enjoys the daily practice. “Some day I want to play in the Cleveland Orchestra because they get to tour all over the world. I think it’s important to learn about different cultures,” he said.

Someday Zamani Munashe hopes to be able to travel to Africa. “This is a great experience,” says Zamani, a student at Citizens Academy who has been playing violin for four years. “I like the many sounds the instrument can make.”

Mariah Burton, a student at Citizens Academy, has been playing viola for almost four years. She says it was her first teacher, Miss Courtney, who inspired her to continue. “Music is fun, and I get to learn things” she says, adding that she thinks everyone should play in an orchestra. She hopes to travel to Paris one day.

Village Prep student MaiLonnie Walton began playing the violin after seeing and hearing one at the Rainey Institute in first grade. She has now been playing for three years and is very clear about her desire to travel to France.

And Jason Tong says he just thinks that traveling is fun. Like Walton, Tong, a student at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel began the violin at Rainey. “My mom said I had to go.” But he now admits that he’s very glad that she did.

Irene Walton, the grandmother of MaiLonnie Walton, says she finds the program to be excellent. “I enrolled her because it’s important [for kids] to become part of a team and to learn how to work with others. But now she wants to be here.” She adds that she’s very happy for her granddaughter to have an opportunity she never had herself. “I’d tell all parents, if they have the opportunity, let your kids play an instrument, but you need to be dedicated to work with your child so they can see that it matters to you too.” Walton has been volunteering for the program from the beginning, and she has high praise for Trautwein’s leadership. “Isabel is so patient and encouraging, she’s just an awesome teacher.”

Program administrator Lauren Generette, who has a long background in education and administration, said “I am interested in all things that change lives,” she said. She believes that being part of a program like this sends a message that “If I can do this difficult thing, then I can also do that difficult thing.” Generette also sees it as just the beginning of establishing a network of children’s orchestras. “It’s all about kids having access.”

Oberlin Winter Term volunteer Rachel Mooers, who hails from Wisconsin, previously worked for Progression, an El Sistema-inspired program in Milwaukee. Although she is new to the University Circle program, she is impressed with the amount of personal attention each student receives. “I think this will contribute greatly to their individual growth. I was amazed by their music reading and overall level of playing. It was very clear that Isabel and all of the teachers have been taking good care of the students.”

During the observation period, I developed a true appreciation of the commitment of the teachers, the parents and especially of the students. Over the holiday break, fifteen students took part in a Practice Challenge involving a daily regimen of warmups, technical studies and repertoire, chronicled in a daily log to be initialed by the parents after each session.

The program will also be offering free, 30-minute weekly private lessons under the condition that students and parents agree to practice 100 minutes each week, to be certified by a parent’s signature. Additionally, students are required to write a 50-word essay explaining why they want to take private lessons. I joked with Isabel Trautwein that it’s kind of like asking them to complete a grant application, “Well, we’re giving away a lot,” she said with a chuckle.

Trautwein is pleased to see the continuing success of the program at Rainey under the direction of Brittany Kubiak, which has an enrollment of 55 students this year. Trautwein sees this as only the beginning, but believes that Northeast Ohio is well-positioned to keep the pipeline expanding.

“The area has so many graduates of music schools who are working in the service industry. Many stay in the area because of its relatively low cost of living. We have five CIM graduates who are now teaching at Rainey. That is a step in the right direction — having more musicians employed as musicians.”

In addition to many individual donors, including Ginny and Jon Lindseth, El Sistema University Circle is funded by the Maltz Foundation, the Payne Family Foundation, the Ginn Family Foundation and the Char and Chuck Family Foundation, and partners with the Musical Arts Association (The Cleveland Orchestra) and University Circle Methodist Church.

Daniel Hathaway contributed to this article.

Published on ClevelandClassical.com January 14. 2014

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