Trenton Music Makers Selected as 2019-20 Carnegie Hall PlayUSA Partners

Trenton, NJ – Young string players in Trenton who have been working hard together, three and four days per week, have yet another reason to feel proud.

Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute announced today that it has awarded Trenton Music Makers, the intensive music and youth development program that has been growing rapidly over the past four years in Trenton, with $30,000 in grant funding and membership in PlayUSA for 2019-20. PlayUSA supports a wide range of instrumental music education projects across the country that are designed to engage students from low-income and underserved communities. The network of PlayUSA organizations shares successes and best teaching practices, and receives training from Carnegie Hall staff for its teaching artists and leaders. For its fifth anniversary year, Carnegie Hall has selected 17 organizations from 15 different states, for a total of $500,000 in grants.

“For us, being chosen as Carnegie Hall PlayUSA partners is more than an honor,” says Trenton Music Makers Artistic Director, Lydia Veilleux. “This means access to some of the best thinking in the field of Creative Youth Development, and learning resources for our teaching artists that will then provide immeasurable benefit to our players.”

Modeled on the acclaimed El Sistema youth orchestras founded in Venezuela, participation in the Trenton Music Makers Orchestra is available to students in grades 2-12 at no charge, but with a deep time commitment. Orchestra rehearsals, studio-based sectionals, and string instruments are provided to its students, along with leadership training and performance opportunities that highlight their natural role as assets to their community.

Trenton Music Makers Receives Three-Year Grant from El Sistema USA

TRENTON, NJ – Trenton Music Makers, formerly known in the Capital region as Trenton Community Music School, received news in recent weeks that gives its teachers, and its dedicated young orchestra musicians, another reason to celebrate.

Trenton Music Makers has been chosen by El Sistema USA, the national membership organization for programs effecting social change through music, as part of its first “PRESTO” (Program for Rising El Sistema Organizations) cohort. PRESTO grantees will receive $67,500 in funding over three years, in addition to mentoring and technical assistance in maximizing the social-development impacts that are associated with ambitious musical pursuit.

Funds from this grant will enable Trenton Music Makers to open two new program sites in partnership with the Trenton Public Schools: a string sectional at Trenton Central High School, to enrich the excellent orchestra program led by Joseph Pucciatti, and a pre-orchestra program for second graders at Jefferson Elementary School, to be co-taught by esteemed strings teacher Peg Banks, and Jefferson’s beloved music teacher, Jason Hui. For 2018-19, Trenton Music Makers is positioned to reach students in the 2nd through 12th grades, as these new sites join the two that are already thriving at Grant Elementary School and Dunn Middle School.

“Our goal is to support innovation and growth in the El Sistema movement across the United States. The PRESTO program is our way of providing that support through resources and training for young organizations exhibiting great potential,” said El Sistema USA’s Executive Director, Katie Wyatt. “It is thanks to the vision of the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation and their belief in our work that El Sistema USA is able to make this $1 million-dollar investment into El Sistema-inspired organizations that have shown early initiative and displayed exemplary work.”

In addition to opening additional sites, the PRESTO program will support the development of its diverse team of teaching artists, which includes master string teachers, freelance musicians, young and dedicated college graduates, and excellent classroom teachers hired from among the district teaching staff. Their backgrounds are a winning combination – one that serves the children’s musical and social development in an unparalleled manner.

“We are deeply honored to be a part of this cohort of organizations receiving El Sistema USA’s support,” said Carol Burden, Trenton Music Makers’ Executive Director. “The funding will open doors for more young people to be a part of the program, and help to build a stronger program for them to join. We’re looking forward to convening with our fellow PRESTO grantees from around the country and working together to support all of our kids.”

“FiddleFest” to Feature Young Musicians From Six NJ Cities, including Trenton Music Makers

Paterson, NJ -- In the wintry northeast, we don’t think of March as a month for music festivals.  But on March 10th, hundreds of children and their families from all corners of New Jersey will be in Paterson to participate in the Fiddlefest & FaLaLa Festival, a new tradition of statewide children’s orchestra and choir festivities that has been steadily growing in New Jersey for four years.

Fiddlefest & FaLaLa is sponsored by the El Sistema New Jersey Alliance (ESNJA), a unique network of programs across the Garden State that use music education as a vehicle for youth development and social change.  These programs are inspired by the El Sistema movement in music education that began decades ago in Latin America and has spread in recent years around the world, reaching almost a million children in 65 countries, with 130 programs in the United States.  

