Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/12/2016 (1777 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Lucas Howard was a toddler, his mother tucked him in with the sound of strings. Some Beethoven for bedtime, a bit of Mozart to serenade his dreams. The music seemed to calm him, but his mother didn’t imagine where else it could lead.
Lucas never forgot the swells of those early symphonies.
When Lucas was in Grade 3, he went home from King Edward School one day with a permission slip to participate in a special music program. He already knew he wanted to do it: he was bored at home, he said. He wanted to learn to play the violin.
"I said, ‘If you’re going to start this, I want you to commit yourself to it,’" Melody Howard recalls, and her son did.
Now, 10, Lucas is one of the star pupils in Sistema, a program run with the combined efforts of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Winnipeg and Seven Oaks school divisions. Based at Elwick School in the Maples and King Edward in the North End, Sistema now reaches 150 kids.
The program, launched here in 2011 and based on a pioneering Venezuelan model, takes orchestra education to underserved areas of the city. There is no cost for instruments or instruction, some of which is given by WSO musicians.
What it does require is dedication. Starting as early as Grade 1, Sistema kids practise three hours after school each day.
That is why, on a damp November evening, King Edward’s hallways are alive with the sound of strings. The young musicians are rehearsing for their winter concert Wednesday at Maples Collegiate, so the repertoire is festive.
Good King Wenceslas. Frosty The Snowman. The familiar soundtrack of the holiday season.
As Sistema manager Shannon Darby scurries about, shepherding kids clutching violins, she says the goal is to expand into more schools.
"There’s a lot of demand for this program," she says. "There are a lot of parents who are on wait lists to get in, and there are people elsewhere in the school divisions who are asking, ‘How can my kid be a part of this program?’"
The participants attend the schools that offer the program; King Edward’s group also includes a handful of St. John’s High School students who began Sistema in elementary grades and didn’t want to stop after Grade 6.
There could be more following their musical footsteps before long. Of the 350 students at King Edward, about a fifth take part in Sistema. Since the program began there in 2012, principal Aaron Benarroch has seen its effects ripple through the entire school.
When the WSO first approached Benarroch about bringing Sistema to King Edward, he was quick to sign on. He was already familiar with the concept: he’d watched a TED Talk video about the original El Sistema, launched in Venezuela in 1975.
Benarroch was eager to see how that model might benefit his students. Now he has an answer, and it is dramatic.
"It’s a very significant part of our school," he says. "The families see the benefits, and the family buy-in is incredible. I don’t have many families that leave King Edward School, in part because they want their kids to stay in Sistema."
Benarroch says he’s watched as kids developed close friendships through the program. He sees how the daily commitment builds a familiar routine. That, he believes, boosts their budding self-esteem.
"Our Sistema kids, they’re very confident learners," he says. "They volunteer for many leadership roles, whether it’s patrols, human rights club, the science fair. These kids are often at the forefront of many initiatives that are happening in the school.
"It’s because of what Sistema has done for them," he continues. "It’s really opened them up to be young, confident learners and members of our school community. You can’t put a value on that, it’s so great."
There is data to back up Benarroch’s observations. At the University of Manitoba, education professor Francine Morin has been monitoring the program’s impact. What she has found supports the theory that Sistema’s intensive approach pays off.
Participants’ musical development is surging past their grade level. They score high on tests of their own self-concept; they widely see themselves as musically competent and report strong feelings of belonging to their peer groups and their school.
And they’re sticking with it, too. In the first year that Morin tracked Sistema’s impact, 48 per cent of the kids had chronic attendance problems, missing at least 10 per cent of school. In the second year, that figure dropped to 38 per cent.
Over that same period, the number of school suspensions among Sistema students dropped from 10 to just one, even as enrolment in the program grew. There are likely other factors in that improvement, but observers believe the program plays a role.
"My gut-level feeling is that in the music program, the children are actually learning the habits of mind that are helping them in the rest of their lives," Morin says. "They’re learning how to concentrate, they’re learning how to interact well in a group.
"They’re learning how to manage their emotions, how to confront a challenge with a positive front. If you can learn how to focus, then that spills over into the classroom as well... They’re happier, so they’re emotionally healthier."
Lucas Howard may be testament to that. He was always an active kid, his mother Melody says, and he is excelling. His grades are soaring, and he plays sports, too. Now, he hopes one day to be a WSO musician.
Through the program, he’s earned tickets to WSO concerts and performed several times with other members of the group. Participating in concerts at Maples Collegiate is his favourite part. "I like playing in front of other people," he says. "I don’t get stage fright."
The buoyant confidence is truly valuable, particularly for kids learning to fit in. At King Edward, five program participants are recent Syrian refugees, and through the program they build new connections to their peers and home.
Last weekend, the Sistema kids performed a concert, and the Syrian families attended. "They were so excited," Darby says.
The double bass section at the King Edward is a small example of the program’s diversity. WSO bassist Travis Harrison offers specialized instruction to the three students learning to play the instrument: a girl from Syria, a boy from Uganda, and an Ojibwa girl who gleefully explains that she was born on a plane en route from France.
For 28-year-old Torontonian Harrison, who joined the WSO in 2013, working with the children has been eye-opening.
"With these kids, it’s even more rewarding in a lot of ways," he says. "A lot of them have lower self-confidence then what we’re used to seeing... And they’re getting really, really good at doing what they do here.
"When I can look at them in the eye and say, ‘You guys are really good at that,’ I can see it makes them happy."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.