Violins and Teamwork, Empowerment and Popsicles

el sistemaEl Sistema's young members take the stage during the orchestra's five-year celebration concert in June. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

At El Sistema Youth Orchestra, kids make friends while making music.

The 2016-2017 school year may have ended in June, but music educator David Palombo hasn’t stopped thinking about the kids in his classes.

“One of our big missions is to support the whole student,” he explains on a hot summer afternoon.

Palombo is the executive director of El Sistema, an after-school youth orchestra at the East Somerville Community School. He oversees the program, which provides musical instruction, homework help and more—yes, including snack time and recess—on weekdays from 2:30 to 5:30 during the school year.

El Sistema is both more than just an orchestra and more than just an after-school program. Intrinsic to the group are principles of diversity, teamwork, academic success and emotional empowerment for its students.

The roots of El Sistema run deep—they’re global, in fact, and older than you might think. Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, a professional musician, founded the first El Sistema youth orchestra in his home of Venezuela in 1975. Seeing the educational inequality in his community, particularly in music, he decided to create a music program for students of all backgrounds.

“All my life, I dreamed that all Venezuelan children have the same opportunity that I had,” Dr. Abreau said about his creation in a 2009 TED Talk. “From that desire and from my heart stemmed the idea to make music a deep and global reality for my country.”

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Dr. Abreu’s first El Sistema practice consisted of teaching 11 music students in a garage in Venezuela. It’s now grown into a worldwide network, and more than 100 youth orchestras work in the spirit of Dr. Abreu’s flagship around the world.

In Somerville, that sister orchestra arrived like a phoenix out of the ashes of a December 2007 fire that destroyed the East Somerville Community School. Silas de Oliveira, the assistant director of El Sistema, explains that while East Somerville Community School had a music program before the devastating blaze, Somerville Public Schools music director Rick Saunders used the reconstruction process as an opportunity to invest in East Somerville and “intensify the musical education” in the community.

The district introduced its instrument giveaway program in 2007 after Mayor Curtatone ordered a $100,000 city payment, according to a 2012 story in the Boston Globe. That program provided students with more than 2,000 free instruments between 2007 and 2012, and Curtatone told the paper then that raising another $100,000 to launch El Sistema was a logical next step.

“We’re going to make this happen,” he said at the time. “Money can’t be an excuse. There was some negative commentary asking how we could afford it, but I say how can we not?’’

When the East Somerville Community School reopened after six years of construction, El Sistema was part of its core programming. Now five years old, El Sistema Somerville was the first municipally funded chapter in the United States.

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Parents pay a sliding-scale fee, and many students receive full or partial scholarships from the city to participate. At the close of its fifth year in June, El Sistema had a student body of 60, with 75 registered to participate next year. According to Palombo, it will expand to the high school in 2018, giving students the potential to participate from third grade until they graduate (the program now ends at the eighth-grade level).

While rigorous music instruction is the crown jewel and mission of El Sistema, it’s only part of a greater mosaic of education and support the program provides. Teamwork, commitment, respect, communication and empathy are five “core values” of the orchestra; children learn to play music, but also how to feel empowered while supporting their peers. A big part of the program’s core values hinges on celebrating Somerville’s cultural diversity.

The orchestra’s study body represents 40 countries and 12 different languages, and the majority of students speak more than one language in their daily life. El Sistema educators embrace this diversity: “Students teach each other how to say ‘thank you’ in their home language,” de Oliveira explains.

This year, as part of their five-year celebration on June 6, students performed music from Venezuela, Brazil and South Africa. They played alongside East Somerville Main Streets Carnaval musicians, further connecting El Sistema with the larger community.

For Palombo, the most rewarding aspect of the program is watching how each student develops individually—not just musically, but also academically and socially. “It’s great seeing how students work together: making friends while making music,” he says.

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This resonates profoundly with de Oliveira as both an immigrant and a Somervillian. “When I came here from Brazil in 1999, I lived four blocks from this school,” he says. He attended Somerville Public Schools and graduated from the high school. He’s able to empathize with the harsh realities of being both a documented and undocumented immigrant, while also recognizing—like Dr. Abreau of Venezuela did—just how difficult it can be for a pupil to even lay hands on an instrument in other countries. He sees the rich educational opportunity students have in El Sistema.

And thus, de Oliveira and the other instructors create more than just space for musical expression. The faculty pay close attention to what each student needs as they develop. Do they need individual instrument practice? Do they need to be in sectional? Do they need extra homework help? Or, do they need something else entirely?

As de Oliveira puts it:

“Sometimes a kid just needs to sit outside with a popsicle and talk about life. Sometimes what they need is a time to express themselves and be listened to.”

This story appears in the July/August print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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