A System, a Symphony: El Sistema Makes Music and More at Mitchell

Horacio Contreras, who learned to play cello in the El Sistema in Venezuela, gives a Mitchell fifth grader individual attention during class.
Horacio Contreras Espinoza, who learned to play cello in the El Sistema in Venezuela, gives a Mitchell fifth grader individual attention during class.

April 14, 2014

By Tara Cavanaugh

Think of a symphony. Imagine the rich, layered music emanating into a concert hall, the different instruments’ melodies complimenting and collapsing over one another in harmony to re-create Mozart or Bach.

The rich, layered music that swells into the hall is produced by the players; it’s produced by a conductor’s moving hands and guidance; it’s produced by the structure of the written music itself.

This is a story about beginnings. About budding musicians and caring conductors and deliberate structures to make more than a symphony. About a small elementary school being filled with music. About the discipline, teamwork and perseverance that creates that music.

Getting mixed up –– but not giving up

Learning to play an instrument can be tricky, said Mitchell fifth grader Ana.

Her cello, which is nearly as big as she is, requires her to do two things at once. “Sometimes the fingerings (on the strings) go really fast, and then you try to do the fingerings with the bowings too, and you get kind of mixed up.”

Having correct posture for the violin is also important, Lena said. And making sure to have a good bow hold makes a difference when playing the viola, added Casey.

The students are among the 22 Mitchell Elementary fifth graders learning to play string instruments through a program modeled on El Sistema. El Sistema originated in Venezuela, and it’s making its way into some schools in the United States. Now, thanks to a partnership with the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the School of Social Work, along with U-M’s innovative “Third Century Initiative” Grants, an El Sistema model is being piloted at Mitchell.

The pilot program gives the elementary students a chance to take on high-quality musical instruction –– and to develop the personal strength that comes with learning to play an instrument.

Sometimes, the budding musicians have to play a part over and over until it’s perfect –– “and then if you mess up even once, we have to start all over again,” Ana said. “That can get really annoying.”

But they don’t give up. “Even though it gets hard, and annoying, you just have to keep trying,” Morelia said. “You’ve gone too far and don’t want to give up. It would be like throwing a project away that you’ve worked on for a lot of time.”

Or, according to Sara: “Giving up would be just like giving up on your family or something that you love the most.”

Casey puts it another way: “Giving up would be like, if you have a puppy, and it’s just too hard to take care of, and then you just throw it out the window!”

U-M graduate student Zach Ragent models bow hold with Mitchell fifth graders.
U-M graduate student Zach Ragent models bow hold with Mitchell fifth graders.

Bringing ‘The System’ to Mitchell

The boys and girls in Mitchell’s El Sistema program have plenty of support from their teachers and tutors. Such intensive work is part of the program’s success.

El Sistema, which is Spanish for “The System,” is Venezuela’s internationally renowned music education program. It began in 1975, and its influences are spreading into the United States. Schools in California, Texas and New York have used the program, to name just a few. An El Sistema graduate, Gustavo Dudamel, was named the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009. At just 33, he is the youngest conductor of a major symphony orchestra in the world.

At Mitchell, El Sistema students practice after school for 90 minutes, four days a week. The cellos, violins and violas practice all together, in small groups and also one-on-one with the program’s three teachers and several volunteer tutors.

Mitchell music teacher Dan Tolly is joined by U-M graduate students Horacio Contreras Espinoza and Zach Ragent. Contreras, born in Venezuela, learned to play the cello through El Sistema and also became a teacher in the program. Zach taught in an El Sistema program in California.

“I hope the Mitchell students learn that if you work hard, you can reach goals,” Contreras said. “The more precise the goals, the better focused your work will be.”

During each El Sistema session, Tolly, Contreras and Ragent lead the students in mastering songs, some as complicated as “The Star Spangled Banner” in a three-part harmony. The three teachers circle the room, helping students master whatever part seems difficult. For even more reinforcement, the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance also sends music majors who give individual tutoring to the students.

“When we break out into groups, those who need more are really going to get more. Those who need reinforcement of what we’re doing now will get that. But when we come back together, it’s about the community piece, what El Sistema is about,” Tolly said.

