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Making Sonoma Valley proud: Valley Vibes

El Verano’s Valley Vibes Youth Orchestra students performing on stage at the Green Music Center earlier this winter.

El Verano’s Valley Vibes Youth Orchestra students performing on stage at the Green Music Center earlier this winter.

By Anne Case

On Saturday, March 1, the Valley Vibes Orchestras (ViVO) joined forces with hundreds of youth musicians from all over Sonoma County on the Green Music Center stage and performed a spectacular “Can Can” to a standing ovation.

ViVO is an intensive, after-school youth development program funded through the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation. Inspired by the Venezuelan community development initiative “El Sistema,” ViVO launched in February 2013 at El Verano Elementary and now reaches more than 40 children. Musicians choose to play the violin, viola, or cello in ensemble-based classes.

Our Green Center experience was the pinnacle of a year of incredible dedication and hard work by our musicians, families and teachers. Just over one year ago, these children picked up their instruments for the very first time. Daily two-hour rehearsals and monthly community concerts have since prepared our young El Verano musicians for opportunities such as this one.

We bused students and families to the center, ran races outside and enjoyed a picnic lunch on the college campus, and performed alongside renowned violinist Midori. In rehearsal, I watched as a few kids gazed at the “big kids” in awe, mouths open. During “Can Can,” our young musicians were overwhelmed with pure joy and caught up in the energy of the moment as the sound pulled them in.

Our elementary students could have been easily overwhelmed by any one particular part of the experience – the hundreds seated in the audience, the prestige of the concert venue, a new conductor, a drastic change in acoustics, or the number of kids playing with them. Instead, many showed no signs of nervousness. They rose to the occasion and we shared in a moment of beauty.

Right before my eyes, I observed our musicians displaying some critical skills and behaviors, such as adaptability, leadership and perseverance, that we have worked to help them develop in the last year.

One ViVO student, who was struggling to play at the lively tempo, noticed an advanced musician next to her playing with a fast “spiccato” stroke (where the bow comes off the string). Without hesitation, she started enthusiastically bouncing her bow all over the strings in imitation, even though she had never practiced in such a way. Many other students in her position would have been glued to the sheet music, trying to play every note, staying with what was comfortable. Instead, this student processed multiple sensory inputs, made a solid musical decision almost instantaneously, and bravely took a risk.

Even though it was a challenge for the ViVO kids to play the piece at such a fast tempo, no one gave up. They persevered through the struggle. Moreover, some ViVO musicians even chose to sit in prominent leadership positions. One wrote afterward that he now feels “comfortable” on stage.

On this day, our learners were brave, adaptable, persevering and enthusiastic. We are now one year into this program, and I cannot wait to see what unbelievable musicians and citizens ViVO children will be in 10 years.

One of the cornerstones of the ViVO program is to provide incredible opportunities that participants might not have access to otherwise, such as concerts and daily intensive instruction by top-notch teaching artists. Thanks to the Santa Rosa Symphony’s invitation to participate in Super Strings Day at Green Center, El Verano children were able to take part in this transformative experience.

A ViVO cellist said it all: “When I went to the Green Center, I felt great. I saw big kids play “Nocturne.” I learned that the conductor takes it seriously. I heard a voice saying my future is great.”