Music kept within reach

Can studying the benefits of an intensive after-school music program unlock the keys to a successful learning environment overall? That's partly what one documentary sets out to do.

The 27-minute-long film, "I Am a Fine Musician: El Sistema's Inspiration in a California School," shows the implementation of the El Sistema education model in Los Angeles schools by focusing on the children and teachers of the Verdugo Young Musicians Assn. Music Project at Longfellow Elementary in Pasadena.

The El Sistema program, developed in Venezuela by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, aims to empower at-risk and disadvantaged youth and their communities through an intensive music education. The international program has nurtured international musicians like Edicson Ruiz and Gustavo Dudamel, as well as the world-renowned Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, according to the organization's website.

After learning of the program on a trip to Venezuela in the late 1990s, Mark Churchill brought it to the U.S., establishing El Sistema USA in 2008.

"I've always had a great desire to see the music that I love and have been nourished and nurtured by available to all children, especially underserved children, with all the assets that intensive music study gives," he said.

Churchill said most serious study in the arts is done through private institutions or instructors that require not only for parents to pay, but to value arts education enough to make it a funding priority.

"That's just way out of reach for underserved communities," he said.

The El Sistema program, however, has been shown to make music education accessible to all, he said, including at Longfellow Elementary.

Through discussions with education and music experts from across the country, as well as scenes of the children immersed in the program, the film sets out to show how El Sistema works, and to inspire other schools and communities to use the model in music education around the country.

The film debuted on May 20 at the Laemmle Playhouse 7, with a performance by students in the program's Concert Orchestra, and several of the experts featured in the film in attendance, including Dick Roberts, and Dr. Anne Rardin, VYMA's music director.

Dick Roberts, 74, executive producer of "I Am a Fine Musician," was inspired to film the documentary after seeing the effects in the El Sistema program on some of the education problems he observed during his years managing after-school programs for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and in retirement as he started to study those issues more in depth.

"What I came to realize from a scientific standpoint is we were not giving children a chance to succeed at anything other than sports at school," he said. "But El Sistema had really figured out a number of the important issues in creating a learning environment where kids can learn freely and happily."

"As I say in the movie, I hadn't so far seen any program where kids had learned faster or with more joy than at El Sistema," he said.

Roberts said he chose Longfellow Elementary because he saw it as an outstanding example of the program's benefits, and that while other films had been made showing children enjoying the program, this documentary set out to explain why it was successful from a scientific standpoint.

Some of the methods the program that aimed to create an engaged learning environment included having the kids learn together as they would in an orchestra to promote teamwork over competition, and teaching children about the message and emotion behind each musical piece before teaching the nuts and bolts of playing instruments.

This was Roberts' first foray into documentary making, which meant he had a lot to learn about video cuts, sound and mixing, he said.

An Altadena resident, Roberts embarked on the project in late 2012, with funding from the foundation he and his wife Sally started: the Sally and Dick Roberts Coyote Foundation, based in West Hills, Calif., which funds about 16 projects internationally each year, including music programs.

"What I don't like is the fact that this high culture, this really good music is only available to the wealthy. El Sistema started with that in mind, too," he said. "Why should this wonderful music — all these great composers — be limited to only those people who have money?"

That's why in El Sistema, the music instruction takes place in the community, according to Churchill.

"The child begins to succeed and excel and develop a sense of self-image and possibility for their future, and eventually, rather quickly transforms the community because the community feels pride in their children," he said. "It's a psychological effect on community that I've seen over and over be very profound."

At Longfellow Elementary, Anne Riardin, music director of the Verdugo Young Musicians Assn., said the impact she has seen on students is significant — not only musically in terms of developing a sense of pure pitch, steady beat and rhythm, but in other ways as well.

"They have confidence and pride in what they're doing and what they're presenting," she said. "They have a model for how to present themselves in public now."

Students start off in the lower grades with one hour of instruction a week, and graduate to more hours each year, with a maximum of seven hours a week across three days.

She's also seen students develop a sense of responsibility to their fellow musicians, and a sense of altruism.

"The amount of growth you see from first grade or kindergarten through our older students in the program, which are fifth to eighth grade, is remarkable," she said.

There are at least 100 forms of the program in the U.S. now, taking various forms at churches or community centers, like a summer camp in Glendale.

El Sistema is also distinct from other music education programs due to its lack of compromise of artistic standard, Churchill said.

"That's not typical of programs for underserved youth," Churchill said. "Therein, for me, lies the most profound message — it's not about the capacity of children to achieve. It's really the resources they're given and the belief in their ability to do it."


Follow Sameea Kamal on Twitter: @SameeaKamal.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World