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A Day in the Life of El Sistema

by Annie Gordon

Many people are aware of El Sistema as a movement of social change, but few know the daily ins and outs of a single program — the small steps that add up to great impact in young lives. MYCincinnati, Cincinnati’s El Sistema-inspired program, is making that sort of impact, and we all might learn from looking into the details of their success. After spending the summer with the program, and on the heels of my recent series on El Sistema, I thought it fitting to continue that series with a look into the day-to-day operations of MYCincinnati to see what lessons might be shared.

IMG_1055After graduating from the Sistema Fellows Program in 2010 cellist Laura Jekel moved to Cincinnati to begin an after-school music program in the neighborhood of Price Hill. Jekel serves as teacher, conductor, arranger, and director of MYCincinnati, and the program (featured in an earlier story of this series) has grown into a bustling musical center that now sees more than fifty young people in two orchestras every day after school.

Like so many teaching musicians, Jekel begins her day with practicing her instrument, in her case the cello. Next up is the drive to her small office on the second floor of the office building of Price Hill Will!, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the enrichment of the Price Hill area and from whom MyCincinnati  receives administrative support. The morning consists of the nitty-gritty elements of leading, funding, and organizing a youth orchestra: phone calls, e-mails, thank you notes, and of course musical scores and parts to prepare.

After a quick lunch and errands such as buying snacks for the kids or sending mailers off to potential donors, it is time to head over to the MYCincinnati building, a short drive from the office space. This early afternoon focuses on preparing the learning space and meeting with teachers to discuss the lesson plans for the day. As students arrive, Jekel and the teachers greet parents and update them on concert dates, carpool arrangements, or volunteering needs. This face-to-face time during drop-off is crucial for effective communication with parents.

At 4:00 the program begins. Students divide into two or three orchestras depending on the day and start with cognitive warm-ups such as rhythm exercises, singing, and playing scales. Warm-ups are often turned in to a game and the exercises always have high energy right from the start. All three of the MYCincinnati teachers have different teaching styles — some with more energy and volume and others with a more concentrated intensity — but all keep the students engaged. When all students are ready, the teachers begin to rehearse the orchestral repertoire, which will be performed in concerts throughout the city every week or so.

The repertoire of the MYCincinnati orchestras reaches a very high level for students who are relatively new to their instruments. Every piece is arranged by the MYCincinnati teachers and excerpted from a well-known symphony, opera, or chamber work. For example, the most advanced orchestra is playing arrangements of the melodies from Wagner’s opera Tannhauser and the second movement of Ravel’s String Quartet. The students enjoy this music very much and are often heard humming the tunes during break times or after program. Little did they know what great melodies they could already play and perform together!

Break time, with a healthy grant-funded snack, comes at the halfway point. Though welcome for all students and teachers, the break is not necessarily idle time. Many students practice, work on tricky passages, or play the rhythm warm-ups together as a game.

After break another hour of orchestra ensues. Often during this second hour, some students receive private lessons or instruction in group sections from volunteers who help every day. The two or three orchestras may be placed all together to work on repertoire to prepare for big upcoming events in which the entire program would be present and performing together. In this case, one teacher conducts while the other teachers walks among the students correcting, posture, bow holds, finger positions, or wrong notes.

IMG_1089As in all youth programs, discipline can be an issue from time to time. Jekel and her fellow teachers have a unique method of responding. In most cases they do not remove children from the room or the situation, but leave them in their place, with their instrument. The teachers work to cultivate pride and an innate desire to play with and support their colleagues, a desire that trumps most other distractions. Students can be distracted or exhibit behavioral problems, but they recognize their individual value within the orchestra and understand that leaving the group, or giving up in the face of a challenge, would be letting their colleagues down. The MYCincinnati orchestra pride is evident in all parts of the program house.

At 6:00 the day’s program ends, the students are picked up by their parents or walk home, and teachers stay to clean up and chat about the day. Often we chat excitedly about a student who did particularly well or made an especially intelligent observation, or about one who struggled. In both cases the conversations serve as a happy reminder of why we are doing this work.

While not necessarily the “typical” days, weekends are often busy as well, filled with performances and program planning. This summer MYCincinnati participates in community concerts, including a side-by-side performance with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, as well as fundraising events such as a “Downton Abbey” themed gathering at the Peterloon, a historical house and property outside of Cincinnati. At each event a small quartet or group of older students from the program perform for the donors, after which they mingle and answer questions about how their lives were changed by music – difficult, but powerful questions for 14-year-olds to ponder.

My time spent at MYCincinnati with Laura leaves me with a feeling of fulfillment like none I had ever felt before. I sense a strong purpose and thrive off of both the successful times and also the challenges I had to overcome as a new teacher and newcomer to the students’ lives. Trust with the students builds slowly with an newcomer like myself, but every obstacle is worth overcoming for the connections made between us. I eagerly look forward to working through the same challenges and successes again and again for the rest of my life as an avid promoter of El Sistema in the USA.


Links of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue, the Rest of Annie Gordon’s Series on El Sistema:

“What is El Sistema” (Part I) by Annie Gordon

“The Many Faces of El Sistema in the USA” (Part II) by Annie Gordon

“El Sistema Before El Sistema: Rodney McCoy and Ozanam Strings” (Part III) by Annie Gordon

“El Sistema in Pittsburgh” (Part IV) by Annie Gordon

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