Listen MPR News reporter Dan Olson tells us of this music program that is also designed to overcome poverty
The first- and second-graders charge into the music room at Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School. They've come for instruction in violin and cello. Lessons here, though, will go far beyond music.
The kids - most from low-income homes, some homeless -- learn on instruments donated from local businesses. Volunteers, including professional players, do the teaching. School officials seek donated groceries and clothing for the children, supply space and help select the students.
The program, known as El Sistema, is the first of its kind in Minnesota. Advocates say El Sistema's consistency -- students are encouraged to stay with the program for years -- helps attain the goals of what the founder calls cultural transformation and becoming a full citizen. Supporters say the private, after school program melds music with social justice as a way to overcome poverty.
• Part of Minnesota Sounds & Voices
It starts with kids running into the music room, four days a week. The volunteers help with homework. The school supplies a snack. Then it's time for lessons.
Pam Arnstein, a first violinist with the locked out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, arrives for her volunteer session and tunes the pint-sized violins for the six- and seven-year-olds. Violins in hand and cellos poised Arnstein guides the 22 young musicians through some exercises.
"I mean we can't fix their home situations, and most of them are not very ideal," Arnstein says later. "But at least if we can give them a little bit of direction as far as their academics and their life skills they might turn out to be better kids."
The kids appear to enjoy the experience, although these musicians are not ready for the concert hall just yet.
There are 12 volunteers including accredited music educators and professional musicians who donate their time. For the moment in north Minneapolis, it's all being done with very little money, says Tricia Morgan Brist, the program's other co-founder.
Minneapolis school officials say music and arts education generally bottomed out about 12 years ago in the district but is staging something of a comeback both in the number of programs and number of students served. Of the 71 Minneapolis public schools, charter schools and alternative programs, 35 of 36 elementary schools have a music program. Fifteen K-12 schools have an orchestral program with 8 in elementary schools.
Some might question how much actual music education or life training happens during the after-school El Sistema session. Advocates argue research shows that over the long term, music education improves school attendance and academic performance. A recent study in Nashville, Tenn., supports that view.
The program has a long, international track record. It started in Venezuela nearly four decades ago. Founder Jose Antonio Abreu is a conductor, economist and former government official. El Sistema's website says it reaches more than 3 million young people around the world and in about 40 programs in the U.S.
The future of this El Sistema program is unclear, though.
It can survive only so long on volunteers, says (co-founder) Kelly Carter. She and Patricia Morgan Brist, (another co-founder), support themselves by giving private lessons and leading youth orchestras.
Carter says her motivation to donate her time is influenced by her Wayzata public schools music teacher. "She taught me more than just how to play music. She taught me how to express myself, how to be social with people and my peers, how to respect others and how to work well within my community."
Arnstein says she volunteers because her life is good and she wants to give back. "When you have everything and you're comfortable you have figure out how to reach out to the kids who could use something."