Students discover Harmony

STOCKTON -- The boxes of Kix and Lucky Charms and Cocoa Dyno-Bites were lined up on a table, paint-stirring sticks glued to them, the combination of boxes and sticks forming ersatz violins. These cereal boxes someday may be remembered for helping transform a community.

The 35 children in Marshall Elementary School's new after-school program had been fiddling with their cereal boxes for weeks, using them under the direction of their teacher to practice the proper ways to sit with a violin, to treat a violin, to place a violin under one's chin and make beautiful music.

Now, it was late on a warm Wednesday afternoon. It was the day the children, at last, would put aside their cereal boxes and receive the real violins they will study on in the months and years ahead.

"I couldn't wait for this day to come, " said 9-year-old Deysi Ramírez, a Marshall fourth-grader.

The children had been waiting for weeks. For many with the Stockton Symphony and with the music faculty at University of the Pacific, the wait for a program like this to reach Stockton has lasted years.

The new after-school offering -- dubbed Harmony Stockton -- is a collaboration of Stockton Unified, Pacific, the symphony and the United Way that aims to replicate Venezuela's 35-year-old El Sistema music instruction program, which has been credited with sparking momentous social change in that country's ghettos.

Could similar change come to the economically disadvantaged parts of south Stockton? Could 10 hours a week of intense after-school music instruction for a group of third-, fourth-and fifth-graders be the catalyst? Could Marshall, where 84 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced meals, be the epicenter?

"There's a great potential here that has been untapped," violin instructor Luana Hernández said. "All the stars are aligning for a really great thing to happen."

If this harmonic convergence someday bears fruit, August 2011 will be remembered as the month the first seeds were sown.

The beginning stages look humble: 17 fourth- and fifth-graders holding their cereal-box violins in the "rest" position awaiting instructions from Hernández.

"Twelve o'clock to 9 o'clock, flip it over," she tells the students, who follow the directions carefully, ultimately tucking the boxes under their chins.

Hernández tells the children to do a "slow teeter-totter" with their "bows," which actually are sticks. Shoulders moving, the sticks go back and forth on the cereal boxes following rhythm patterns written on the classroom's whiteboard.

"Make sure your shoulders are up and we don't have the sagging elbow," Hernández says.

When finished with this exercise, the long-awaited moment is finally at hand. Hernández and her assistant instructor, Erik Álvarez Urbina, collect the cereal boxes. Then they place black violin cases at the feet of every student.

The children are ready for the genuine article, but one of the students has a last-minute question.

"Why are violins made of wood?" fourth-grader Cecilia Orejel asks.

Hernández explains.

"Wood is more resonant," she says. "It vibrates. It makes more sound production."

Then, Hernández tells the students how to open the cases and how to properly lift the violins, and instructs them to place their instruments in the rest position.

"I'm scared I'm going to drop it," Cecilia says.

"It's like a baby," another student says.

"It is like a baby," Hernændez agrees. "You don't want to drop it, and you don't want to mishandle it."

The children begin by practicing proper violin handling, just as they had practiced for weeks with the cereal boxes. Bows would not be passed out until the following day, and the first confluence of violins and bows was not planned until the day after that.

There is no need to rush. Each step in the musical journey, no matter how small it might seem, is precisely taught.

But that is not to say this first day with violins is a day without music. Hernández shows the students how to hold the instruments like guitars. She teaches them to pluck the strings, and with this newfound knowledge, the children learn to pluck the notes to their first, simple tune.

Like Harmony Stockton at Marshall, El Sistema in Venezuela started small. But through the years, the music program has swept through the South American nation to serve hundreds of thousands of needy children, many of whom credit it with lifting them from poverty.

It is for this reason that Giulio Ongaro, dean of Pacific's music conservatory, traveled to Venezuela to observe El Sistema, and it is for this reason that Stockton Symphony music director Peter Jaffe dreamed for years of creating a similar program in Stockton.

Like many musicians and educators, Jaffe believes musical study helps children grow in virtually every aspect of their lives.

"Give us four, five years, and this really could become huge," said Jaffe, who stopped by Marshall to watch the debut of the violins. "I don't want to seem like I have rose-colored glasses on, but in the grandest scheme of things, if it works right, it could be a culture-changer."

Pacific officials thought so, too, making Harmony Stockton part of the university's Beyond Our Gates initiative.

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