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Uncommonwealth: In music program based on 'El Sistema,' kids practice, practice, practice

ctruman@herald-leader.comMay 5, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras season finale concert

    What: Concert featuring CKYO's Symphony and Concert Orchestras and an appearance by North Limestone MusicWorks students

    When: 7 p.m. May 18

    Where: Singletary Center for the Arts' Concert Hall, 405 Rose St.

    Tickets: $6-$10. Available at (859) 257-4929 or Singletarycenter.com.

    LEARN MORE

    North Limestone MusicWorks: Visit Ckyo.org/orchestras/north-limestone-musicworks or contact Rachel Hockenberry at hockenra@gmail.com or (540) 336-3369.

At Embrace Church on North Limestone, moisture from recently flooded carpet hangs in the air while the first notes of the finale from Dvorák's New World Symphony waft through the second-floor room.

The musicians are second- and-third-graders from Arlington Elementary School in the North Limestone MusicWorks, a program of the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras that is supported by individual donors and grants. There are 21 students in the program, which meets for two hours every day after school and is based on the famed El Sistema music-teaching system in Venezuela, which emphasizes intense instruction and frequent public performance.

MusicWorks is the only El Sistema-inspired program in Kentucky, and the only one between Cincinnati and Atlanta.

Notable musicians who got their start in El Sistema programs include Gustavo Dudamel, the young music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. (In 2010, Dudamel conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.)

José Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan economist, musician and reformer, founded El Sistema in 1975 to help impoverished children take part in classical music.

Rachel Hockenberry, the founding director of North Limestone MusicWorks, is a graduate of Abreu's sessions, which emphasize not only music but also social justice and the sense of community that comes from being part of a performing group.

The program is in its first year in Lexington. Participants were selected on a first-come, first-served basis; a dozen students are on a waiting list.

The intention is to expand each year, Hockenberry said, so that ultimately, students can be in North Limestone MusicWorks throughout their time in public school. The program also plans to offer summer sessions to its students in July at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.

Three instructors pick up the children after school dismissal at Arlington and walk them across the street to Embrace, where they will remain until 5 p.m. each day with bathroom and snack breaks. (Sessions in Venezuela can be even more intense, with more hours and up to seven days a week.)

As for the daily session, it's good to remember that children are children: Give them a bow and they will make it a sword. They giggle, gossip, taunt, pout and slump.

But for most of them, the call to perform overcomes the distractions. In addition to the Dvorak piece, they play simplified arrangements of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (which the students call "The Picture Song") and the finale of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.

MusicWorks offers only three instruments: violin, viola and cello. Students get a say in which one they would like to learn.

MusicWorks starts at the very beginning, assuming no previous music education. It teaches students how to read music and count rhythm. One rhythm taught during a recent Wednesday session centered on the qualities of the words "pep-per-on-i piz-za," a term the children quickly seized upon to mimic four eighth notes followed by two quarter notes.

"One of the ways we tell how they're making progress is by giving concerts," Hockenberry said. "You want to give the kids lots of chances to get up on stage to play for an audience. These concerts serve as something that the family can be proud of."

The progress from the first month of instruction to now is "phenomenal," Hockenberry said.

MusicWorks will perform at the season finale concert for the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras on May 18 and will travel to Cincinnati on May 24 for a gathering of El Sistema-inspired programs in the Midwest.

"The hope is that we are creating young musicians and young good citizens," Hockenberry said. "We are teaching these kids valuable skills that they can take into schools and through the rest of their lives: to work as a team, to achieve something beautiful, to work very hard at something."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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