YOLA at HOLA: El Sistema–like Program Begins Taking Root

El Sistema–inspired youth music program reaches a milestone in Los Angeles


Paper Orchestra performs for Gustavo Dudamel.
Photo: Craig T. Matthew/Matthew Imaging

As the multi-purpose room of the Heart of Los Angeles’ community center filled to capacity with parents, dignitaries, trustees, and reporters, the first-grade members of the Paper Orchestra were remarkably poised for their first and last performance.

The show would not begin until Gustavo Dudamel, the internationally acclaimed conductor and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, finally bounded into the room and took a seat on the floor amid a large group of tittering fourth-graders.

Holding violins decorated with stickers and macaroni, members of the Paper Orchestra lifted their instruments to their chins and started to sing, “This is my violin. This is where I put my chin. Here’s the front and here’s the back. If I drop it, it might crack.”

After a few more songs, including one about a viola sung to the clapping tune “B-I-N-G-O,” Dudamel stood up and pronounced the children ready to trade their paper violins for the real thing. “To give this opportunity to these wonderful children is a dream of all of us,” Dudamel said. “I hope next time when I come back, we can do something with the real violins.”

Aimed at teaching children the discipline of sitting in an orchestra, as well as how to care for stringed instruments, the Paper Orchestra is a training technique adopted by Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), the El Sistema-inspired music education program spearheaded by the LA Phil.

El Sistema is the 35-year-old national music training and youth orchestra program that has taught classical music to about 350,000 Venezuelan children, including star pupil Dudamel, a violinist as well as conductor. The LA Phil enticed Dudamel to pick up the baton following the departure of former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen by launching an El Sistema-inspired youth orchestral music program in Los Angeles.

YOLA’s first free youth orchestral project, located at EXPO Center in South Los Angeles, began in 2007 and now serves more than 200 students. The October 16 performance at Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), in the Rampart area of the city, showcased YOLA at HOLA, the LA Phil’s second site for the program.

After the Paper Orchestra performance, Dudamel said the children’s “natural and real happiness” reminded him of his first experience of sitting in an orchestra as a child.

“Through life we forget many things,” Dudamel said. “But I remember all the time when I go to the podium the first time I play the violin. I was very close to the horns!”

At the October event, Dudamel received a paper violin decorated with the colors of the Venezuelan flag by artist Javier Carrillo, 24, a former HOLA student who now teaches art at the center. He also promised to call “Maestro [José Antonio] Abreu,” the founder of El Sistema and Dudamel’s mentor, to ask if he might be able to come to YOLA at HOLA for a visit.

Among those present for the performance was California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who used the event as a campaign stumping opportunity. Noting that her mother was an immigrant who never graduated from high school, Boxer said she was “touched” by what she saw and that “being here is a reminder of why I do what I do.”

Started in a church nearly 20 years ago, HOLA is a thriving community center at the intersection of Korean and Latino neighborhoods, where fewer than half of local students graduate from high school. Every year, about 2,400 children—80 percent of them from families with annual household incomes under $20,000—receive free instruction in academics, sports, and the arts through HOLA.

While HOLA has offered some music classes to its students over the years, the partnership with YOLA allows the center to expand its music program substantially. In its first year, YOLA at HOLA hopes to enroll 80 first-graders and 40 fourth-graders. Next year, the program will add another contingency of first and fourth graders, so that by its third year it can have a fully functioning youth orchestra that includes students in first through sixth grades.

Dan Berkowitz, who manages YOLA for the LA Phil, said they decided to start with first and fourth graders so the elder students could mentor the younger ones.

“We wanted to build a mentorship piece into the program,” Berkowitz said. “Peer-mentoring is a significant part of El Sistema and we thought it would be nice to pair up our first- and fourth-graders.”

Instruments are distributed to children based on physiology, with first-graders receiving violins or violas and fourth-graders choosing among flutes, clarinets, trumpets and horns.

“If they have adult teeth, we give them winds or brass,” Berkowitz said. “If they don’t, we give them strings.”

The donated instruments were all acquired during YOLA’s first instrument drive last May. YOLA loans instruments to children free of charge as long as they and their parents sign an instrument-care contract.

The two non-profits split the costs associated with the program, including the salaries of five music teachers who work with the children. The teachers include a strings specialist, a woodwind and brass specialist, a choir director, and an early education musicianship director.

The students are required to spend a minimum of 10 hours a week in music instruction and another five hours a week with academic tutors in order to participate in the program. The classes take place Monday through Thursday, from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.

“It’s a great program,” enthused Jorge Avila, 37, a kindergarten teacher who has a first-grade daughter and a fourth-grade son enrolled in the program. “They’re developing their music skills and feeling really good.

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