Can El Sistema play in Sonoma?

Anne Case has a dream, and it is set to music. She would like every student in Sonoma who wants to learn an instrument to have access to unlimited group instruction and practice, especially those who would not otherwise have the opportunity.

At a time when music always seems to be the very first public school program to hit the chopping block, her goal is a lofty one. But if you have ever heard of El Sistema (elsistemausa.org), you know that the most impossible sounding programs are sometimes the most successful.

The world-renowned “El Sistema” music program of Venezuela serves hundreds of thousands of underprivileged youth each year in intense, free orchestra programs.

El Sistema was founded in 1975 by Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu and exists primarily as social development program. It is estimated that more than 2 million children have participated in El Sistema since its founding.

Case’s vision is for every child in Sonoma to have an opportunity to learn a musical instrument and play in an orchestra. “I believe that, besides providing a fun activity for these children, the program will help teach them the skills and discipline that will help them thrive in school and beyond,” she said. “Through playing frequent concerts and exercising musical leadership, these musicians will make a difference in the communities they live in.” Broader still, she hopes that Sonoma will come alive with music as the program grows and develops.

The initial plan for Sonoma, funded via private donations through the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, is that the first El Sistema-like program will be located at El Verano Elementary School. “The beauty of the El Sistema program is the belief that every child is musical and that music should not be reserved for the talented or the elite,” added Laura Zimmerman, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation. “We are truly thrilled to be supporting this important program.”

Case has named the program Valley Vibes Orchestras and she has held a series of recruitment events over the past month.

According to El Verano principal Maite Iturri, the program has already received 50 applications for the 25 spots. “It is a big commitment for a family, however, as students are expected to participate every day after school, all year round, as well as joining a summer program, we expect the numbers to work out once families assess their ability to fully participate.” The cost for a child to participate is only $35 for the year (and full scholarships are available). Students are provided with instruments. The education foundation is currently organizing an instrument drive to collect used string instruments from the community.

The after-school program at El Verano will begin later this month. In this first year, 25 El Verano students in grades K-5 will participate and choose to play the violin, viola or cello. Students will be required to attend each weekday for two hours after school and will also attend a summer program.

Teaching artists will teach fun and inventive orchestra, sectional, and choir classes at the “núcleo,” or community music center. Students will perform regularly in the community.

The program will continue to expand upwards year-by-year. Valley Vibes Orchestras is currently pursuing partnerships with various social, arts and educational institutions and organizations in the North Bay area.

Case and her fulltime nucleo teacher, Aaron Redner, were recruited from out-of-town in part by well-known musician and teacher Leta Davis, an early proponent of bringing El Sistema to Sonoma. Davis is excited because the Valley Vibes Orchestra will perform with her Little Fiddler Group and larger Sonoma String Orchestra, which also include local youth.

Case recently moved to Sonoma from the Midwest, having received a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from Oberlin Conservatory under the direction of Alvin Chow, with subsequent study of music education at Indiana University. Case has worked, interned and volunteered at a number of El Sistema-inspired programs and social change initiatives.

Redner has been a member of the nationally-touring band, Hot Buttered Rum, for more than a decade. He plays fiddle and mandolin, and is an accomplished singer-songwriter with a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory. The other Valley Vibes teachers, Aldo Mosca, Candace English and Karsten Windt, already have quite a following in the North Bay area. Several volunteers will assist with the program as well.

The funding, teachers and students are in place, and everyone who has played a role in bringing this program to Sonoma expects a sea change in music access in the Valley.

Louann Carlomagno, superintendent of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, expressed her appreciation for the program, saying, “We are one of the few districts in the Bay Area to launch a program of this type, and we are thrilled that donors have stepped forward to launch Valley Vibes here in Sonoma. Music instruction has been widely proven to enrich and enhance academic instruction. How lucky we are as a community to be able to get behind such an exciting program.”