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Music program helps at-risk children

Girl holding violin - music program helps at-risk childrenDespite a strong national education system,
there’s a far-too-common dilemma facing
Canadian parents. Too many children are
falling through the cracks. If a program
could pull all children forward instead of
hold the weak back, would administrators
pay attention?

Nine Canadian programs are betting the
answer is yes. They’re using the musical
environment of youth orchestras to bring
children, especially the marginalized, into
an environment of discovery, collaboration
and commitment. The program uses musical
instruments as tools to facilitate fun and
behaviour change, and now has scientific
research to explain why it works.

The results, so far, have been startling.

Toronto mom Brenda Shearman worried
about her nine-year-old daughter, Lisa.
(The family prefers not to use their real
names.) “She has been bullied since Senior
Kindergarten,” says Brenda, who was so
concerned she was about to move to another
school district.

Then she discovered Sistema Toronto, an
after-school music program being run at a
large inner city school, Parkdale Elementary.

In her first week in the program every
child made a papier maché instrument. They
practised on them for almost one month
before they “graduated” to real instruments.
Sistema involves music instruction, singing
and theory four days per week, three
hours per day after school. From this social
program centred around music, an orchestra

“Since joining Sistema Lisa’s sense of selfworth
has increased dramatically. She feels
empowered when she plays,” Brenda says.

David Visentin, a professional violist and
music administrator, started one of the nine
programs. With businessman and activist
Robert Eisenberg, and instruments donated
by Yamaha Canada, he launched Sistema
Toronto in September 2011. The goal was to
help kids like Lisa, as well as the children
of Parkdale’s mushrooming immigrant

Nepalese immigrant Tsering Choeden never
worried about the social abilities of her sevenyear-
old daughter, Tenzin Yeshi. Yet when her
child picked up a Sistema violin at Parkdale, “it
really boosted her self-esteem. She can concentrate
better at school, has a better memory and is
much more confident,” says Tsering, who is also
a childhood educator.

“Sistema isn’t about creating elite musicians,”
says David. “It’s about creating an environment
of inclusion and commitment. Music stimulates
so many types of learning and improves
language as well as motor and other cognitive
skills. Even after three months we saw a
complete change in the children’s level of
engagement. Same with the parents.”

He calls it a social program through music
for his 51 students, and believes that academic
research now being done at the University of Toronto
will reveal empirically what many people
have always felt viscerally: that music can indeed
change the world.

In the beginning

Sistema Toronto is an adaptation of El Sistema,
started nearly four decades ago by José Antonio
Abreu in Caracas, Venezuela. José was a musician
and economist who desperately wanted to
help lift children out of the poverty and crime
that infested many of the city’s neighbourhoods.

In 1975, José gathered donated instruments
and created a beginner’s ensemble of a dozen
children. They didn’t have to pay but did have
to come to his garage every day after school.
From that humble beginning, the program has
expanded to have multiple orchestral levels and
has become a Venezuelan cultural treasure with
375,000 youth participating and more than one
million alumni.

José’s goal was to create a “noble identity” by
making his kids part of something bigger than
victims of poverty.

The concept has now been adapted in 26 countries
around the world. Canada has programs
in Toronto, Ottawa, Moncton, London, Calgary,
Saint John, Mississauga, Montreal and Hamilton.
Though we don’t have the same grinding
worries as developing countries, many Canadian
children continue to fall through the cracks.

How does music help kids?

Sistema’s potential to alleviate cognitive and
behavioural problems is supported by academic
research conducted over the past 15 years by
renowned scientists including Oliver Sacks at
Columbia University and Dan Levitin at McGill
University. Their findings reveal that music
instruction has many developmental benefits,
such as:

  • improving memory and creative expression;
  • promoting executive functions, such as selective
    attention, delayed gratification, social bonding
    and inhibition control; 
  • developing language and motor skills; 
  • engaging a collective nature of learning; 
  • facilitating emotional regulation and problem
    solving through collaboration.

“There is compelling evidence that music
training, not listening but playing an instrument,
is a metaphor for adaptability and exploratory
competence,” says Dan Levitin.

His rationale is rock solid. He’s played guitar
and saxophone with rock bands, produced and
engineered albums for Santana, Chris Isaak,
Steely Dan and Blue Öyster Cult and written
for Billboard magazine. As a neuroscientist, he
has revolutionized the understanding of music
cognition in two groundbreaking books – This is
Your Brain On Music
and The World in Six Songs.

“Playing an instrument achieves so many
things in children’s sponge-like brains. It helps
them pay attention to what others are doing. By
getting immediate feedback that can be used in
a feedback loop, it shows that to do something
well, you have to care about the material. These
emotions are neurochemically driven and are
associated with motivation,” he says.