The seven ESNJA member programs are Paterson Music Project, NJSO CHAMPS (Newark), Union City Music Project, Trenton Music Makers, Sonic Explorations (Orange), Sister Cities Girlchoir (Camden), and Keys 2 Success (Newark).  Students in these programs experience immersive ensemble music learning several days a week.  All children are welcome; there are no auditions, and instruments are provided free of charge. The learning model prioritizes mutual support, cooperative hard work, inclusion, and joy. 

The Fiddlefest & FaLaLa Festival takes place this year at Paterson School 15 from 10 AM to 3 PM on March 10th.  Children ages 8 to 15 will rehearse in small and large groups, join drum circles, and have lunch together, while their family members learn songs and play rhythm games.  The event culminates in a massive performance by the young musicians for their families and the public. 

Fiddlefest & FaLaLa is one of several yearly opportunities created by the Alliance for students of its member programs to learn and share with peers from across the state. Other opportunities include a three-day summer camp and Martin Luther King Day concerts.

The Alliance and its member programs aspire to change long-term educational and life outcomes for New Jersey’s most underserved children.  Research shows that immersive music learning can lead to multiple benefits for children—improving their early cognitive development, enhancing academic achievement across the curriculum, keeping them engaged in school, raising graduation rates, and helping them develop self-esteem and social skills.

Founded four years ago, the El Sistema New Jersey Alliance also provides opportunities for teachers in member programs to share resources and to do collaborative training and professional development.  Its long-term goal is to continue to enlarge the statewide musical community of young people who are creating new and vibrant futures for themselves and their families. 

Our New Name: Trenton Music Makers

What a summer it’s been. Our Board of Trustees has met, and many of our friends have joined us, to brainstorm, flipchart, whiteboard, propose, refine, and at last to put it all into words. Our Five-Year Action Plan is complete.

For the last three years we’ve been in the startup phase of the Trenton Music Makers Orchestra, our afterschool music and social development program. Inspired by El Sistema, which began in the 1970’s in Venezuela, we are providing an opportunity for young people to learn music by immersion, and to surprise themselves and the people who love them with what they’re capable of. More than just limiting their exposure to negative influences, the “nucleo,” as these centers are called worldwide, provides a place of challenge and fun, where children grow to understand their role as an asset to their community. As writer and teaching-artist educator Eric Booth describes it, we are “an aligned community that reaches unreasonably high, together.”

But we weren’t starting from scratch. For fifteen years already, we had been providing music learning, teacher training, and family engagement throughout Trenton’s universal pre-K system. Using the Music Together® resource materials, we help Trenton’s fine preschool teachers to use music to support all aspects of children’s learning. More and more, high-quality pre-K programs are recognized as powerful antidotes to the pervasive achievement/opportunity gap between more and less affluent children, and we are committed to making high-quality music a part of their education.

In both cases, it’s our role to remove barriers. No instruments? We’ll supply them. No room in the budget for music lessons? No charge to children and their families. No car? We’ll pick you up for orchestra rehearsal and get you safely home afterward.

These two programs, the Trenton Music Makers Orchestra and Music for the Very Young, are the heart and soul of our work, and the hands and feet of our mission: to bring children together in teams of music learners and makers, to build their minds, imagination and community. Our Five-Year Action Plan calls for the growth of the Trenton Music Makers Orchestra so that it reaches kids in kindergarten through high school, and for us to make it available to every kid in Trenton, on two sites East and West. We’re also going to take Music for the Very Young beyond the two-year residencies, and into a new model that we can sustain indefinitely in each classroom. And we’ll be taking steps in the background that fortify our organization, so that we’ll be thriving from now into the twenty-second century.

And so we find that “Community Music School” is no longer an accurate description. We’re making music with Trenton kids….. and making Trenton kids stronger, with music.

TRENTON: the city where we live and work, whose grit and promise we love, and which we are dedicated to upholding.

MUSIC: our original language – every baby is expressive with sound before learning words – and one that permits no language barrier.

MAKERS: what we do with our hands, using the inspiration of our hearts and our intellect, and offer to the world.

