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El Sistema and Pittsburgh. Part IV of a Series

by Annie Gordon

Children participating in the community music program of Assemble PGH (Photo: Assemble)

Children participating in the community music program of Assemble PGH (Photo: Assemble)

The series on El Sistema for The Muse Dialogue concludes with a look at programs in our hometown of Pittsburgh, programs inspired by El Sistema in some way or reflective of the aspirations of social justice through music education. In a short time I have met many incredible people who are enthusiastically committed to the Pittsburgh community, and specifically to urban education, particularly music education. These initiatives inspired me to join the ranks of those making a difference in the lives of Pittsburgh youth. The search for the spirit of El Sistema in Pittsburgh reveals that the news is good!

El Sistema Pittsburgh in the Making

Retired PSO violinst Roy Sonne, and Pittsburgh Public School teacher Jim Charlton are on a mission to initiate Pittsburgh’s first music education program modeled entirely after the El Sistema philosophies. The two have teamed up with the Ozanam Program at St. Benedict the Moor School in the heart of the Hill District – a very apt location to follow in the footsteps of its Ozanam Strings predecessors! (See Part 3)

The program began last summer with an Introduction to Music class taught by Mr. Charlton as part of the Ozanam Summer Camp program and served two classes of 14-16 students. In a room equipped with basic resources of music learning, activities included musical games, a bucket band, singing, improvisation, and introduction to formal musical notation, rhythm, and vocabulary. Over the course of the summer the students not only developed a wide range of motor coordination and perceptual skills, but also learned to identify musical terms and use them both in discussion and in performance, play complex rhythms, read musical notation, sing and play simultaneously, and even gained experience with improvisational skills.

This upcoming summer the Ozanam Program, led by director Curt Cureton, will offer another El Sistema music class. Roy Sonne and Jim Charlton have high hopes for the future of their El Sistema Pittsburgh initiative. The goal is that the program will expand into an afterschool program in which all students receive 2 to 2.5 hours of music instruction five days a week. A class on recorder will also be offered to reinforce the musical skills learned in the introductory class. Both classes will reinforce the social skills that are the added benefit of playing in an ensemble – increased attention span, multitasking skills, cooperation, and the pursuit of long-range goals. Gradually, string, wind, brass, and percussion instruments will be introduced and offered to the class until all instruments of the orchestra are represented.

Poco a Poco and the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society

Poco a Poco

Poco a Poco participants (Photo: Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society)

In 2010 the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society partnered with the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School to start its own El Sistema-inspired youth string program, called Poco a Poco.  Located in East Liberty, the Urban League Charter School serves a student body largely from low-income and/or disadvantaged households – 75.1% of its students are eligible for free/reduced lunch. More than 80 of these students, grades 2 through 5, participate in Poco a Poco.

The students who participate in Poco a Poco receive instruments, lessons, guest artist classes, theory classes, and performance opportunities throughout the year – all for free. Classes are grouped according to instrument (violin, viola, cello) and every student receives 20 lessons over the course of the school year. There are also two chamber groups – a trio and a quartet – made up of 4th and 5th grade students. The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, foundation support, and private donors provide the funding and resources for the program. Additionally, three Poco a Poco students are awarded full scholarships to attend the City Music Center at Duquesne University, where they participate in private lessons, multiple music courses, and ensemble experiences each Saturday during the academic year.

The mission of Poco a Poco is multifaceted. The Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society started the program to support music education in Pittsburgh and to build a future audience for chamber music. The result is a sustained and consistent musical opportunity that otherwise would be unavailable to these student musicians.  The El Sistema model in part inspired Poco a Poco, with a curriculum specifically modified for the Urban League Charter School. The curriculum is largely based upon Suzuki tradition, but combines elements from other teaching methods in order to better meet the students’ needs.

Federico Garcia and the East Liberty Community Engagement Orchestra

The Hope Academy, housed at the Cathedral of Hope at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, shares a similar mission statement to those of the aforementioned programs: “We offer a safe place where young people of diverse ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds can further their personal and artistic growth through the study and performance of music and the arts.”

The Hope Academy is home to the East Liberty Community Engagement Orchestra, a tuition-free orchestra founded by Colombia-born Federico Garcia in the fall of 2009. In founding EL CEO, Garcia drew inspiration from the El Sistema philosophies as well as from the philosophies of the Colombian version of El Sistema, called Batuta, which emphasizes the importance of working together in a community and the inclusion of all children no matter what the playing level. An additional pillar of EL CEO is “positive peer and adult interaction.” The orchestra is comprised not only of children, but also several parents, amateur musicians, and the Hope Academy’s instrumental instructors. The idea is that positive adult interaction can help guide children through obstacles of self-confidence and emotional issues that are so prevalent in urban settings. The adult guidance is an important form of music mentorship.

Garcia believes that even the most novice musician should play, rehearse, and perform with the other musicians in the group as often as possible, so that the music stays fun and interactive as they learn the instrument. To accomplish this, Garcia arranges all the music for the orchestra to match the needs of his individual performers, allowing for an incredible range of repertoire to be performed by the young musicians. EL CEO students also have the opportunity to receive private lessons at the Hope Academy, which provides scholarships to cover the costs of lessons to those in need.

EL CEO Sanctuary Winter Concert

EL CEO Sanctuary Winter Concert (Photo: EL CEO)

Assemble PGH

Created in 2011 Assemble PGH is a community space for arts and technology located in Garfield on Penn Ave. While the educational concept varies from that of El Sistema, it shares the same core values. The mission: “Assemble is an open physical space in an urban neighborhood in Pittsburgh that seeks to unite artists, technologists, and makers with our neighbors of all demographics. Assemble provides a platform for experiential learning, opening creative processes and building confidence through making.”

Assemble PGH (Photo: Assemble)

Assemble PGH (Photo: Assemble)

Learning Parties are monthly after-school events for young kids, which are themed and geared towards a creative coexistence of science, art, and technology. The “parties” feature hands-on learning stations that make the topic of the day accessible and enjoyable for participating children. February’s Learning Party, for example, was titled “Music + Sound” and featured an auditory lab researcher and a sound engineer who used tools and props to explain the processes of sound transmission. Saturday Crafternoons are drop-in arts and crafts workshops for kids. Every weekend a local artist hosts an interactive, hands-on project related to his or her craft aimed at directly engaging the children. The goal is to incorporate the fields of science and technology into the art as much as possible, and so programs incorporate the science of sound and the art of music. Other offerings at Assemble include M3 (media, materials, and me) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, ART, mathematics) workshops, which examine the place of art within STEM.

This overview recounts some of the urban music initiatives that enrich our home here in Pittsburgh, and as always, we at TMD are happy to share other stories if you have them. We have a lot of which we can be proud. And yet – there is more to come!

Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue:

“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

Arts, Families and Children – an entire TMD issue devoted to the role of arts and arts education in the lives of children, from our first volume last year.

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