“Children who learn to play an instrument
have fewer behaviourial and social-integration
problems. It promotes the release of oxytocin,
the bonding hormone, and dopamine, which gets
you going toward goals.”

Dan is so convinced of the importance of
music in education that he moans, in a very unacademic
way, about the continuing loss of music
programs in schools due to budget cutbacks. “In
the past 10 years music education has been seen
as some sort of frivolity. These programs have
been demolished. I feel this is a mistake.”

Tina Fedeski, a symphonic flautist, has
always understood music’s soul-food value. The
co-founder of Ottawa’s Leading Note Foundation
(with husband Gary McMillen) and cellist
Margaret Tobolowska, got a close-up look at El
Sistema during a 2006 visit to Venezuela. Tina
knew she had to adapt it to Ottawa, and one year
later created OrKidstra, the first in Canada.

“I saw Maestro Abreu was creating virtuoso
people, not virtuoso musicians, and knew there
was a need for it in Ottawa’s downtown core,” she
says. “When you put an instrument in a child’s
hands, you create such a positive means of selfexpression,
something joyful outside themselves.
In OrKidstra, music excellence is always a secondary
goal to youth empowerment, so it’s not
natural talent we’re rewarding but dedication.”

Tina’s program operates on an annual budget
of $250,000 and includes 200 youth from ages
five to 18 in orchestras and choirs. Students train
up to three days a week in a local community
centre. About 85 percent don’t pay tuition because
of their families’ financial situations.

She points out that it is just one version in
Canada’s rapidly growing Sistema experiment.
“Every place has its unique circumstances, but
the basic motivations are similar. We all want to
help children integrate healthily into their communities,”
Tina says. “The outcomes have been
overwhelming. Now when I’m in a class I don’t
see kids, I see optimism.”

Following a visit to Venezuela, Ken MacLeod
started Sistema New Brunswick as an off-shoot of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra. In October
2009, the first Sistema NB centre was opened
at Beaverbrook School in Moncton. The program
drew from four area schools, in regions of the
city with higher concentrations of low income
families. Children in Grades 1 to 6 attend three
hours every day, five days a week. The program
only accepts students whose families can’t afford
to pay for traditional music lessons.

When Ken first announced the program, he
hoped for 20 to 30 applications. In only three
days he received almost 200. They accepted 50
children in the first year, mostly from Grades 1
and 2. Sistema NB is about to begin its fourth
year, and will serve almost 400 children from
three orchestra centres in the province – Moncton,
Saint John and Richibucto.

As in Toronto, the local school board was desperate
to keep marginalized children involved in
learning. Sistema provides hope in an uncertain
world. “I believe producing excellence in music
produces excellence in human beings because
you can’t get good sounds without focus and
commitment. But it is the context that matters
most, so the music is secondary to removing barriers,
by being great together,” says Ken.

He tells the story of one boy who in the previous
year of school had missed 45 days of school
and was falling behind personally and academically.
During his first year in Sistema he missed
only two days of school. Within a month he was
reading music and holding impromptu concerts
for neighbours on his street. About to begin his
fourth year, he is a school mentor and is helping
his classmates.

“Sistema gives the kids a sense of dignity,” says
Ken. “Through the orchestra they learn focus,
discipline, respect and cooperation – values they
need to succeed in their lives. They gain confidence
and self-esteem. In so many cases I’ve seen
a literal 180-degree transformation, a complete
change in their hearts and heads. The children
not only excel musically, there are profound
positive changes in school attendance, behaviour
and academic performance.”

This success helped Ken expand the program
in New Brunswick and assist in the start-up of
programs in Winnipeg and Toronto.

In May 2011, Ken hosted the first national
summit on Sistema and in August 2012, Ken and
Sistema NB presented a national Sistema Teachers
and Leaders Conference, providing encouragement,
professional development and practical
tools for others in Canada who are looking to
help kids through their own El Sistema-inspired
programs. More than 90 people from every region
in Canada registered for the conference.

He’s also sharing research tools with David
Visentin in Toronto to create proof for education
administrators that Sistema is worth supporting
in all Canadian cities.

Brenda Shearman doesn’t need any more
proof; the change in daughter Lisa is enough.
“I’ve seen her become accepted for who she is
and develop a sense of belonging that being a
part of Sistema brings her. I also see improvements
academically; on her last report she did
not get any Cs and got quite a few As for the first
time. She is able to see the big picture now and
that hard work does pay off in the end,” she says.

“The program has been her saving grace,” says
Brenda, noting that Lisa no longer wants to move
if it means leaving Sistema.

Mike Levin is an Ottawa-based journalist who writes about art
and culture. Music is his first love, but after a less than illustrious
trumpet career in the high-school band, he decided words
were better tools to describe the subject.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2013.

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