To everyone who joined us for that brainstorming and flipcharting, we thank you! We’re grateful to have friends aboard who agree with us that great music education is important – and that all kids deserve it, regardless of their level of privilege.  We promise to keep you posted. Come hear us play; come make music with us; let’s celebrate the great things our kids are doing.

Violinist New to Trenton and Princeton is a Product of the Famed El Sistema Program

From the Town Topics Newspaper
Wednesday, November 9

In a cluttered classroom at Trenton’s Grace A. Dunn Middle School, seven girls and one boy stand in a circle, violins in hand. It has been barely a month since they began learning the basics of the instrument. But “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” which they are playing along with their teacher, is sounding pretty good.

The students are urged on by José Gregorio Sanchez Rodriguez, who issues gentle but firm commands from the middle of the circle. In quick succession, they try out different rhythms of the familiar tune.

“Vamos! [‘Come on’ in Spanish],” he says (Dunn is a bilingual school). “We have to set up the hand first so the fingers know where they belong. We have to be ready!” It is the end of a school day, but the students, who have been assigned the instruments for the school year, keep up the quick pace of the drill. Mr. Rodriguez’s enthusiasm is clearly contagious.

Getting kids fired up about music is a goal of Trenton Music Makers, a collaboration between the Trenton Community Music School and the Trenton Public Schools. The program began last year with 45 children at the Grant Elementary School. This year, 70 are taking part. Dunn, where 24 students are studying violin, viola, cello, and drumming, was added this fall.

The program follows the lead of El Sistema, a highly successful music education program for underserved children, founded in Venezuela 41 years ago. Of the eight instructors on the Trenton teaching team, Mr. Rodriguez is perhaps the most uniquely qualified. The 53-year-old native of Venezuela is a product of El Sistema, which he credits with altering the direction of his life.

“If not for that program, I could never have been able to do what I do today,” he said. “My life changed completely. I believe in the power of music because I have experienced it myself.”

Mr. Rodriguez was eight months old when his very young mother left him with her parents. His grandparents raised him in a little village called Cubiro. “I was a very sick child,” he recalled. “When I was about five, I was left in the hospital. I started to sing. I discovered I could make a little money because the nurses would pay me. After I started school a year or so later, my grandfather gave me a cuatro, a four-string guitar. From then on, I accompanied myself.”

The little boy became a folk musician, singing on weekends at the restaurant where his grandmother worked. “People called me ‘El Cantante’ in the village. I would wear my only suit,” he said. “Later on, I played and sang in school. I was also on the radio.”

When he was 14, Mr. Rodriguez took part in a choir festival at school. The conductor of another choir at the event noticed his talent and sent him a note, asking him to get in touch. “I called him from the only phone in town,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “He asked me if I would be interested in studying music in Quibar, where they were starting one of the El Sistema programs. So that was my introduction to studying music.”

The teenager, whose grandfather had died four years earlier, ended up moving in with a family in Quibar. He was introduced to Jose Anotnio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema. “He was impressed by the fact that I was an orphan kid,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “He asked me what instrument I’d like to play, and I said violin. I got a scholarship and started traveling to Caracas to study there. Then, everything started happening so rapidly.”

By 18, Mr. Rodriguez was a member of El Sistema’s Simon Bolivar Orchestra. He began traveling with the acclaimed group, performing in concert halls across the globe. “In three years, I went from living in a little village to playing with this famous orchestra,” he said. “It was the first time I encountered direction. The whole experience changed me; it opened my mind.”

Mr. Rodriguez decided to apply to The Juilliard School in Manhattan, and was accepted. It was while studying there that he took his first course in the Suzuki method, which aims to create an environment for learning music which parallels the linguistic environment of acquiring a native language. He was immediately captivated.

“I had always liked teaching. And I was fascinated by how little kids would learn to play an instrument,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “I started using the method and thinking of ways to combine it with what I learned at El Sistema. I identify with it very much because of my own experience as a child, making music without knowing how to read music. It’s about ear development, and I believe in this approach. I have applied it to my own way of teaching.”

Mr. Rodriguez earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at Juilliard. He spent time playing with an orchestra in Mexico, where he also started a chlldren’s orchestra, before moving back to the United States to teach with the El Sistema-inspired Play on Philly program in Philadelphia. He stayed for three years.

He moved to Trenton in August. Mr. Rodriguez is teaching at Princeton’s Westminster Conservatory of Music as well as the Grant and Dunn schools. While he is enthusiastic about Trenton Music Makers, he hopes to see more parents get involved.

