by Andrew Kurtz, Music Director, Gulf Coast Symphony
In Kindergarten, I was handed a violin.
I began learning to play the instrument and still do to this day. It was this delicately crafted wooden “music box” that ultimately led me to a career in the arts. Little did I know that the benefits of learning to play an instrument would have on my cognitive abilities, my memory, and other higher executive functions.
In fact, only recently have brain studies shown just how powerful music making can be in a one’s ability to make decisions, to increase impulse control, and improve creativity.
In 1975 Venezuelan educator, musician and activist José Antonio Abreu launched El Sistema — a publicly financed, music education program in Venezuela, with a goal of helping children escape poverty.
In Venezuela, children begin attending their local El Sistema center, called a “nucleo,” as early as age 2 or 3, with the vast majority continuing well into their teens; attending up to six days a week, three to four hours a day, plus retreats and intensive workshops. Participation is free for all students. The country now has over 700,000 students participating annually.
Today, El Sistema is a tested model of how a music program can both create great musicians and dramatically change the life trajectory of hundreds of thousands of a nation’s neediest kids. Among its graduates, El Sistema Venezuela has nurtured international musicians such as Gustavo Dudamel and the world-renowned Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra.
This year the Gulf Coast Symphony launches MusicWorks!, an El-Sistema inspired afterschool orchestra program at the Harlem Heights Center. Our partner, the Heights Foundation, believes that the solution to poverty is education and opportunity. We believe that by strengthening a child’s spirit and creativity through learning to play an instrument, it can help them succeed in life.
MusicWorks! will provide instrumental instruction 1.5 hours each day, Monday through Thursday after school this fall at the Heights Center. Participating children will be in grades K-2 and choose from violin, viola, cello, or bass. They will benefit from individual, small group, and large ensemble instruction. Chorus and basic musical knowledge will also be part of the intensive curriculum. The instruments and program are provided free of charge. Three professional music instructors, including a full-time Program Director, who also teaches, ensures that children get necessary individualized attention. Additionally, members of the Gulf Coast Symphony assist in program instruction.
The program encourages family and community participation at regular events, helping to build a stronger community, and a deeper connection to MusicWorks! Further, participating students will be brought to concerts at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, and will perform there before a Gulf Coast Symphony performance.
While this program will certainly teach children to play string instruments, the Gulf Coast Symphony’s long-term goal is to help these children achieve their fullest potential and escape the cycle of poverty. Through discipline, practice and encouragement these children will learn to work as a team and to understand the importance of what one person’s contributions can be to an entire community.
We believe that every child can learn to experience and express music and art deeply, can receive its many benefits, and can make different critical life choices as a result of this learning.
Overcoming poverty and adversity is best done by strengthening the spirit, creating, as Dr. Abreu, puts it, “an affluence of the spirit,” and investing that affluence as a valued asset in a community endeavor to create excellence and beauty in music.
This summer, as the SWFL Community Foundation gears up for the next competitive grant cycle, we have asked our 2015 grantees to send us their stories. Here this week we learn from Maestro Andrew Kurtz, music director of the Gulf Coast Symphony about how our grant provided the funding to start a music program for underserved children. The Foundation is pleased to partner with these change makers. If you have ideas and hope for the future, we’d love to hear from you at [email protected] or @SWFLCFnd on Twitter.