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At the same time that school music programs across the country are being downsized due to budget cuts, there's one intensive music-education program that's growing.
And now Massachusetts has become the first state in the country to set aside funding for the Venezuelan-born effort known as El Sistema.
A Musical Transformation
The announcement was made official at an event Monday organized by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Young musicians from ensembles around the state gathered at Artists for Humanity in Boston's South End.
Wearing a black knit cap with a black suit and tie, 16-year-old Jerannchris Rivera Heredia caressed his trumpet with confidence — like he's played for years. But it's been less than two. Now the young musician says being the band's brass captain at Springfield High School of Science and Technology has changed his life.
When I asked how, Rivera Heredia admitted, "I didn’t really want to go to school much. I always did bad in my classes. I didn’t really pay attention."
Rivera Heredia credits his turnaround to his group's director, Gary Bernice.
"Mr. Bernice inspired me to do better in my classes. He showed me that through music almost anything is actually possible," Rivera Heredia said. "And I will always keep a smile on my face — like he does — and be happy about life and stuff."
Then the high school student pressed his lips to his trumpet's mouthpiece to play a phrase from a song he composed himself. When he finished one of his bandmates quietly praised Rivera Heredia with a “Yeah, brother!”
"Students like Jerannchris amaze me," Gary Bernice told me. "And they don’t realize that they have something amazing inside of them that’s just waiting to come out."
And Bernice would love to bring that out in more kids with an even more rigorous music-education program promoting ownership, discipline and lots of hard work. He says 99 percent of his 500 students had never touched an instrument before joining the school band. Most of them come from struggling neighborhoods in Springfield.
"It’s no secret that our dropout rate and graduation rate in urban centers is not great. But for students who are in our band — like Jerannchris — for more than one year, they are almost twice as likely to graduate high school than their peers," he said.
Bernice's band's concept is fashioned after a rigorous, free music-education program and philosophy founded in Venezuela. El Sistema has transformed the lives of millions of children living in poverty. Over the past decade it's been making a gradual sweep across this country.
Bands like the one in Springfield usually piece together meager budgets with donations. But now Massachusetts will be the first state to provide modest but still meaningful government grants to El Sistema-inspired programs. The dozen or so organizations and schools receiving the first round of funding include the social service Kids 4 Harmony program in Pittsfield, Sistema Somerville and the Cape Conservatory in Hyannis.
Cape Conservatory managing director Stephanie Weaver says the grant money will be targeted to schools where music education has been cut.
That decision is up to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state agency behind the new program.
Anita Walker, the executive director of the MCC, advocated for the program after visiting Venezuela with two higher-ed schools who've embraced the El Sistema model — the New England Conservatory and Longy School of Music.
Her state agency is distributing about $55,000 in direct support, according to Erik Holmgren, who oversees the new initiative — dubbed SerHacer, which translates to, "To be is to make."
But Holmgren admits the money isn't enough, because he says real change takes time.
"In Venezuela they don’t have conferences about the public value of music education because they’re too busy going to concerts," he said. "And their biggest concerts they don’t have in concert halls because there’s too many people — they have them in baseball stadiums."
But Holmgren also says the El Sistema system is not perfect.
"It has its challenges," he said. "It’s not a miracle. It’s 38 years of mission-driven work."
And Holmgren says the state — along with the school orchestras, bands, directors and young, aspiring musicians — have their work cut out for them, too. But they're off to a good start. A free instrument lending library will be open for students. And the new grant program will collaborate on research into long-term cognitive benefits of music.