“We need to educate parents and get them engaged,” he said. “More people should know the benefits of studying music. The evidence is out there. It makes a difference in children’s lives.”

Written by: Anne Levin

STRING SECTION: Students at Grace A. Dunn Middle School in Trenton are learning the violin from José Gregorio Sanchez Rodriguez, who is a product of the highly successful El Sistema program in Venezuela. Rodriguez also teaches at Westminster Conservatory in Princeton.

STRING SECTION: Students at Grace A. Dunn Middle School in Trenton are learning the violin from José Gregorio Sanchez Rodriguez, who is a product of the highly successful El Sistema program in Venezuela. Rodriguez also teaches at Westminster Conservatory in Princeton.

Chaos and Joy: Second Trenton Music Makers Site Opens At Dunn Middle School

Middle School is different. We thought we'd need to recruit intensively, that our teachers should visit sixth and seventh grade classrooms and demonstrate a little of what they'd be teaching and what the new after-school orchestra would be like. Get a few kids to come, who would then get their friends. Maybe we'd have 20, which would be enough to launch the new site.

"Hey guys," said Antonio Ruiz, our new Site Coordinator and a very popular math teacher at Dunn School, "I think you're not going to need to recruit. The word is out and I already have a waiting list."

A waiting list? Before we opened the doors? It turns out that's the state of the performing arts in the Trenton Public Schools. Maybe it had something to do with the success of Nathan Cohen's band program, maybe the leadership of Principal Madeline Roman, maybe the news about the Trenton Music Makers' amazing performance last spring for the VH1 Save the Music Foundation. But sure enough, when we arrived at Dunn Middle School on October 3, Mr. Ruiz's classroom was packed to the rafters. Not just the 24 students that we thought of as capacity, but 37. They had come because Mr. Ruiz said we'd see how much of the waiting list we could accept, and they wanted to see this for themselves.

Our teachers didn't drop a beat. The string teachers pulled out their violin and cello to demonstrate, showed the students how the vibrating string caused the bridge to vibrate, the sound post to vibrate, and the instrument to resonate. Our drumming instructor Steven Jack brandished his drumsticks and played riffs on the tables, the blackboard, and finally on the plastic buckets that the students will play this year in the bucket-drumming brigade.

And then the work began. Each student had a chance to try the violin and the cello, with the teachers' help. Some of them laughed because it felt so different from what they'd expected. Some of them knitted their brows and made the earnestly squeaky sounds you expect from a first-time string player. One girl proudly showed us the hot pink violin that her parents had given her for Christmas when she'd begged for it, and then it was our turn to be amazed: thanks to the time she'd spent on YouTube, she knew all of the parts of the instrument, knew how to tune it (sort of), and played us a heartfelt rendition of "Ode to Joy." She beamed: she knew that eighth graders had the lowest priority for the program, but could she join?

Why yes she can.

Middle School is different. When the kids were waiting their turn to play, they didn't just wait. They talked, they laughed, they took selfies. We're going to be realistic: we know that not every one of these 37 will join us for good, but we're so happy that we got such a chaotic start, bursting at the seams, just based on the rumor that we were coming.

The Dunn School Site is open! Enjoy a few more pictures by clicking here.

New Faculty Arrives: Princeton, Bucks County, Jersey Shore, and Venezuela Come to Trenton

Trenton Music Makers will begin the program year next week, with eight new instructors, a new middle-school site, and an orchestra twice the size of last year's.

"One of the promises of El Sistema is that the kids know we are there for them to continue developing their music skills, and as a social community, through high school," notes Ronnie Ragen, the Program Director. "We won't let them age out." Indeed, growing along with our players is both our joy and our necessary next step: last year's fifth graders have entered middle school. So on October 3, our new Trenton Music Makers site will open at Grace A. Dunn Middle School in Trenton's South Ward.

The pilot year at Dunn school will include up to 25 students, playing violin, viola, cello and bass. The teaching team includes Laurie Cascante, cellist and teacher, and Jose Gregorio Sanchez Rodriguez, violin and viola. Ms. Cascante, a teacher of Suzuki and traditional cello at Westminster Conservatory, is an alumna of the Esther Boyer College of Music at Temple University, and maintains an active teaching and performing schedule. Mr. Sanchez is a native Venezuelan and a student of Jose Antonio Abreu in the original El Sistema program. After playing in the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, he earned his degree at The Juilliard School, and taught with Play on Philly! before moving to Mexico to establish his own El Sistema-inspired orchestras in Mazatlan and Veracruz. He has just arrived back in the USA and is making his home in Trenton.

