Tuesday, July 10, 2012

MYCincinnati: Music for Youth in Cincinnati

From Eddy Kwon, RAPP XXVI Alum:

Good morning!

I’m writing to you from Fort Worth, Texas.

Wait.... Texas?

It’s a little hard for me to believe too.

But, here I am in the rehearsal wings of Bass Performance Hall, one of the most elaborately beautiful venues in the country... drinking tea, tapping away on my computer, and listening to the sound of 50 young musicians giggling as they practice the zombie choreography to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in the large rehearsal room next door.

Err... What?

I’m sorry, please let me give you a little more context.

(Disclaimer! This is a very long and involved letter, so feel free to come back when you have time, space, and attention enough)

This week I have had the very, very great pleasure of being a guest teaching artist for Fort Worth’s youth music program, B Sharp, and the dancing kids I mentioned above are taking a well-deserved break from their full day of orchestra and small ensemble rehearsals to practice the group dance piece that will open their concert program. In a few days, I will travel four hours to Austin to work as a guest clinician at Austin Soundwaves. Both are free, daily orchestral programs that engage underserved and low-income communities in their respective cities. Both offer young people the opportunity to learn an orchestral instrument at a very high level, a chance to play every day in a committed orchestra, and the promise of a safe and supportive community of peers and adults. I’ve been, and will continue to be, working with the string orchestras, teaching small group lessons, and leading improvisation workshops for string players.

B Sharp and Austin Soundwaves are modeled after El Sistema, Venezuela’s phenomenally successful network of national youth orchestra programs that has fundamentally changed the daily realities of over 3 million young people over a span of 35 years. The Orchestra is at the core of El Sistema -- it is the model for family and for community. It is an organism with one purpose: to agree. This is the source of El Sistema’s power and lasting social imprint.

El Sistema has produced classical music superstars Gustavo Dudamel (Conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic) and Edicson Ruiz (youngest double bassist in the Berlin Philharmonic), as well as the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, a professional ensemble that tours more than any other orchestra in the world. El Sistema has been called the future of classical music by Sir Simon Rattle, and its founder, Jose Antonio Abreu, was the winner of the 2009 TED Prize.

But El Sistema does not just develop musical geniuses. Far more importantly, El Sistema trains young people to be collaborators, accountable leaders, and responsible citizens. These are the future teachers, inventors, entrepreneurs, activists, scholars, doctors, mothers, and fathers.

To the many of you who play an instrument, this should come as no surprise. Playing any instrument very well, especially a stringed instrument, is hard. It takes a lot of patience. It develops attention, memory, discipline, self-control, planning, multi-tasking -- all invaluable skills that allow us increased agency in our lives and careers. Not to mention it stimulates so many mysterious parts of the brain, with equally mysterious consequences we will likely never fully understand.

Why am I going on and on about El Sistema and doctors and skills and mysterious consequences?

Because I’ve observed the results of intensive instrumental study in myself, and in the students of my own orchestra in my current home of Cincinnati, Ohio.

What I’ve waited to mention to you so far (thank you for reading all of this...) is that I am the assistant director of an El Sistema-inspired program that launched in October of this past year. The program is called Music for Youth in Cincinnati -- or as it is affectionately called, MYCincinnati.

From October to June, we met every weekday for two hours after school in an elementary library. That’s 2 hours a day, 10 hours a week, 40 hours a month, of intense instrumental (violin, viola, and cello) and ensemble training.

Our 20 young musicians are between the ages of 7 and 12, and they come from several different schools in the Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati, a west side community that has suffered from -- among many issues -- high unemployment, a child poverty rate above the national average, and a declining population. Despite being a neighborhood that has been historically ignored by the city, there is warmth and a real sense of possibility here. MYCincinnati is part of the growing network of folks that are investing in the community by engaging and challenging its young people.

Oh yeah, and our program is FREE! Absolutely 100% free for our students and their families.

The idea of MYCincinnati and El Sistema is that through musical training of the highest quality (I hold my students to a very, very high level -- thanks to the many teachers who did the same for me) and the strong sense of friendship and family that playing in an orchestra can foster, each individual life is uplifted in very real ways, and in turn, so are the lives of their family members and their communities. We are in the business of empowerment.

A very …. idealistic idea, right?

Well, yes. But this idea has had phenomenal, tangible results in Venezuela for the past 35 years. An Inter-American Development Bank study concluded that for every $1 invested in El Sistema, Venezuela sees a return of $1.68. Additionally, the country has seen huge decreases in school dropout rates (-75%) and an astonishing 325% increase in young adult employment as a direct result of El Sistema’s engagement of over 300,000 children every year.
These results are being echoed in the US, and programs (or nucleos) are popping up all over the country (Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago...), each unique to the community it serves. Some start out with budgets of $3 million and are backed by major orchestras, and some -- like MYCincinnati -- start with nothing but hundreds of small contributions from the community.

