Alvaro Rodas is holding a cello-shaped object. Missing strings, a bridge, and f-holes, it’s a papier-mâché affair with a cardboard neck. It could be a musical piñata, but in fact this cello is a new addition to the Corona Youth Music Project’s paper orchestra. Paper instruments are an important stepping stone for children who are preparing to be part of a full orchestra in this Queens, NYC-based music-education program. With a paper violin, viola, or cello, kids can focus on the mechanics of holding an instrument, how to “play” together, and ensemble etiquette—without the distraction of noise.
I’m in Corona to observe the El Sistema-inspired program that Alvaro Rodas founded two years ago. Rodas was in the first class of Sistema Fellows (2009-10) at the New England Conservatory, a program devoted to educating ten musicians each year to become U.S. ambassadors of El Sistema—the Venezuelan movement focused on social change through music education. Rodas started the Corona Youth Music Project (or Núcleo Corona) after spending a year as a fellow in Boston and Venezuela, learning and interacting with nine other fellows who now work at núcleos from Philadelphia to Juneau.
Becoming a Sistema Fellow was a natural progression for Rodas. Born and raised in Guatemala City, he started playing music with the Guatemala Youth Symphony. “It was a kind of similar approach to El Sistema,” he says. “My main motivation for playing an instrument was to be part of the orchestra, not the other way around.” El Sistema came to Guatemala in 1997, and Rodas was there in the thick of it. “Since then, I’ve been involved with it—teaching percussion and doing a lot of administration. Because of that, I came to school in New York to do a Masters in arts administration [as a Fulbright scholar at Columbia University].”
Rodas graduated from the Sistema Fellows program in 2010, and focused on starting his own program in New York City that would work with the Guatemalan immigrant population. While grabbing lunch between music classes, Alvaro explained that the grilled-and-fried-chicken establishment where we were eating is a Guatemalan franchise. Rodas says, “Even before I was in New York, I knew there was a [Guatemalan] restaurant in this place called Corona. I wanted to serve the Guatemalan immigrant population—I got fixated. I thought this restaurant was where the Guatemalans were, but it turns out there were not many Guatemalans in the neighborhood.” Nonetheless, with a huge number of young children in the area, Rodas was convinced that this was still the place to start his núcleo. Densely populated, Corona has a 60 percent Hispanic population, 21 percent of the population is under the age of 18, and until Rodas began the Núcleo Corona, there was no large youth-oriented community music program.
The Corona Youth Music Project began with a summer chorus camp in 2010. Advertising the camp to community, family-service, and health-care organizations, the program recruited 100 kids that summer. The chorus program acted as a trial run to see how the children, parents, and community would respond—and the feedback was positive and welcoming. Rodas began an after-school program that fall. A percussionist, Rodas began the after-school group with upturned paint buckets and drumsticks.
“We started with just doing buckets, we put together a piece for bucket band. We started with a group of about fifteen kids, and little by little more children became interested,” Rodas says. “We did two more chorus camps during the next spring break and the next summer, so the word about the program kept spreading. There was a lot of word-of-mouth, PTA meetings, and getting in touch with music teachers, principals, and parent coordinators at the schools.” There are now around 70 kids who are part of the Corona Youth Music Project, and there have been classes and rehearsals every weekday this summer.
El Sistema emphasizes ensemble playing—what Rodas calls “the empathy of playing together.” Bucket band was an economical way to experience that empathy. At less than $5 a head, buckets and sticks gave kids the experience of keeping the tempo, listening to each other, and following a conductor. However, the idea was always to move beyond buckets to orchestral instruments. El Sistema programs are all-inclusive and instruments are free, but since the Corona Youth Music Project did not yet have the resources to provide instruments, the paper orchestra was born, as other underfunded El Sistema programs have done.