In addition to their chosen instrument, the new students at Dunn will learn drumming with Steven Jack, another new member of the team. A Central Jersey native, Mr. Jack has played drums from a young age, studying at the University of Connecticut, touring and recording with a number of R&B, country, and rockabilly bands in addition to playing symphonic percussion. Nathan Cohen, teaching musicianship and improvisation, is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, and well known in Trenton for having jump-started the music renaissance in the Trenton Public Schools with his now renowned Dunn School Band.

Meanwhile the Grant Elementary School site will reopen on Tuesday, September 27, with 70 players where last year there were 45. Barrington Brown, Steven Merdian, Anita Hill and Priscilla Allman, last year's faculty, will be joined by six new teachers: in addition to Jose Sanchez and Steven Jack, who will divide their time between the two sites, we are delighted to welcome Peg Banks, who for many years has taught the string program in the Princeton Public Schools in addition to serving as Assistant Concertmaster of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. Also from the PSO roster, Jody Rajesh will provide one-on-one "Tech-Time" to supplement the group instruction that is the hallmark of El Sistema programs. To complete the Grant School teaching team, we welcome Kaitlyn Baum, a recent graduate of Lehigh University and a cello teacher at the Blue Mountain Festival, Stretto Youth Chamber Orchestra, and the Chapin School; and Frederic Henry, a recent graduate of Esther Boyer College of Music at Temple University and a violin instructor at the Philadelphia String Project.

"We can't wait to introduce our new teachers and the expanded Trenton Music Makers orchestra to the community," says Carol Burden, Executive Director of the Trenton Community Music School. "Strength in numbers is so palpable when kids play music together, and we've already seen the power of this program in transforming the way they work as a team. Especially as the second year of the Kennedy Center 'Any Given Child' consultancy begins, it's an exciting time for the performing arts in the Trenton Public Schools, and we're delighted for the opportunity to be part of the mix."

Trenton Music Makers' Earliest Funders to Renew Their Support

Trenton Community Music School is grateful and honored that the two earliest adopters of the Trenton Music Makers youth orchestra, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Princeton Area Community Foundation, will continue to support the program in 2016-17.

Dodge was with us when we piloted the program at Grant Elementary School. Together with the Trenton Public Schools, who provided not only program space and security infrastructure, but also a full complement of string instruments thanks to the VH-1 Save the Music Foundation, we opened "El Sistema - Trenton" with 30 kids in the third and fourth grades. Trenton Community Music School hired teaching artists, purchased music, provided healthy afterschool snacks, and operated a one-semester after-school orchestra that met three days a week. We transported these newly-minted violinists to NJPAC in June, where they proudly exhibited their new skill along with the players from the other member organizations of the El Sistema New Jersey Alliance, some of whom had been playing for several years longer.

Then last September, with added support from PACF, we began the year with 45 students, studying violin, viola and cello. Still less than a year into their work, Trenton Music Makers played at Trenton City Hall for Mayor Eric Jackson and a host of municipal employees, for a meeting of the Trenton Board of Education, for a crowd of appreciative adults at Trenton Community Music School's annual benefit, and amazingly, on the stage of Richardson Auditorium as the special guests of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, at the PSO's annual Holiday POPS! Concert. Eager to place the Capital City front and center in the program's identity, we renamed it "Trenton Music Makers."

This fall TCMS will begin its third program year, and launch its second site at Dunn Middle School. Between the two sites we anticipate that Trenton Music Makers will include nearly 100 students. Trenton Music Makers has by now given a dozen performances, and thanks in part to a wildly-successful musical instrument drive co-sponsored by Princeton University, WWFM The Classical Network, and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, each of the players has an instrument assigned to him/her for rehearsal, performance -- and practice at home -- for the full year. Other generous donors have come onboard to support these dedicated young players, but the continuation of our original funders' support is especially gratifying.

"[B]oth of your signature programs," writes Christopher Daggett, the CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, "directly improve the lives of the children they serve and also improve the lives of the adults who care for and teach them." Jeffrey M. Vega, President & CEO of the Community Foundation concurs: “All children deserve access to the arts, and your program enriches the lives of those who participate. We are happy to help support it through our Greater Mercer Grants program.”

