On a recent weekday after school, 47 elementary students gathered under the dim lights of the Arlington Christian Church basement and picked up their bows.
“Position 1,” called out instructor Chase Miller as the children angled their violins, violas and cellos and prepared to play. “Position 2.”
With an amazing lack of chaos, Miller and co-teacher Cathy Mejia led the children through a very credible rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Credible because most of the students first picked up their instruments two weeks ago.
This is MusicWorks, a music program run by the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra that offers free music lessons four days a week for two hours after school to mostly Northside Lexington children. The program was set up six years ago as the first program in Kentucky based on “El Sistema,” the Venezuelan music program that turned poverty-stricken children into classical musicians, including Gustavo Dudamel, the flamboyant music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and inspiration for the main character in “Mozart in the Jungle”).
With less music education in the schools thanks to budget cuts, MusicWorks is aimed at giving more children the kind of intensive instruction that wealthier children receive with private lessons and access to Lexington’s many music offerings, the kind of instruction that students in CKYO enjoy. Nearly 150 children have gone through the program, several have joined CKYO ensembles on scholarship and many more have continued music into middle and high school with their MusicWorks instruments.
“It’s really quite extraordinary that this is happening in a town the size of Lexington,” said Marcello Cormio, music director of CKYO.
But this year, it almost didn’t happen at all.
The CKYO had plenty of challenges keeping the main program going, and could not afford to keep MusicWorks going indefinitely. The board of directors had a lengthy discussion, Cormio said, but decided to cut back to four days a week. With a grant from the city, they would try to do one more year and search for some other more sustainable form of funding.
“We need a white knight,” said Amelia Groetsch, CKYO’s executive director.
A quixotic quest?
The idea for an El Sistema program came from Dan Chetel, former music director at CKYO and Richard Young, a CKYO alum, professional musician and at the time, director of the North Limestone Community Development Corporation.
“In Venezuela, it’s literally providing a safe place from death, but I think a lot of the philosophical underpinnings are applicable here in Lexington,” said Young, who now directs CivicLex. “The idea of trying to use the program as music education and a social development program, with the peer mentorship and the intensive environment of music collaboration every day together, is what’s beneficial.”
Young said that the El Sistema program radically differs from Western music education.
“It’s not about if you can afford to study with the best teacher, it’s not about how nice an instrument you can afford, or whether you can afford youth orchestra,” he said. “It’s about playing together and learning together and creating something together.”
The program kicked off with support from NoLi CDC and various foundations and organizations around town. It was an alluring but possibly quixotic undertaking for an independent youth orchestra to take on by itself, as CKYO officials found when the hoopla started to die down and the funding began to dry up.
Groetsch said one of the biggest challenges has been transportation. In bigger cities, El Sistema programs have their own buses, or cities provide them. The program currently serves 56 students from Arlington, Dixie, Booker T. Washington and Garrett Morgan Elementaries, as well as Yellowwood Academy. Dixie has a bus that stops nearby and Arlington students can walk over, but the rest of the students have to find their own way to Arlington Christian Church. Students who have made the transition to CKYO have the same problem, as the orchestras usually rehearse at the Singletary Center for the Arts and Lafayette High School.
Work as a team
It’s all worth it to parent Michael Brown, whose 11-year-old son, Ross, started MusicWorks this year.
“He loves it,” Brown said. “He gets really upset when he has to leave his instrument behind.”
Brown said he chose the program because he wanted his son to develop a love of music, “and the opportunity to be exposed to a genre of music he wouldn’t have been exposed to.”
Simone Clayborne, 9, has been walking over from Arlington Elementary for the past three years.
“I would have to say this is very fun,” she said. Her favorite part is “when we play all together,” and she plans on being a famous classical/hip hop artist when she grows up.
Chase Miller has taught at Music Works for three years and just began as director this year. He compares the MusicWorks kids with his own musical education growing up in Stanford.
“We couldn’t dream of this kind of resource,” he said. “Those obstacles: access to an instrument, eight hours a week of lessons, a community around that access, free tuition to CKYO, free access to the Philharmonic, it’s mind blowing.”
The goal of MusicWorks, he said, is not to create the next violin soloist who will perform around the world.
“I mean it’s great if they do,” he said. “But we want to build citizens who will give back to the community, who will use music to learn to work as a team.”
So now it will be up to Lexington to decide if it can support Musicworks for the future.
The city’s rich arts landscape has plenty of non-profits cutting from what seems like an ever-smaller funding pie. But this is also a wealthy city that should be able to support them, especially programs like this one which give back to the less wealthy.
The program recently won the 2019 Governor’s Awards in the Arts for education, but awards are not the same as funding.
“Yes, we will go one more year, and then see,” Cormio said. “This is something the community has to support.”