El Sistema Conference: YOLA

The conference was hosted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to showcase their YOLA project: Youth Orchestra LA. On Friday we were bused to the Expo Center, which most of us assumed was some sort of civic center. Instead, it turned out to be a huge Parks and Recreation campus in South Central LA (now referred to simply as South LA) with two beautiful swimming pools, a senior center, a pre-school program, lots of sports activities, and the home of YOLA and the Harmony Project.

The Harmony Project was already providing music lessons to children at the Expo Center, and they had the physical facilities to support an orchestra program, so the LA Phil partnered with both organizations to create YOLA.  The Expo Center was the logical place: it’s inter-generational, it’s a campus, it’s safe (there’s a dummy police car parked outside at all times), and most importantly, the families were already there because it’s a vibrant community center. The Center has 60,000 members, many within walking distance.

The Harmony Project serves 800 students at 4 venues and has been functioning at the Expo Center for many years. When the LA Phil joined forces with them, there were challenges in working things out with Harmony Project’s teaching artists in moving them towards working with the “orchestra as central” concept rather than the priority of instrument lessons. In starting the partnership, they split the costs of the teaching artists and the LA Phil paid for the instruments. The Expo Center provided in-kind services, such as security, physical space, etc.

Another challenge was getting buy-in from the community that an orchestra would be great for the community. 5-6,000 people come to the Center every day and, as Belinda Jackson, Executive Director of the Expo Center, aptly said, “Music is not a core function of Parks and Recreation.” Recently the three partners held a “mixer” so the Expo Center staff (220 strong and many part-timers) could meet the Harmony Project and LA Phil staffers and talk about YOLA. The mixer was a huge success as some of the YOLA kids performed.

South LA has changed demographically in the past 10 years; it’s now mostly Latino rather than African-American, and the YOLA orchestra reflects this change, with 80% Latino and 20% African-American kids. There are some racial tensions in the neighborhood and the YOLA staff is working hard on making everyone feel welcome in the program. Belinda believes that El Sistema will heal South LA. “That’s my dream. Seeing the kids come in here with their instruments changes my whole outlook on life. I can see a major difference here.”

YOLA performed at the Hollywood Bowl last October to 18,000 people — a feat that many doubted could happen, given the incredibly short time frame involved. According to all, the concert was a great success. The kids played Ode to Joy, and then listened to the LA Phil perform Beethoven’s 9th.

Friday afternoon we witnessed a singing/solfege session with a group of young students, met some of the Harmony Project teaching assistants and a panel of parents of YOLA students, and observed El Sistema veteran Susan Siman hold a sectional for YOLA’s  first violin section.

Comments from delegates about the solfege session: they used fixed do (do is always C) rather than movable do; the kids didn’t have to raise their hands to give an answer; they performed a work in progress; the kids had fun moving around (every child must feel like an asset and you must never forget fun); they were learning a scale without knowing it’s a scale; low stakes on mistake-making – there’s no pressure about screwing up (and some nucleos give a prize for the best mistake of the day – I guess an El Sistema clam can).

Comments from the teaching artists: Ken Fisher (clarinet), “I learned that if you take away the obstacle of paying for an instrument and lessons, anyone can do it. It’s a right not a privilege.” Dave Patel (trumpet), “I’ve seen how much music can change lives – I see the students develop personally and musically. Some students were bouncing off the walls; they didn’t care about music or their instrument. After persistence [on my part], finally you see the light bulb go off in their heads.” Amy Tatum (flute), “Teaching here is being part of a community amongst colleagues and the families of the students. I love being a part of that. I know my students, I know who they are; what we’re doing for them matters so much.” Jessica Cameron (percussion), “This is the hardest teaching I have ever done – it’s a lot more challenging than what I did in Texas, but it’s so rewarding, because the kids want to be here.”

“Kids know quality. Quality done with passion is contagious. Show them your own passion and give them the opportunity to be passionate.”

“Most of these kids started 2 years ago. We give them two or three 1-hour sessions a week, and we teach them everything. A select number of students are now taking lessons at Colburn Conservatory and they’re blossoming.”

At the end of the day we watched Susan Siman work with the young violinists on their parts for the open rehearsal with Gustavo Dudamel that would take place on Saturday. They were of very different ages and abilities, and I must confess I wondered about the performance the next day. Well — the conference attendees were seated behind the orchestra and watched with amazement as Dudamel led them in an arrangement of the 2nd movement from Mahler’s First Symphony. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was an amazing performance — the kids played their hearts out. Sure, it was rough in places and not together in others and out of tune in even more, but they played together as an orchestra. And many of them had only been playing their instruments for 2 years! They ended the performance with a mambo piece (I can’t find my program at the moment), and the strings started swaying left and right (the “school of fish” movement) just like the Simon Bolivar orchestra. Needless to say, they got a standing ovation from the audience, which certainly included their parents and families, but also LA Phil musicians, the conference delegates, and LA donors and stakeholders. I am most impressed by what YOLA has accomplished in such a short time — much credit must be given to Bruce Kiesling, YOLA conductor.

About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians: shortbeachwebdesign.com.

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here. web.esm.rochester.edu/poly/author/ann-drinan

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