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El Sistema: Transforming Youth Through Classical Music

Can a violin keep a child from joining a gang? A group in Denver has brought an innovative music program to one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods to find out.

There’s long been a stereotype of “coming from the wrong side of the tracks” – but students at Garden Place Elementary in North West Denver – don’t have much choice.

The 108 year old school is surrounded by an active rail yard and factories. – but it still stands proud in one of Denver’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

Once inside the sounds of industry fade away, replaced by the sound of musical instruments.

Kindergartners and 3rd graders at Garden Place are taking part in a kind of experiment.

They’re part of a music program which strives to make every child feel important and part of a community. A community that organizers hope will combat the many reasons why kids drop out of school, or join a gang later in life.

“It is our human right to have this gift, and to be empowered by it."

Monika Vischer is president of El Sistema Colorado.

El Sistema is Spanish for “the system.” It’s based on a model created in Venezuela in 1979 that’s quickly migrating across the U.S.

Building off of her passion for classical music, Vischer has spent the past year reaching out to various non-profits for funding and donations of string instruments.

“Our top criteria were serving the poorest of the poor. And we had to have a principle who was really on board, not just in an agreement, but over the top impassioned to make sure El Sistema would work in his and her school.”

Rebecca Gaustad is Principle at Garden Place.

“We’re poverty stricken, all of the statistics show that, but not poor in spirit by any means.

She hopes El Sistema will provide her students an escape from the ever present cycle of poverty and crime in the neighborhood.

“Building well rounded citizens, and lifelong learners and teaching our kids life tools, on how to become successful and give them a different path.”

For now, that path starts in kindergarten inside the brightly lit music room at Garden Place. A large circular carpet with musical notes and symbols adds a splash of color  in an otherwise drab environment.

Also on the floor in a neat row, are more than 50 violins.

These aren’t real violins, but Papier-mâché models which the students and their parents handcrafted to use for practice. The kindergartners get 30 minutes of violin training a day, which is just about enough for a typical 6 year old.

William Hinkie is El Sistema’s lead artist. He says teaching kids something as simple as holding their bow properly, may seems like a routine task.  But for the kids at Garden Place, it’s much more than that.

“I’m seeing a lot of change in student behavior in my class room, we’re really teaching self discipline and self control. To make sure that every child has control over what they can do, and can’t do. To make sure you’re making the right choices.”

In the two months since the program began, teachers –including Veronica Castillo – have started to see the skills taught by El Sistema translate into the class room.

“They learn discipline consistency and a love of music. And music transforms life.”

Parents have noticed this transformation as well.

Claudia Lopez is standing just outside the auditorium door after a recent after school rehearsal. She points at her son and smiles as he sits plucking his violin in tune with the rest of the group.

“I think it’s actually a wonderful experience. For kids to play instruments. It just opens a whole different perspective for him.

The schools third graders have been practicing with real instruments for 10 hours a week for the past two months in preparation for their first major concert this weekend.


But the future of El Sistema Colorado remains unclear.Organizers want the pilot project at Garden Place to be a success, and become a model for schools across the state. And they hope the values and support structures they’ve created will stick with these kids as they make their way through Middle school, and beyond.