“I didn’t have violins; I had all those kids playing buckets,” Rodas recalls. “They were ready to move on to the next level, and I didn’t have instruments.” Paper instruments would “involve the parents [who help their children make the instruments], it wouldn’t involve a lot of money, and it would also be a good fundraising tool. I could show potential donors that I had this group of kids working on buckets and paper instruments, and they’re really ready for you to donate instruments to the children.” A successful instrument drive resulted in instrument donations from two schools and two music stores. Rodas and his students had enough instruments—at least for the first year. They’ll embark on another instrument drive later this summer, to expand the program and cover the needs of 25 new students and a waitlist of children hoping to join the núcleo.
It’s a Thursday in late July, and I am observing some of the “teams” that make up the Corona Youth Music Project: the pre-orchestra program, the “Little Mozarts” just beginning violin, and the full orchestra, a mix of instrument levels and ages (the oldest is thirteen). On other days of the week, the intermediate “Team Vivaldi” and more advanced “Team Copland” work separately. Children move through teams on an individual basis. “The repertoire is rotating,” says Rodas. “The Little Mozarts play a certain repertoire and keep progressing on it, and at a certain point we go back to the beginning. Whoever is ready to move to the next level can move, and whoever is not ready is going to keep playing the same repertoire—with technical and musical development each time they repeat.”
I start the day at a community center called Immigrant Movement International. Rodas leads the pre-orchestra kids through “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on their recorders; they also sing written music using both alphabet note names and solfege syllables and practice their bow-holds on wooden dowels. Class ends with bucket-band practice, which is shown in the video below.
In the afternoon, the Little Mozarts and full orchestra meet in the basement of the Langston Hughes Community Library. The Little Mozarts are led by violinist Jennifer Johnson, who has been working with the Corona Youth Music Project since it began as a chorus camp two years ago. She starts them in listening to a recording of a violin arrangement of one of Bartók’s Romanian folk dances. They identify the instrument as a violin and on a second listen use egg shakers to mimic the recurring rhythm that ends each phrase. They pluck on open strings and learn to play a first-finger E on the D string (or “Dog” String as Johnson nicknames it).
Full orchestra rehearsal begins in a frenzy of finding chairs, unfolding stands, and getting settled. Violins, a few violas, four cellos, two trumpets, and a trombone all play a C-major scale to warm up. Rodas conducts and leads them through the scale. Jennifer Johnson and a volunteer, Abby, pull kids out of rehearsal one at a time for a short individual lesson.
After almost an hour of working on a simplified arrangement of Finlandia, it becomes clear that individual section work is needed. Rodas sends sections to different parts of the room, leaving principal players in charge of helping their peers learn the trickier notes. I see the cello section gathered in a corner, struggling to play the same phrase over and over. I’m a pianist who played cello all through high school and college, so I head over and introduce myself, and start going over some note-reading, counting, and bow-hold adjusting. Enthusiastic, energetic, willing to try, and very supportive of each other, these kids showed me that this is a program that encourages cooperation and hard work. These kids genuinely want to be there.
The orchestra is made up of beginning violin students from the Little Mozarts team to those who have been learning an instrument for two years. Watch Rodas lead the multi-level and all-ages ensemble below.
Networking is key for El Sistema to work in any country or community. As Rodas explains, El Sistema is not a method of teaching: “It’s a network. We are trying to find the same solutions. Being in touch with each other and being networked is what makes El Sistema a system.” Partnering with local programs and keeping in touch with Sistema Fellows and their experiences is important. Rodas plans to collaborate with other burgeoning El Sistema projects in New York City at some point. Because the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra (El Sistema’s top orchestra in Venezuela) is visiting New York City for a Carnegie Hall concert in December, Rodas is anticipating a “big gathering of all the programs, to work with the Venezuelans—it’s organized with Carnegie Hall. We are interested in how we can get together and have our kids play together, to get to know each other. It’s very exciting that we can have this local network.”
Rodas says that only ten kids from his program have the opportunity to participate in music class in any of the local public schools. Núcleo Corona provides an unprecedented opportunity for these children to get involved with music and reap the benefits of playing in an ensemble together. It is Rodas’s hope that with continued community effort and collaboration, Corona can have at least 500 children playing an instrument in an orchestra by 2014. It is early days for the Corona Youth Music Project, but the program is already filling a need and making a difference.
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