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All the hard work in practices was about to pay off for the kids in our Santiago, Dominican Republic, Music for Development program. They were preparing for their first-ever concert.
Before the concert, the kids in the orchestra were invited to a rehearsal retreat during the last four days of January 2015.
Hearing he could attend the retreat, Abel (17) said: "I went running to the Children International center where the bus was going to pick us up, since I didn't want to miss it. As I was running, my shoes fell apart, and I was sad because I didn't have others. Nuris, the Area 9 coordinator, gave me a pair of shoes, and I was very happy. She cannot imagine how thankful I am. I thanked her then, but I still don't know how I can ever repay her for that gesture."
Keep in mind the narrow and closed neighborhoods these kids grow up in, their tiny corrugated metal shacks slapped together, sometimes without floors. They don't have access to any other extracurricular activities, so you often see teens hanging around with little to do.
Imagine going from these surroundings to the enormous center CI booked for the retreat, with accommodations for each youngster, three solid daily meals in the cafeteria and their own instruments. They were beyond excited!
"We arrived at the camp, and I can't help but remember the joy that the children expressed," shared Yenny Martinez, a psychologist who coordinates Music for Development in Santiago. "They said that this place is beautiful and big and that they would have their own bedroom and bathroom."
The kids rehearsed with teachers two or three times a day — but mostly on their own. I was watching a group of Santiago's bandleader Andri Cruz's kids practicing in one of the rooms. "The saxophones — they mean everything to them," he said. "They never dreamed they could be doing this — actually doing it. No wonder they are so committed." Andri's daughter, who plays the clarinet, often helped the students practice. It was like that everywhere: Children of all ages helping each other to get ready for the concert.
Two musicians from Los Angeles, California, joined my wife and me for the retreat and concert: Myka Miller, executive director of the Harmony Project, and Anne Rardin, its musical director. The Harmony Project is the largest agency in Los Angeles providing free El Sistema-inspired music instruction to children and youth. In Santiago, Myka and Anne helped out by organizing, budgeting and helping musicians rehearse.
One of my favorite moments was when a jam session spontaneously broke out during a retreat lunch break. When a group of about 20 kids were sitting around trying to figure out what to do, Anne suggested they dance. Pretty soon, a few kids got out their instruments and started to play. This grew into an ever-larger ensemble. Andri eventually joined in to tap out the rhythm on an instrument case. Three 10-year-olds were blowing their lungs out on their horns. Myka played the flute. There was dancing, clapping and singing. "The kids taught me to play Merengue and dance Bachata," Anne said. "What a high!"
One afternoon, we had the chance to visit the home of one of the sponsored kids, 12-year-old violinist Yarissa. Her older sister also plays violin in the orchestra, and her mother had volunteered to help during the retreat.
Anne had never seen such a house, and she became emotionally distraught. Although there is poverty in Los Angeles — many of the kids in the Harmony Project are poor by U.S. standards — it is not the same degree of poverty that stretches across so much of this world and where CI works.
Yet the retreat was filled with magic. "Just reflecting on the trip to the Dominican Republic," Anne wrote afterwards, "we had such an amazing time." Her writing continues:
"In spite of the desperate conditions that so many live in there, it was just the same. The kids were learning like crazy, acting like kids, being beautiful, being a challenge. And we had the same problems and frustrations, the same hard work, the same joys and sorrow, the same musical train wrecks, the same musical highs. Just not the same insane rainstorms! I've had such an interesting time telling my students here in the U.S. about their counterparts in the D.R. It all goes to show music is the great equalizer. No matter what the socio-economic status, we're all the same and capable of so very much. We can find inspiration and excitement in sharing music."
As Friday evening approached, the kids were more excited and more apprehensive hour by hour. Abel paints the picture:
"When I arrived at the retreat, I felt right at home … I felt as if I was with my family, with people I care about and who care about me, with fellow students who are now like my brothers and sisters. We practiced a lot to prepare for our first concert as best as possible. I was very anxious for the last day to arrive, but that was because I wanted my mother to see me playing in the concert.
"At the same time, I didn't want the retreat to end, because I was enjoying myself so much. I learned a lot, laughed a lot, met many different people. At the moment of the concert, I got very nervous. I said to myself: 'Go away nerves!' When the concert was over, our director hugged us, and many of us were crying with joy."
All the practicing pays off when the kids and youth perform in their first concert for a packed house!
Yenny's words follow with similar enthusiasm:
"When I started writing these diaries, our children were a little shy, embarrassed. But now they are rich individuals, rich with trust, with perseverance and with joy. After the children finished playing the concert, they started crying — crying from emotion and joy. It was a unique night, and it will always be remembered as such. This moment left an indelible mark that will remain in the hearts of all present."
When I began reflecting on this experience, I wrote that these results could only come from hard work. Nevertheless, two further ingredients undoubtedly account a great deal for the profound effects of the program and the resulting concert.
The first is the depth of community support. CI centers are already community hubs, longtime sources of medical, school, tutoring support and places offering a variety of other activities. Layered on this is the orchestral program with its highly gifted mentors and teachers. Their professionalism — not only as musicians but also in building teamwork, companionship and ethical values among their kids — creates a community of musicians of its own. Finally, the parental support is critical for this program. Music is no less a part of the parents' culture than it is of the children's, and they are proud as they see their kids practicing and gaining expertise. The music of the country becomes the music at the center.
"Kids are learning that no matter how hard life is for some of them, they deserve to be happy, to enjoy life, to have a fun space where they can dream and make their dreams come true." — Hermelinda Guarín, agency director, Colombia
The second element is that kids have the chance to gain mastery in something that is important to them. They are learning music they want to learn. They are being encouraged and supported as they learn it. And they practice it with enthusiasm. Under these circumstances, children learn incredibly fast.
Hermelinda Guarín, CI's agency director in Barranquilla, Colombia, sums it up:
"I have to tell you that I can't help it — that my eyes fill with tears every time I have the opportunity to see these kids playing these instruments. I cannot believe how much progress they have made in such a short time. El Sistema is influencing our children and youth in a very positive way. They are not just learning how to play an instrument but learning about life skills like teamwork, discipline and creativity, among others. They are also learning that no matter how hard life is for some of them, they deserve to be happy, to enjoy life, to have a fun space where they can dream and make their dreams come true."
Dick Roberts is the Chairman of the Sally and Dick Roberts Coyote Foundation in California, which supports after-school music programs in Los Angeles in addition to the programs in the Dominican Republic and Colombia.
Music education has been shown to drastically improve children's lives. See how CI's approach brings the discipline of music study to children in need.