Saving Lives Through Music

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra uses music education to help at-risk kids thrive

At a rehearsal for an upcoming recital, seven-year-old Lily spends the entire time grinning. Along with 20 other grade two and three students, she is participating in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO)’s Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta Sistema (YONA-Sistema) program, practicing a violin medley in the school gymnasium.

When the piece ends, she’s the first to take an elaborate bow to the three-person audience, making a flourish with the bow of her violin. But Lily wasn’t always so gregarious. When she joined the program in its inaugural season in September 2013, she was introverted and hesitant to make friends. “I was shy at first, because when I started and met up with all the other kids, I didn’t know what to do,” she says. Now, though, the instructor has to hush the chatty second grader between songs.

An intensive music education program inspired by El Sistema, a program created by economist and musician Jos Antonio Abreu in 1975, YONA-Sistema aims to provide at-risk youth with musical education. Five days a week, for three hours after school, approximately 20 grade two and three students at Mother Teresa Elementary School practice the violin. Despite the constant practice, the point isn’t to become a virtuoso, but rather to foster independence, confidence, responsibility and leadership.

“It’s been amazing. We’ve seen a lot of growth in terms of social skills and outgoingness, and we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from parents.”

Many of the students are first-generation Canadians, newly-landed immigrants or Aboriginal, and, like Lily, who is being raised by her grandparents, come from complicated home situations. The hope is that children, who are part of the program will stay in school, eventually pursue post-secondary education and become active members of their communities. Alyssa Paterson, the educational outreach manager at ESO and manager of YONA, says the program is already seeing positive results. “It’s been amazing. We’ve seen a lot of growth in terms of social skills and outgoingness, and we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from parents.”

YONA-Sistema received a $40,000 grant from Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) for its first year, followed by a second $40,000 contribution in 2014 to continue the three-year pilot program. Craig Stumpf-Allen, ECF’s Director of Grants and Community Engagement says the foundation is impressed by what it has seen so far and expects good outcomes from the program. “It’s really rare for ECF to provide a second year of funding for a program, but we have in this case because we think the potential for a positive impact warrants taking the additional risk of investing. They just need time to demonstrate that it works, and we’re confident that it will.”

The program will be expanding in its second and third years to include a second school, as well as a wider variety of string instruments. Paterson says that the goal is to have a full orchestra including strings, woodwinds, brass and potentially percussion with more than 100 participants. “We have a ton of support from the school boards and it’s been amazing that people want to help us.” Thanks to the support of ECF and other community donors, the program will be able to reach more kids like Lily.