Tremell Caldwell fidgeted like any 7-year-old kept indoors on one of the first gorgeous days of spring, tapping his feet impatiently on the floor, making funny faces and wiggling the cello between his knees. But when music teacher Patricia Morgan-Brist gave the command “Bows ready!” he laid his bow across the strings and got his left-hand fingers into note-playing position.
“This is my precious instrument,” he said. “I like it because it’s big and has the longest strings.”
Caldwell is one of 18 first- and second-graders enrolled in El Sistema Minnesota, an after-school music program that just wrapped its second year at Nellie Stone Johnson Community School in north Minneapolis. The program uses lessons on how to play classical instruments like violins and cellos to teach children who live in low-income neighborhoods not only music, but also cooperation and study skills.
After just one year, students in the program tested as more empathetic and creative than their peers — and they are faster readers, too.
El Sistema was launched nearly 40 years ago in Venezuela on principles concerned as much with social justice and crime prevention as music.
“Poverty is not necessarily the lack of bread or roof,” said its founder, economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu, “but the feeling of being nobody.”
The government-financed program today teaches more than 300,000 students a year with about 500 orchestras and other ensembles in its fold. Some students have gone on to professional music careers, most notably Gustavo Dudamel, the rock-star music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The concept has spread around the world. In the United States, more than 50 El Sistema-modeled programs have sprung up in the past several years.
‘60 Minutes’ lit the spark
“Adagio means what?” asked Morgan-Brist of her students.
“Slow motion!” they replied in unison, moving on to andante — “Walking speed!” — and allegro.
“We never allegro in the hallways, right?” said Morgan-Brist, who co-founded the nonprofit program with her good friend, violin teacher Kelly Carter, under the name ACME (Advocates for Community through Musical Excellence).
“We saw something about El Sistema on ‘60 Minutes’ and thought, we need that here,” she said.
Carter, who has played with several community orchestras around town, also has business management experience, having brought the first CiCi’s Pizza restaurants to Minnesota and run catering programs.
“Public schools in north Minneapolis don’t offer much music education, and for a lot of families here, paying for private lessons isn’t an option,” she said.
So far, El Sistema Minnesota’s $90,000 annual budget is funded entirely through events and online donations.
Students begin in first grade, attending 2½-hour afternoon sessions four days a week. Each is lent an instrument, with private lessons from certified instructors and musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra. They also get free transportation and help with homework.
A note of pride
At a recent fundraiser for the program, jazz pianist Nachito Herrera teamed with a group of much more advanced students, members of the Minnesota Youth Symphony, to perform George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” conducted by Manny Laureano, principal trumpet for the Minnesota Orchestra and co-director of the Youth Symphony.
The concert opened with a brief performance by the El Sistema kids, who played the few notes they know so far with gusto. Then they watched the rest of the show from front-row seats.
Budding violinist Jalia Hall’s parents, Eric and Franzetta Hall, were in the audience, cheering their daughter on.
“I was surprised she wanted to play the violin,” said Mom. “But I’m supportive because it really enriches her learning at school. Any kind of music does, but I want her to know that music means more than rap or hip-hop.”
Laureano said the El Sistema students reminded him of himself when he was growing up in East Harlem — but with a head start.
“I didn’t start playing the trumpet till I was 12,” he said. “It gave me a voice at a time when I really needed one and allowed me to feel like I was doing something substantial. When you’re a kid you can get caught up in so many superficial or negative things. Music helps you stand out for all the right reasons.”
Back in the school music room, Tremell Caldwell stood under a large poster of jazz great John Coltrane, asking, “Can I go outside now?”
Morgan-Brist said yes, but first asked him to read aloud from a handwritten note addressed to him by one of the program’s supporters.
“I am proud of you,” he read slowly. “Your talent amazes me.”
He broke into a broad grin, then bolted for the door.