El Sistema Minnesota welcomes Nachito Herrera for benefit concert

by Sheila Regan, Special to MPR
May 20, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS — Acclaimed Cuban jazz pianist Nachito Herrera will be joining the Minnesota Youth Symphonies tonight at North High School for a concert benefitting El Sistema Minnesota, a music program operating after school days at Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary. The program, which is coming to the end of its second year, is based on the original El Sistema in Venezuela, where classical music is used as a tool to improve the lives of children from poor communities. El Sistema is now used as a model in over 55 countries and has inspired over 40 organizations in the United States alone.

Kelly Carter, executive director and co-founder of the Advocates for Community through Musical Excellence (ACME), the nonprofit that runs El Sistema Minnesota, says that she and co-founder Patricia Morgan-Brist were inspired when they watched a TED talk about how El Sistema is bringing string programs back into public schools.

It was an issue that struck a chord for Carter, as someone whose life was greatly affected by classical music. Carter's and Morgan-Brist's excitement at the idea brought them into conversation with Calvin Keasling, the arts content lead for Minneapolis Public Schools.

Keasling says that Carter approached him about the idea of starting the program at a school in North Minneapolis, and he suggested Nellie Stone Johnson, as they already had a music and orchestra program, though they didn't have offerings for the earliest grades. "Being able to start in first grade is unique," Keasling said.

Unfortunately, the district doesn't have funds to support the program. "The reality is [...] all our extended learning funds can only be used for literacy and math," Keasling said, so El Sistema must rely on private funding. "There's a huge push in the state for early education, but the arts are really missing."

Still, as the arts content lead, Keasling sees the value of teaching music to kids, providing "habits of mind," and "life skills you gain by individual practice, group rehearsal and performance," he said.

Pam Arnstein, a violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra, is one of the teaching assistants for the program at Nellie Stone Johnson along with fellow Minnesota Orchestra member Catherine Schaefer Schubilske, who told Arnstein about the opportunity. Arnstein had read about El Sistema in music magazines and liked the concept very much.

It's been a learning curve, however. Arnstein has had years of experience as a private teacher, and has given demonstrations to large educational groups, but this was the first time she's had the experience of "teaching 20 students all holding violins," she said. "I was learning as I [went along]." Especially in the beginning, Arnstein struggled with her young students not following instructions, and would have liked more training on how do work with at-risk children. This year has gone a bit better, with the school's new music teacher who stays in the room for about the first half hour and has "given us suggestions and forwarded us articles to read about children in poverty," Arnstein said.

Over the two years, Arnstein has seen successes. For one thing, attendance in the program has improved. Plus, when one of the violin or cello students she's working with accomplishes something, it's very rewarding. "They've been able to say to some of their classmates, 'I play the violin.' They are getting a unique identity." In addition, a group of Breck students have been doing a research project about the effect of the training on the academics of the students, and have found positive results. "These kids have a lot more pride in who they are," Arnstein said.

The instrument itself has a powerful effect. "The violin or cello are very complicated instruments," she said. "There's a lot physically going on...it's a complex mental thing, and the students are using their senses of seeing and hearing. That to me is what engages their brain on a much more sophisticated level."

Leadriane Roby, principal of Nellie Stone Johnson, said El Sistema Minnesota has been a great opportunity for first and second graders to show their strengths and talents. "Our families love it," she said.

The volunteer teachers have "a love and passion for they do," Roby said. "That's evident in the commitment that the musicians show to our kids: they love them. They interact and they are excited to see them; there really is a connection. They are professional musicians but they have a teacher heart."

Manny Laureano, co-artistic-director of Minnesota Youth Symphonies — who will be performing at the benefit concert following a presentation by the El Sistema students themselves — says the program is important because "kids need music the way they need another language, during a time when they don't always know how to express themselves." MYS will be performing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with pianist Nachito Herrera under Laureano's direction. The MYS Symphony Orchestra performed the work for their spring concert with Herrera, and will be giving it a reprise with a reduced number of musicians, which, according to Laureano, is closer to the original version.

As someone who grew up in the inner city, Laureano says that exposure to classical music for these kids is often nil, so any opportunity to expose them to classical music is a positive thing. "It expands their world to a great degree," he said.

The performance will begin at 6:30 p.m. at North High School. Tickets are $12 for open seating, available at mnyouthsymphonies.org. Food and school supply donations are encouraged.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer. She writes frequently for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and City Pages, among other publications.

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