One of the most powerful movements in music education today is Venezuala's El Sistema, a Venezuelan public health initiative that has created one of the most dynamic ensembles in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra as well as one of the world's most dynamic conductors in Gustavo Dudamel. As a product of this youth development program, Dudamel has nurtured YOLA—the "Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles"—as the LA Phil's own El Sistema-inspired project. It started 3 years ago with YOLA @ EXPO and continues to grow with the addition of YOLA @ HOLA, the site of the Symphony Band's visit this morning.
YOLA @ HOLA began with 100 low income, at risk students in the 1st and 4th grades. Fifty-five or so 1st graders study violin and viola, while forty-five 4th graders study winds and brass instruments. After only 8 months of study, these students can already get around their instruments with basic facility to the point where individuals were performing solos on the opening melody from the third movement of Gustav Mahler's First "Titan" Symphony—i.e., the famous string bass solo, a version in minor of the folk song "Frére Jacques / Bruder Martin." These kids love Beethoven, Mozart, and especially MAHLER!
I was particularly impressed with the early focus on musical expression, even before the fundamentals of rhythm and intonation were completely in place. Expression, of course, is the purpose of art and thus music's fundamental motivation. These kids certainly have the horse and cart moving in the right order. Both are necessary, but with time, experience, and the growth of the program (and thus the opportunities for peer instruction), instrumental technique will certainly develop. The YOLA students' knowledge and skill is already impressive, due to the minimum of 5 days / week of three-hour instruction. This includes group instrumental lessons, ensemble rehearsals, musicianship, AND time and support for their regular school homework! I spoke to several parents who were so grateful for the opportunity that their kids enjoyed at YOLA and credited the program with improved academic performance and prospects for a future college education. Certainly I'd be happy to see these young musicians at UM's School of Music, Theatre & Dance in another ten years.
Our visit began with a warm-up song and dance, then some of our student chamber ensembles performed a brief 30-minute recital. Sectionals followed with U-M symphony band musicians teaching YOLA musicians and offering advice on tone, rhythm, breathing, musicianship, etc. Symphony Band players then joined the YOLA winds in an ensemble rehearsal, playing simplified arrangements of orchestral themes by Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler. A question and answer session about colleage and a few more chamber music performances followed. Before we knew it, it was noon and our three hours had flown by.
It was an inspiring morning and that showcased the power of music education to transform self and social opportunity.
P.S. If you're interested in learning more about El Sistema, see the El Sistema USA website or a couple of my previous blog posts on this initiative -- here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).