Winter concert celebrates the joy of music education on the West Side

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Earlier this month, four elementary and secondary schools performed together during a winter orchestra concert at Kehrein Center for the Arts.

Nearly 100 students in all – from Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School and George Rogers Clark Elementary School in Austin, and Gregory Math and Science Academy and Frazier International Magnet School in Lawndale – showed off music skills learned through Ravinia Festival’s El Sistema-inspired orchestra program, Sistema Ravinia. 

The music education program fosters social development through training for 3rd-8th grade students in under-resourced Chicago and Lake County public schools. Inspired by the influential El Sistema model, students in the program receive daily ensemble and orchestral instruction. Originating in Venezuela in the 1970s, the “Music for Social Change” program is now in over 60 countries.

Ravinia’s El Sistema program is part of the Reach, Teach, Play education programs, which reaches about 20,000 public school students per year in schools that are under-resourced and that serve under-represented populations, many of which don’t have music programs or teachers, according to Christine Taylor Conda.

Conda is in executive management at Ravinia Festival and a Kehrein Center board member who in 2012 brought the orchestra program to Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School, which is attached to the Kehrein Center.

Sharon Morgan, co-managing director at the Kehrein Center, helped usher in the “beautiful program, that is free of charge.”

Before the Kehrein Center’s renovation and grand opening in May 2019, the orchestra students at Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School had to practice in different rooms throughout the school. Now students have a consistent place to practice and perform – at the Kehrein Center.

Additionally, once a week, students from the two Austin schools, which form their own “nucleo,” and the two Lawndale “nucleo” schools come together to practice at the Kehrein Center. 

“The program is an opportunity for students to travel outside their community and develop a life-long appreciation for music and the arts. The bottom line is that it helps to develop the whole child. It helps to develop the left and right brain,” said Shemeka Nash, artistic manager of the Austin and Lawndale nucleo and orchestra conductor.

Sistema Ravinia Winter Concert at the Kehrein Center for the Arts in Chicago's Austin Neighborhood.

Shemeka Nash, artistic manager of the Austin and Lawndale nucleo and orchestra conductor. Photo courtesy Ravinia Festival.

Nash lives in Austin and has been working with Ravinia since 2007. She is in charge of all the musical aspects of bringing together the Austin and Lawndale nucleos, and it’s her job to unify the program at all four schools. Each week, the students are broken up into groups to practice with teachers for their specific instruments, as well as play together in string and wind ensemble groups.

At this month’s winter concert, the students performed in beginning percussion ensemble, beginning string ensemble, beginning wind ensemble, intermediate string ensemble and intermediate wind ensemble groups.

A highlight of the concert occurred when a few of the intermediate string students had the opportunity to improvise during “G Street Rock.” Nash said it’s important to give the violinists an opportunity to “form a positive relationship with improvisation.”

Two students also acted as MC’s for the event, including a 5th grader from Frasier International Magnet School, Zapre Benson-Norwood. According to Michelle Benson, Zapre’s mom, participating in the orchestra is Zapre’s favorite thing to do.

“She loves to practice. [The orchestra] opened up her whole life and brought her out of her shell.” said Benson, adding Zapre loves coming to the Kehrein Center every Wednesday and she’s made friends from the other schools.

Basing a classical music program on Chicago’s West Side is an essential element of the El Sistema model, according to Alex Rodriguez, program manager at Sistema Ravinia Austin.

“Western classical music is a genre where BIPOC have been historically underrepresented. Programs like ours are seeking to change that. We want people of all backgrounds represented in orchestras and throughout the classical music scene.”

On the West Side, Nash said that many schools offer specific programs for STEM, but it’s important to provide students with an opportunity to experience artistic training, too. The El Sistema program exposes students to additional career paths in the field of fine arts, like becoming an entertainment lawyer or an audio engineer.

Musical education is also designed, according to Nash, to foster “a lifelong appreciation for music and a lifelong appreciation for the arts in general.”

She said they are also hoping to build a future audience for classical music and jazz, seeing as audiences for classical music and opera are shrinking.

“I also think [El Sistema] is about creating opportunities for students of color to become composers. We need more composers of color.”

Sistema Ravinia Winter Concert at the Kehrein Center for the Arts in Chicago's Austin Neighborhood.

Photo Courtesy Ravinia Festival

In addition to musical education, the orchestra program also addresses the concepts of identity, belonging, and agency, and teaches about social and emotional needs. Teachers are given professional development training to “take care of the person first,” said Rodriguez. Rodriguez said that she’s seen anecdotal evidence of improved resilience, goal-setting, and how playing in an ensemble with other musicians benefits students outside the rehearsal context. 

As students learn to focus on improving their musical and social-emotional skills, their overall success in school also often improves, said Kelly Suthers, Program Manager at the Ravinia Lawndale Nucleo. Suthers said she had heard of attendance improving, and grades improving for the students in the program. These factors impact communities long-term, Suthers said. 

“My favorite thing about the whole concept of Sistema Ravinia, and it’s one of our goals in our program, is that the students can achieve a growth mindset. That’s the belief that if I or you or anyone works hard at something, they can achieve greatness,” said Suthers. 

In the spring, the Austin & Lawndale nucleos will join Lake County schools who also participate in the El Sistema program for a concert at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. It’s a great opportunity to spread the word in the entire Chicagoland area that, as Rodriguez said, “really amazing things with classical music are happening in Austin.” 

In the past decade, Morgan has watched the orchestra program go through many different phases. “It’s been a great ride,” Morgan said. And now, under Nash’s leadership, Morgan said, “This is the best year we’ve seen, the fruit of our labor. This year we have the orchestra we dreamed about from the beginning.”

Sistema Ravinia Winter Concert at the Kehrein Center for the Arts in Chicago's Austin Neighborhood.

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