Support from Dodge and from PACF, our first two reasons to have felt optimistic about this venture, continue to help us grow.

El Sistema New Jersey Alliance holds summer camp at Princeton-Blairstown Center in Blairstown

The second annual El Sistema New Jersey Alliance summer camp will take place at the Princeton-Blairstown Center in Blairstown, August 17–19. One hundred students from across New Jersey will participate, representing the six Alliance programs: Trenton Music Makers (Trenton), NJSO CHAMPS (Newark), Paterson Music Project (Paterson), Union City Music Project (Union City), Sonic Explorations (Orange), and Sister Cities Girlchoir (Camden and Philadelphia). In addition to music rehearsals led by teaching artists from each program, students will participate in camp and teambuilding activities such as hiking, adventure courses and campfire s’mores and sing-alongs. On the final day of camp, the students will perform a concert for parents and friends.

The Alliance piloted the camp, made possible in part by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, last summer. CHAMPS teaching artist Theresa Kemp said the shared experience left a lasting mark on the students: “It was really amazing to see the kids face challenges [from rope courses to learning new music quickly] and have to work through them as a team. [It’s] about finding a different part of yourself and connecting with other musicians. We’re trying to express to them that when you’re a musician, you’re a part of a community that is so much bigger than yourself, than your school, than New Jersey. It may sound cliché, but music really is the universal language.”

Young musicians from the Alliance programs have come together for multiple joint performances and events since the Alliance was founded in 2014; CHAMPS cellist Precious K. said her favorite part of last year’s camp was spending three days connecting with her peers: “Now that we’ve spent time with people from the other programs and gotten to know them, I know we have similarities so we can bond.”

El Sistema expert and author Tricia Tunstall said bringing students from different programs across the state together creates a new sense of identity. At last year’s camp, she said, “all the principles we talk about in El Sistema teaching just [came] alive spontaneously. It created this beautiful situation where kids [who didn’t previously know each other] are naturally drawn to help each other and play music together.”

This is the first year the Trenton Music Makers will participate in the camp, and the first year Sonic Explorations students will stay overnight. Orange Public Schools Supervisor of Visual and Performing Arts Donna Sinisgalli says, “We are excited that our students will have the opportunity to experience intensive musical instruction with students from the other programs in the Alliance and at the same time enjoy outdoor-nature activities.”

The programs of the Alliance are united around the idea of social change through music and inspired by the vision of Venezuela’s El Sistema, which brings intensive music education to children with little or no access to arts education. The Alliance’s mission is to provide collaborative instruction and performance opportunities for students, offer professional development training to teachers and empower participating families to come together in a statewide musical community. The Alliance has presented annual Fiddle-and-Fa-La-La-Fest showcase performances at NJPAC in Newark and free concerts in each program’s local community throughout the season.


Trenton Music Makers
Trenton Community Music School is operating an El Sistema-inspired Youth Orchestra in partnership with the Trenton Public Schools at Trenton’s Grant Elementary School and Dunn Middle School. The program is designed to provide high-quality music ensemble experiences and access to the benefits of group music making for the participating children. The after-school project provides 30 third and fourth graders with violin lessons, as well as musicianship classes, three days per week. This project is one of the Community Partnerships of the Trenton Community Music School.

NJSO CHAMPS (Character, Achievement & Music Project)
NJSO CHAMPS (Character, Achievement and Music Project) is an intensive education program inspired by the Venezuelan social change and music education program El Sistema. Implemented in partnership with University Heights Charter School in Newark, NJSO CHAMPS seeks to harness the power of music to enhance students’ lives. By training students as musicians, the NJSO seeks to develop character traits and skills that may impact students’ future success in school, work and life. As many as 50 students in grades 3–8 receive up to 30 weeks of after-school string instruction and performance opportunities. Students have performed with the NJSO and the NJSO Youth Orchestras, at concerts in community settings and at school assemblies.

