The California Symphony decided about five seasons ago to launch Sound Minds, a music education program that would be in the style of the ‘El Sistema’ program that began in Venezuela. E.M. Downer Elementary School in San Pablo now has students in second through sixth grade learning violin, cello, and musicianship for free three times a week. Principal Marco Gonzales says it’s improved their level of concentration and focus.

There’s more information about the program at the California Symphony website.

“It was an easy yes, without really knowing what we were going to get ourselves into,” Gonzales says. “But just knowing that the kids would have the opportunity of a lifetime, something that we couldn’t provide through district funds or even through parents. And so, for me the magic here is that we’re exposing kids to music, and the arts, and creativity, and giving them the opportunity to think and do something that they probably never even imagined doing before the program arrived.” The students build up slowly, beginning in the second grade. Amy Haltom teaches Strings and is the Sound Minds Program Co-ordinator. “Most kids don’t have specific musical experience when they come to the program,” she says. “They do a curriculum on paper instruments first to sort of learn about what it means to focus together in a music class. They graduate from there to their real instruments, where they start learning some very basic elements of how to play the open strings, how to make a clear tone on the violin or the cello.” Principal Gonzales says the reaction from teachers and parents has been consistent. “”‘Oh, our kids can do that?’ Because the opportunity wasn’t there before. It lifted up the whole school, I think, in a way of believing in the potential, and the power of our kids.”