Monday afternoon, 30 elementary school violinists will take the stage at Severance Hall for the first time. And it may not be the last time. A music program imported from the slums of Venezuela to an inner city Cleveland neighborhood has given the children their own instruments, impassioned teachers, and a pathway to a better life.
“Listen to your sounds,” Isabel Trautwein tells the children. “This is what I hear.
“Now listen to my sounds. Use your whole bow. Your bow smoked. That was great, Soraya. Listen again.”
Cleveland Orchestra violinist Isabel Trautwein spends weekday afternoons at the Rainey Institute, an after-school arts academy in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland’s inner city. Trautwein chose Rainey for Cleveland’s inaugural year of El Sistema, the vaunted music education program created by Venezuelan economist and musician Jose Abreu. All children can get free instruments, free instruction and the chance to play in an orchestra.
“We have about 30 children and five teachers … when I’m here, six,” Trautwein explains. “And I’m here most days unless the orchestra’s on tour. So the children are getting a lot of attention — a lot of professional, detailed attention.”
A natural link from South America to Cleveland
The Rainey Institute was a natural choice to host El Sistema. Lee Lazar directs the school founded more than a century ago by Cleveland philanthropist Eleanor B. Rainey.
“And our real mission,” Lazar says, “is to try to keep kids in Cleveland in positive and enriching arts and music activities and away from the sad challenges that they face every day.”
Rainey is a long way from Severance Hall, but that’s where Trautwein has her pupils headed.
“We’re preparing very hard,” she says, “to have them ready to play two quite difficult pieces for people who have only played, by then, for three months.”
The 7- to 10 year-olds come after school every day for 90 minutes of group and individual instruction and orchestral training. The violins are donated by Conn-Selmer’s Cleveland-based subsidiary, Scherl and Roth. Conn Selmer’s Rock Clouser gives us a tour of the century-old workshop in mid-town Cleveland.
“You’ll see some old-world techniques being utilized even today,” he says.
Adapting the violins for young fingers
Tim Masterson oversees “shop-adjustment” of the children’s violins -- little tweaks make the famously difficult instruments a bit more playable.
For the first weeks of El Sistema, the children played paper violins they made with their parents help. But the importance of having your own instrument can’t be overplayed.
“In fact,” Trautwein says, “in Venezuela they will tell you that it’s often this that makes the magical moment for a child — especially a struggling child, to own their first precious piece of art, a violin.”
The passion and mission
Many have had a part in the success of El Sistema at Rainey, but no one more than Isabel Trautwein. She almost-single-handedly brought the program to Cleveland, inspired by a performance of one of Venezuela’s youth orchestras.
“These were children that were coming from the slums and the poorest neighborhoods,” she explains, “who had been immersed in orchestral training for most of their lives. The children were on fire to express themselves through their instruments, and the playing level was so high I couldn’t even believe it and so I was hooked.”
With the Cleveland Orchestra’s support, Trautwein spent a year in Boston and Caracas immersing herself in El Sistema. It has produced amazing musicians, most notably L.A. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel. But Trautwein says the program’s key mission is social change.
“There is no music that can happen unless every member of the group decides to be a part of the group. And therefore an orchestra can really serve as a metaphor for society at large. This is the beautiful, beautiful message of El Sistema.”
Instructor Darnell Weaver has to wriggle out of an impromptu group hug in the hallway. He says he frequently gets random hugs from the kids.
He addresses his class, “Hello Beethoven. How are you doing today?”
“Good,” the children shout.
Trautwein’s brought in a mix of instructors, including longtime Rainey students, who stayed on as teachers. They include Titus Golden.
“I’m one of the teachers, but I guess I’m here for different reasons,” Golden explains. “I don’t technically play the violin. So while they’re learning, I can bring another aspect to teaching, which is I’m a beginner also. So maybe they don’t know how to say how to do this, but I can figure out how to word it to speed up the learning process.”
Refuge in Rainey
Titus found refuge at Rainey in his teenage years.
“Got the split -up family,” Golden continues, “A lot of kids from the neighborhood … had to find somewhere to go, something to do. A lot of people find it in the streets, a lot of people find it with drugs, so I was privileged to find it in music and in Rainey.”
“You guys want to sing with me?” Trautwein asks the children. “One, two, ready go. Oh man, we just had this right, didn’t we.”
After sectionals, it’s time for the El Sistema kids’ favorite part, orchestra rehearsal.
“Who do we have?” Darnell asks. “James could you come up here and help pass out bows, please? And Michael could you help pass out bows? And Chloe.”
Once they have their instruments, Darnell has the children’s complete attention.
“Now I want you to play like a robot,” he says. “That’s great!”
Amari Glass is 10; the violin is the first instrument she’s ever played. “We’re going to Severance Hall on my Mom’s birthday so that’s going to be her present. So she’s actually really excited.”
Irene Walton expects great things from her granddaughter, Mailani.
“We come in on Thursdays to watch them play, and I’m amazed at how far she’s come.”
Rainey Institute Director Lee Lazar has watched a boy named Charles blossom in the El Sistema program. The boy has attention problems at his elementary school, but even his teachers there have seen a difference.
And “in the car and at home now,” Lazar explains, “Charles asks to listen to orchestra music and there’s even some times in the evening when Charles gets upset or agitated, he asks to listen to violin music to help calm him down.”
The power of El Sistema is already being felt in Northeast Ohio, where Rafael Jimenez leads the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestra. Trautwein has invited Jimenez to lead her El Sistema pupils in their Severance Hall appearance. Jimenez grew up in El Sistema in his native Venezuela, and then led a youth orchestra in the slums of Caracas for seven years.
“In that particular place, I had bullet holes in my windows,” Jimenez says. “But the community, … they appreciate the fact that someone is giving them something that they can feel proud of.”
He was proud, too, when he got an email from one of his former El Sistema percussionists:
“And he said, ‘I’m touring with the Orchestre De Paris so I would like to see you again and invite you to the concert.’ So to me that was one of the best experiences of my life is to sit in the concert hall, [to] watch a kid that I know where he came from.”
It’s not where they came from, says Isabel Trautwein. It’s where they are headed, with the help of some of the region’s best musicians, including her Cleveland Orchestra colleagues.
“I’d love to see that grow and I’d love to see an awareness in the community, of what can happen when very passionate professionals go into an environment and work very closely with young children.”
Next year, El Sistema at Rainey hopes to triple the number of its violin students to 90.