Paterson Music Project
Based in Paterson, New Jersey, Paterson Music Project (PMP) is an El Sistema-inspired program of Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts that uses music as a vehicle for social change by empowering and inspiring children through the community experience of ensemble learning and playing. PMP provides an intense musical immersion after school for nearly 200 students at the Community Charter School of Paterson and Paterson School 1. Students in grades three–five study a primary instrument (violin, cello or viola) and participate in six hours of group music instruction, ensemble practice and choir weekly. Students in grades one–two participate in Pre-Orchestra, a preparatory program that meets for two hours weekly. Pre-Orchestra students sing, participate in paper orchestra and play the recorder and buckets. Students perform frequently for the school and community. PMP began in January 2013 with 30 students at the Community Charter School of Paterson, where it now serves more than 100 students. In January 2015, PMP partnered with Paterson Public Schools to open a site at Public School 1. This new site serves 78 first through fifth graders from P.S. 1 and P.S. 26.

Sister Cities Girlchoir
Sister Cities Girlchoir (SCG) empowers at-risk girls by building resilience, leadership, mastery and connection through a comprehensive choral training academy that invests in the unique potential of adolescent girls to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and transform their communities. The program is research-based, and although a music program is an uncommon poverty intervention, SCG is modeled on the powerful impact that investments in the lives of at-risk girls make for a city block, a neighborhood, a city … for the world. SCG is modeled after El Sistema, Venezuela’s monumental music education program that is transforming lives and communities. SCG founder Alysia Lee spent a year studying El Sistema and visiting programs in Venezuela and throughout the U.S. through the Sistema Fellowship at the New England Conservatory. The pilot program launched in September 2012, with 75 middle-school-aged girls in three community sites. In its fourth year, more than 250 girls are registered at six sites in three target communities: Camden, West Philadelphia and Kensington.

Sonic Explorations: Sharing Sounds of Oakwood
Sonic Explorations: Sharing Sounds of Oakwood is an after-school music program at the Oakwood Avenue Community School in Orange, New Jersey. Since the fall of 2013, the program has provided violin, percussion and creative musicianship classes to students in kindergarten through third grade. Inspired by the Venezuelan El Sistema program, Sonic Explorations aims to provide free music education within a social context for the youth of the Oakwood Avenue Community School. Through building a network of shared resources, values, aspirations and advocacy, this program seeks to inspire youth, increase academic awareness and move the community-at-large towards a more promising future. The Oakwood Avenue Community School seeks to advance both individuals and the community through the transformational power of music.

Union City Music Project
The Union City Music Project (UCMP) is an El Sistema after-school program that uses music as a vehicle for social change by providing intensive orchestral and vocal instruction and performance opportunities for urban children in Hudson County, New Jersey. Through a disciplined, cooperative and fun learning environment that integrates parental involvement, this structured grassroots program inspires academic excellence, enhances life skills and builds community. UCMP was launched in 2012 as the first El Sistema program in the Garden State. It currently serves 70 students ranging from 3–13 years of age by providing them with 24 hours of monthly instruction in violin, cello, percussion, flute, clarinet, trumpet, voice and music theory.

Bernstein’s Daughter to Present Film On Changing Lives Through Music


THE POWER OF MUSIC: After only a few months of study, young participants in the El Sistema music education program in Trenton were invited to play at a festival held last June at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The Trenton program is the focus of a Martin Luther King Day event at the Arts Council of Princeton, at which a documentary by Jamie Bernstein, daughter of composer Leonard Bernstein, will be screened.

One day eight years ago, Jamie Bernstein was casually scrolling through Facebook when she came upon a YouTube video titled Mambo: the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Since “Mambo” is one of the most famous compositions from the musical West Side Story, written by her late father, Leonard Bernstein, it caught her eye.

“I thought, okay, I’ll watch this for a second,” Ms. Bernstein recalls. “And I just about fell into my screen. I had never seen anything like it. The joy these kids had! I thought, who are they? And where is my Dad?”

In addition to being a world-famous composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein was a social activist, passionate about engaging children in music. His daughter knows he would have been thrilled by El Sistema, the Venezuela-based music education initiative that is the source of the youth orchestra enthusiastically playing his music — at a raucous concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall — in the video.

Ms. Bernstein’s chance YouTube encounter was the beginning of a continuing relationship with the program, which was founded in 1975 and has since expanded from Caracas into cities all over the world. It would lead to the making of Crescendo, The Power of Music, a 2014 documentary about El Sistema programs in Philadelphia and Harlem that she co-produced and co-directed with filmmaker Elizabeth Kling.

