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El Sistema Plans Summer Music Programs for Students

Instructors aim to teach musical proficiency and teamwork

Dulce Vasquez, 11, plays an Orff instrument with El Sistema Santa Cruz during a Santa Cruz County Office of Education meeting at Watsonville's Civic Plaza in early 2020. PHOTO: Tony Nuñez

Since 2017, Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) has partnered with nonprofit El Sistema Santa Cruz/Pajaro Valley to bring music education and performance to local students.

During the pandemic, El Sistema has continued its work both virtually and in-person, with small cohorts of students signed up through PVUSD’s Safe Spaces program. And soon they will be offering summer programs at various local schools.

“It’s really great to be working with students and giving them a sense of normalcy by providing in-person supervision and enrichment programs in a safe environment,” said El Sistema Executive Director Isabelle Tuncer. “That has been pretty rewarding, to see students we never had before starting with our program.”

El Sistema Santa Cruz was founded in 2012 at Gault Elementary School and has since expanded to Radcliff, Mintie White and Valencia elementary schools and Duncan Holbert School in Watsonville.

Students engage in daily practice and rehearsals and perform regularly throughout the community. It is mainly an Orff-based orchestra program; Orff instruments being things such as xylophones, glockenspiels and marimbas, which are considered versatile and adaptable for various skill levels. 

Instructors aim to teach students not only musical proficiency but also teamwork and the importance of becoming “responsible citizens” in their community.

“Most music is done as a group,” Tuncer said. “Listening to other students to form an ensemble, working together … it is a great skill to have.”

Originally El Sistema began in Venezuela in 1975 as a publicly financed music program by educator, musician and activist José Antonio Abreu. It continued to grow and now has programs in six other countries, including the U.S.

Instructor Juan Ospina said that he first taught through El Sistema in his home country of Columbia. When he came to Santa Cruz, he jumped at the opportunity to continue teaching with the program.

“I was surprised to see what they’d been doing here,” he said. “They approach music in a very different way. They really build relationships with these kids through music, through ensembles.”

This summer, El Sistema will be involved with two separate programs. The first is Camp Connect, organized by Extended Learning, which invites a select group of students from Aptos Junior High, Alianza Charter, Pajaro and Rolling Hills middle schools and Watsonville Charter School of the Arts.

The second will be open to students at El Sistema’s regular school locations.

Tuncer said that the close relationship with PVUSD has made it easy to jump in quickly when there’s an opportunity, or a great need such as last year’s school shutdowns. 

PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez echoed the sentiment, saying the district has been “very fortunate” with the partnership.

“When the pandemic hit… all our partners met together and discussed how we can pivot and change,” Rodriguez said. “Many partners shifted their services, and El Sistema was one of them. This entire pandemic, they have been providing tremendous support.”

Rodriguez said that personally, she has always been supportive of music education and seen firsthand its benefits. District schools that have these types of programs are “highly outperforming” other schools in academics, she said, and students seem happier and more connected with their peers.

“What I know to be true is that when you focus on the whole child, their social and emotional needs, and to help them find school to be fun … they do better,” she said. “Especially for our most vulnerable students, this is their only access to music education.”

Added Ospina: “A lot of the kids I’ve met here, they didn’t have any contact with music before. That caught my attention. Being part of [El Sistema] is different than just music class. It’s not about curriculum … it’s about being part of an ensemble, a place where students can feel included, loved and successful.”

Tuncer said that while certain online El Sistema programming will still be used, she is very excited for more in-person practicing and performance.

“Everyone needs a people-to-people connection,” she said. “Going to school is not only to learn math or English, you go to forge relationships. Students were missing that the most. To bring music back into their life is bringing a sense of social connection that has been missing for the last year.”

Camp Connect will be held June 14-July 9. Students will be selected for the camp by the end of this month. The school program will be held July 14-Aug. 4. For more information, visit elsistemasantacruz.org, or contact participating schools.


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