One of the best parts about the program is the teachers and tutors, according to the fifth graders. “They really help you learn new things,” Ana said. “Sometimes it can be hard because you’re not really trying, and they know you’re not trying your best, but then when you’re really trying and you really got it, it’s really fun!”

“I like Horacio and Zach because they’re always by your side and they’re always there for you,” Sara said. “If you struggle with something they’re right there so you can understand it better. Same thing with Mr. Tolly.”

Sara’s U-M music tutor is a student named Victor. “He’s really funny and he makes jokes that help me remember what to do with my bows,” she said.

U-M’s Third Century Grant: Piloting El Sistema at Mitchell

There would be no El Sistema program at Mitchell if it weren’t for University of Michigan’s Third Century Initiative Grants. The $50,000 grant covers the expenses of the pilot program, including after-school snacks and bus transportation home. Additional support was provided by U-M alumni Jerry and Helga Bilik.

The U-M School of Social Work, and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance are working together on the elementary’s El Sistema program. The two departments consulted with the School of Education, which leads the Mitchell Scarlett Teaching Learning Collaboration, when applying.

The two departments won a Third Century Grant under the category of “Discovery,” which is intended for pilot programs. A larger grant, under the “Transformation” category, is also available for already established programs. The hope is that after this first year, El Sistema could continue with a transformation grant and may even be expanded to more schools.

First, though, the program needs to be proven effective –– that students not only show growth in the technical skills of playing music, but that they also show personal growth in areas such as determination, perseverance and school pride.

So how to prove all of that growth? A team of researchers at the School of Social Work is assessing that right now.

In order to analyze an intangible thing like a child’s sense of responsibility or belonging, the researchers are looking at several forms of data: surveys of the children, their teachers and parents; and changes in student behavior, attendance and academic performance. The data will be collected on paper, in individual and group interviews and on video.

“All of these components give us the data to indicate that yes, there have been significant increases,” said Anthony Provenzano, a graduate student in the School of Social Work.  “When you cross that with some of the grades and behavior and see some of those things change, you can have a better understanding that it’s going to change that child’s sense of self and sense of community.”

“El Sistema is a program that is still relatively new to the US,” said John Ellis, Associate Dean of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “There’s a lot of talk about it but not a lot of empirical research. So the idea that we as the U-M are uniquely situated to be able to carry out that research is in and of itself an important aspect of it. If we were able to get the funding to continue this program and even expand it, that research project will become really significant in the field.”

“What we’re doing now is really a descriptive evaluation,” Provenzano said. “We’re learning what does the curriculum look like for El Sistema, how might we scale this up to other communities in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit, and what can we learn from this.”

El Sistema in concert with the learning collaborative

The El Sistema isn’t the first program at Mitchell that’s the result of a U-M partnership. The U-M School of Education’s Mitchell Scarlett Teaching and Learning Collaborative (MSTLC) has already made positive changes in the students’ academic performance, behavior and environment.

The collaborative provides U-M teaching interns for the full year, additional academic outreach, extended-day and summer programs, a unique school-wide behavioral curriculum, and stronger connections to students’ families, especially those who speak English as a second language.

The MSTLC dovetails nicely with El Sistema, said Cathy Reischl, an associate professor at the U-M School of Ed. who is the partnership coordinator.

A big piece of El Sistema is involving the families,” Reischl said. “Families attend performances, but they are also very well informed about the activities of El Sistema and how their children are doing. They are key players in this four-day-a-week process.”

Family involvement is crucial to a student’s success, Reischl added. “And families want to be involved. But they need to have multiple invitations and they need to know when they come it’s not going to feel uncomfortable.”

Making the magic happen

At the end of the school year, the El Sistema students will perform on the U-M campus in a special concert for their families. The students will wow the crowd with their progress. Tolly will wave his hands in the air as the students play, furrowing their brows with focus.

Neither the players, the spectators or the program’s three teachers will be thinking about the hours of practice or the notes that had to be repeated dozens of times until they were finally right. Instead, they’ll be thinking about the music, the rich and layered music, flowing almost effortlessly into the room.

The moment will seem magical. And it will be.

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