Ms. Bernstein, a writer, speaker, and activist for music education, will be at the Arts Council of Princeton on Monday, January 18 for a screening of the film. The Martin Luther King Day event is an informational program about an El Sistema program in Trenton under the direction of the Trenton Community Music School. A brief performance by young musicians will precede the film.

“When I discovered this was taking place in impoverished neighborhoods, and that it was music for social justice, it was almost too good to be true,” Ms. Bernstein recalled during a telephone interview from her home just after Christmas. “I knew I had to go to Venezuela. So I bought a ticket and went with some friends.” She admits to feeling skeptical at first. “But I was bowled over,” she said. “I mean, this is a very tough neighborhood. And the people were fantastic. I met the founder, Jose Abreu, who I really think should get the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Ms. Bernstein was invited back to Caracas to narrate a concert about her father and the “Young People’s Concerts” series he led on prime time television during the late 1950’s. Having grown up in a bilingual household — her mother, late actress Felicia Monteleagre, was from Chile — she felt at home. “This brought everything together in my life in one incredible package,” she said.

Growing up Bernstein was “never boring … well, maybe sometimes,” she said. “But it was a fantastic experience. Our house was always full of people. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of word games being played, tennis being played, stories being told, and always music, of course. It was just a lot of fun.” Leonard Bernstein died in 1990 at the age of 72; his wife died in 1978 at age 56.

El Sistema has exploded since Ms. Bernstein began the process of making Crescendo six years ago. “There were three or four of these programs in the U.S. then, and now there are over 100,” she said. “Over half a million kids are enrolled right now in Venezuela, and it’s growing everywhere else.”

Music educator Jose Antonio Abreu founded the program 40 years ago in an underground parking garage, with a small group of children from a tough Caracas neighborhood. He was convinced that teaching underserved kids to play instruments and collaborate in an orchestra would instill in them discipline, harmony, solidarity, and mutual compassion, and consequently change their lives.

Among the most famous graduates of the program is Gustavo Dudamel, the music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an enthusiastic proponent. “Music saved my life and has saved the lives of thousands of at risk children in Venezuela,” he has been quoted as saying. “Like food, like health care, like education, music has to be a right for every citizen.” Other success stories include a 19-year-old double bass player from Venezuela’s El Sistema who was recently hired by the Berlin Philharmonic. “That’s huge,” Ms. Bernstein said. “It’s one of the top orchestras in the world.”

But the aim of El Sistema isn’t to produce professional musicians. “The idea is about building human beings,” said Ms. Bernstein. “Some stay with music; others don’t.”

The film follows three children in two El Sistema-inspired youth orchestras, Harmony Project in Harlem and Play on Philly! in West Philadelphia. Viewers watch the children struggle to master their instruments and confront fears along the way, and see the surrounding community respond to the music. Making a documentary was new to Ms. Bernstein, but her friend Elizabeth Kling is a film editor and was confident they could make it happen. “If I had known what was involved, I probably wouldn’t have done it. So it’s good I didn’t know,” Ms. Bernstein said. “It was very hard. It was exhausting. We’re still pinching ourselves that we got it done.”

Ms. Bernstein grew to love the editing process that went into threading together the stories of young musicians in struggling neighborhoods. “It’s all about timing and rhythm, so maybe that has something to do with it,” she said. Since opening a year ago, Crescendo has won prizes and is now available on Netflix and I-Tunes. Screenings such as the January 18 event are a regular part of her schedule.

The Trenton Community Music School program was launched a year ago at Grant Elementary School. Less than a year after opening, the children performed at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center as part of the NJ El Sistema Alliance, and as special guests of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra in last month’s Holiday POPS! concert.

So how would Leonard Bernstein have reacted to El Sistema? “That’s all I ever think about,” Ms. Bernstein said. “How thrilled he would have been! He was so committed to making the world a better place. He didn’t live long enough to see that there was this program that put together the elements he cared most about. It’s kind of what impelled me to make the film. It was like I was telling his story.”

The screening of Crescendo: The Power of Music is Monday, January 18 at 7 p.m. at the Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. The film will be preceded by a brief performance by Wood N Strings, a youthful Trenton-based string quartet, and followed with a reception with Ms. Bernstein and Stanford Thompson, teaching artist and founder of Play on Philly!, featured in the film. Admission is free but seating is limited and reservations are strongly suggested: email

Written by: Anne Levin, for the Town Topics

Photo credit: Edna Friman