The mission of El Sistema, an after-school youth orchestra program that originated in Venezuela and has a branch in Somerville, is to promote social change through music. In learning to play an instrument and by participating in an orchestra, children gain a sense of self-esteem and self-confidence that spills over into other areas of their lives.
But El Sistema doesn’t just benefit the kids enrolled in the program. It’s an asset to the entire community, which is made richer by all that the children in the program gain by participating.
“They become better people through playing music together,” said El Sistema Somerville’s Director Diane Cline. “They have taken so much ownership. We have a lot of fun with the kids helping them get empowered. It makes me happy to see them proud and to see their families and community proud.”
El Sistema isn’t a new program–it was founded in 1975–but the Somerville branch is less than a year old. Cline moved to the city last summer to become the founding director of El Sistema Somerville and her first year has been full of hard work … and fun.
The program operates out of the Edgerly Campus of East Somerville Community School. So far, most of the program participants have been enrolled there, though any third or fourth graders in the Somerville Public School System are eligible for El Sistema. The program has served 40 students in its first year and Cline plans to expand that next year to include even more Somerville youth.
“The kids are the reason this program is the best thing I’ve ever had the pleasure to do,” Cline said. “They inspire all of our staff to be on our top game. They’re constantly asking for more. I’m constantly astounded. I think the adults slow the kids down–we need to get out of the way!”
El Sistema meets Monday through Friday from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and during that time, the enrolled students participate in string orchestra rehearsals, musicianship class and sectional class, where they focus on a specific instrument, like the viola or cello. The students also receive a nutritious snack and academic support.
Many of the El Sistema students are from immigrant families and are often still learning English. Ninety-seven percent of the students at the East Somerville Community School receive free or reduced lunch and may not have the resources to participate in traditional after-school programs like sports or music. But El Sistema operates on a sliding scale so it’s accessible to all interested youth.
“Everyone deserves an equitable chance to succeed, to be valued, to have their voice heard,” Cline said. Many of the kids are “not motivated to come to school because of grades. These kids could get left behind. But they’re engaged with something so positive and transformative.”
In addition to the after-school music program, El Sistema performs concerts and participates in workshops. A new grant from the Somerville Arts Council has provided the resources for a workshop/concert event on the first Tuesday of each month this spring. Sounds of the City … Music of the World is free and open to the public and Cline hopes the events help better connect the community to El Sistema.
The Somerville branch of El Sistema is the first one to be funded by a city government and Cline is grateful for the support she has received. “The city listened to people saying ‘we want this,'” Cline said.
In addition to the city funding, El Sistema has a large fundraising concert planned for May. There is a constant need for more resources to help propel the program forward. Monetary donations–as well as donations of time–are welcome. Cline said that she’d love to bring in more Somerville musicians to play with the kids and expose them to even more musical traditions.
“El Sistema Somerville isn’t just for the kids in the program, it’s about the community having this as a resource to make music together,” Cline said.
And it’s clear from speaking to Cline that the youth who participate in El Sistema Somerville are gaining much more than just the skills to play music.
“I have a hunch that kids struggling with reading will improve as they gain focus, concentration and spatial awareness skills,” Cline said. “There’s no doubt that kids who continue in this program will be more successful.”
Workshop 3:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m., concert 5 p.m.-5:30 p.m.
East Somerville Community School, 8 Bonair St.
March 5: Bach Didn’t Play the Piano?
April 2: American Roots
May 7: Impressions