It is Thursday afternoon at Grant Elementary School in Trenton. Students are excited, not for the end of the school day, but for their after-school music program to begin. Third grader Thomas Heads proudly takes his violin out of its case. He asked for a violin for Christmas. “He was so excited,” says his mother, Iris Heads. “He loves playing it.” His favorite song is Three Little Birds, which borrows from both Bob Marley and Beethoven.
The sense of responsibility that comes with caring for and playing a musical instrument is one reason families of students in the El Sistema-Trenton program are as excited as their children. The after-school music program at Grant Elementary School is in its second year, following a successful 16-week pilot program last spring. Each participant is provided with an instrument they can take home.
Ronnie Ragen, program director at the Trenton Community Music School (TCMS), which runs El Sistema-Trenton, sees the after-school program as one piece of a burgeoning youth development and arts commitment in Trenton. “We feel like we are strengthening Trenton,” she says.
El Sistema-Trenton is a distinctive piece of the broader initiative, one that allows 45 third, fourth, and fifth graders to be more involved in a music program than they can be during their regular school day. And one that is showing results.
With support from the Geraldine Dodge Foundation, the Princeton Area Community Foundation, and a city Community Development Block Grant, Trenton joined the list of U.S. cities inspired by the renowned El Sistema model that originated in the slums of Caracas, Venezuela, 40 years ago. The El Sistema New Jersey Alliance includes similar programs in Newark, Paterson, Union City, Camden, and Orange.
In its second year, the players have performed several times. The alliance performed at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center last June. In December El Sistema Trenton played with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra and recently participated in the third annual Fiddle Fa La La Fest at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Performances culminate Thursday, June 9, with an all-district youth orchestra, which will include El Sistema participants.
“Not everyone ends up a musician, but we believe in teaching an ensemble,” says Ragen. El Sistema’s foundation builds on the use of orchestra and small ensembles to facilitate working together and outcomes through cooperation. In fact, adopting El Sistema signaled a change in the TCMS organization, eliminating individual music lessons. “We realized our impact is greatest when we work with children in groups,” says Ragen. “We can serve more kids.” Since 2000 TCMS has offered a pre-K classroom Music for the Very Young program stressing movement and literacy, based on the principle that music develops children as learners and supports all learning. The music school staff considers that the foundation for other programs planned for younger students.
“We developed an interest in El Sistema based on its stunning success in Venezuela, then throughout Latin America, and now in developing countries throughout the world,” says Carole Burden, TCMS executive director. “We have some ‘older sibling’ programs in the region that provide us with inspiration and whose leaders are very generous with their encouragement and sharing of resources — notably, Play on Philly! and the Paterson Music Project. Our work in developing our own program received a jump-start from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which was interested in helping to fund an El Sistema-inspired program in a partnership format between us and the Trenton Public Schools, and this partnership has been invaluable to both us and the schools.”
El Sistema thrives on ensemble work. Grant Elementary students meet three times a week with classmates and faculty, some of whom are district music teachers. “They think of performance as a way to share what they have learned,” Ragen says. “Classroom teachers say our children are more focused and exhibit more happiness and joy. Our goal is using music instruction to build a community. It is a communal experience, not a lonely experience.”
At 3 p.m. on this Thursday afternoon Niyaliz Cruz makes her way to a classroom to play the violin with teachers Priscilla Allman and Cynthia Loeb, who encourage the group to place their “bows higher.” Niyaliz does not mind that they have been in school all day. She was a beginner last year, and now she thinks she is “pretty good at it.” She asked for and got a violin as a birthday present. “I always wanted to play classical music,” she says. “I can see always playing the violin.”
Down the hall, teacher Barrington Brown leads his group in the piece “Matthew’s March.” He taps the rhythm and emphasizes “rest.”
Hector Vasques-Medina played for the first time last fall but likes the program because “every day it is something different, something new to learn.” His favorite song to play? “Old McDonald Had a Farm.”
In another classroom, teacher Steven Merdian asks students playing recorders, “What is the one thing we can do better?” The answer: “The quarter rest.”
On-site program manager Enrique Rivera, a teacher at Grant, has a good grasp on how the program is helping.
“I know the kids’ families. I was born and raised in Trenton. I coached football and baseball. Parents are comfortable with me, and they tell me they love the program. Music is relieving the kids of stress. They are doing their school work, and the parents are happy,” he says.
Buying an instrument is an investment, but one that shows commitment to the program and to the future of music in the children’s lives. About seven El Sistema-Trenton participants own violins, he says. “The third graders found they like the responsibility with ownership. They have the confidence to care for the instrument. They see it as a privilege to play.”
The teachers, he says, “tell me they love it. The kids are doing their homework. They are confident and speaking up. The ‘try, try again to get it right’ attitude in El Sistema carries over.”
Fourth grade Grant teacher April Reid confirms that she has seen the students develop. “I had the original kids,” she says. “I saw their confidence grow, not only in academics, but in excitement.” She notes that El Sistema students took on more leadership and better focus when completing tasks in class.
Ragen, who herself is a pianist, educator, and certified New Jersey teacher, sees El Sistema and other current Trenton arts initiatives as “the perfect storm.” Recently Trenton was selected as the 19th city and the first in New Jersey for Ensuring the Arts for Any Given Child, a Kennedy Center program that aims to bring “access, balance, and equity” to arts education using an affordable model.
Also, Trenton Makes — Words!, supported by a $1 million grant from the PNC Foundation, arrives in Trenton as a two-year partnership between the New Jersey State Museum, the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey, and the Trenton Community Music School. Trenton is the 10th city to receive this substantial PNC support as part of a national effort in early childhood education.
“It’s a perfect time to be partnering with the Trenton Public Schools because of the focus on performing arts and their commitment to that growth in the district,” says TCMS’s Burden. “The end game is an opportunity for any child in Trenton to participate in an El Sistema-inspired orchestra, at no cost to the families and without regard to their school enrollment — public, charter, private, or homeschool. This is a big dream and requires a tremendous level of buy-in from the city, on both a public and private-sector level. It’s what we envision and are working to make happen.”
The community is rallying behind it. In December the classical station WWFM, in partnership with Princeton University, hosted a musical instrument drive for El Sistema on National Giving Day.
But it is the day-to-day effect on the students that is impressing the community. Supervisor of the Visual and Performing Arts for Trenton Board of Education, Norberto Diaz, says he has observed that “the El Sistema music program beneficially impacts the whole child. Physically, mentally, and emotionally vitalizing, it stirs a love of music and self-discipline within our youngsters.”
Grant Elementary School Principal Alfonso O. Llano sees the program as one that helps classroom outcomes. “Focus and problem solving, the idea of practicing a piece and keeping at it,” he says. “Persistence. These are life skills. Performance is the reward.”
TCMS’s El Sistema (now the Trenton Music Makers) plays in the district’s VH1 Save the Music Foundation Instrumental Music Festival, Thursday, June 9, 5 p.m., at the Kilmer Middle School, 1300 Stuyvesant Avenue, Trenton. www.trentoncommunitymusic.org.