Right now, we are very much a grassroots organization. Since last summer we’ve raised just over $30,000, almost entirely through individual private donations under $1000. The program employs only two people (program director Laura and myself) and, needless to say, our jobs are not isolated to “string teacher,” or “conductor.” They include a variety of glamorous and not-so-glamorous positions... cook, custodian, chair-mover, graphic designer, personal driver, grant writer, therapist, referee, math tutor, translator, big brother... It’s a full-time job, whether or not we get a full-time wage.

We do this every day because we really, really, really love doing it. We love our kids and we love making music at the highest level. We are also sick of people saying classical music is dying, sick of the fact that so many musicians work at coffee shops or grocery stores to support themselves, sick of the inequality that still plagues our country, sick of watching young people internalize the suffering around them.

We think programs like MYCincinnati -- programs that offer urban young people a safe space for creativity in exchange for a commitment to the highest artistic standards -- are the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and affirming the life experiences of the underrepresented.

We’ve had an immensely successful first year. Our orchestra is performing at a tremendously high level, and our students have shown huge improvements in self-control, discipline, school attendance, and confidence. Our parents and families are highly engaged and very supportive. We’ve had great press, including an article in Cincinnati’s major newspaper on Christmas Day. We’ve had many wonderful guest artists, including conductor Mischa Santora, bassist/composer Frank Proto, violinist Tatiana Berman, and members of the Cincinnati Symphony. We even drove five hours north to have a joint concert with Cleveland’s El Sistema program, El Sistema@Rainey!

Now we’re taking it to the next level!

This is where we need your help.

There are three areas for which we really need financial support in the form of a monetary donation.

1. In the fall, we’ll be moving into our own building! It’s a beautiful space right in the heart of our community. The new location will make our program even more accessible to the young people in the neighborhood (hundreds of kids walk by the building everyday after school). Operating out of an independent space will allow us to completely shape the culture of our program. If we are successful, we will permanently change the landscape of the neighborhood. The space needs renovations, and we need money for cleaning supplies, paint, carpet, plumbing repairs, windows, sound insulation, and.... RENT!

2. We want to double our enrollment to 40 students. To do this responsibly, we need to hire one additional teaching artist. We already have a large waiting list, but can’t take any more students until we know we can give them the same high quality training. One more teacher would enable us to make MYCincinnati’s intense orchestral training accessible to even more young people. Over time, as we expand and add more students, the cost per child decreases. More experienced students require much less individual supervision and many older students will take on leadership and teaching positions as they grow with our program.

3. We need to hire someone to take the lead on development and fundraising. Writing grants, networking, organizing fundraisers, connecting with donors, and managing volunteers is a full-time job. Laura and I just can’t continue to do it all by ourselves. By bringing someone on board whose sole job is to help us raise money, Laura and I can put all of our energy into teaching and guiding the artistic and social vision of MYCincinnati.

MYCincinnati is a program under Price Hill Will, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to create systemic change in Price Hill through economic development, community engagement, and physical revitalization.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation HERE.

Under “Designate My Donation” write “MYCincinnati.”
100% of your donation will go toward MYCincinnati.

As we gain more and more grassroots support, it becomes easier to obtain larger and more sustainable sources of funding -- government grants, private awards, and corporate backing are a few funding models some existing El Sistema programs use. We are currently finalists for several large grants (we’ll keep you updated!), and we are always expanding our network of donors here in Cincinnati.

Your donation -- whatever amount you decide to give -- will have a direct impact on our students and …. me!

Here are just some ways your donation can help.

$100 will sponsor one young person’s training for two weeks.
$500 will cover one month of our building expenses.
$1,000 will cover all of our special event expenses (attending concerts, field trips, guest artists) for the year.
$2,000 will sponsor one young person’s training for the entire year.
$5,000 will cover one year of our building expenses.


Here’s my promise to you.
If you donate any amount ($1, $5, $1,000...) I will write you a personal thank you email as well as a digital download of original music written and performed by me!

If you donate $100, I will send you digital video of the most recent MYCincinnati concerts...forever! Or, for however long MYCincinnati exists. Which I hope is forever. (Of course, I will also include the thank you email and original music download)

If you donate $250, I will send you a beautiful MYCincinnati t-shirt! Plus, everything above.

If you donate $500, we will thank you on all of our social media sites, our newsletter, and our website (with your permission). Also, we will send you a personal video message from one of our students, introducing her/himself and performing her/his favorite piece! Plus, everything above.

If you donate $1,000, Laura (who is a fantastic cellist) and I will perform a Skype concert for you of classical and contemporary cello/violin duos! Also, we will list you as a MYCincinnati Supporter on our website. Plus, everything above.

If you donate $5,000, we will list you as a Founding Supporter on our website. Also, the MYCincinnati Orchestra will send you monthly video messages! This could include special exclusive performances of never-before-heard arrangements, original compositions by the students, group cheers, choreographed dance pieces... All to your inbox, every month, for your eyes and ears only.

I’ll end this here. 

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