Two students walked into music class at St. Anne School in Santa Monica. “They were bickering and calling each other names,” said Mayumi Kanagawa, a Crossroads student who is volunteering at St. Anne School.
“I taught them to play different lines of a song on their violins, and then had each play one line simultaneously. When I told them that they’d just made harmony together, they couldn’t help grinning.”
Kanagawa is a Music Major at the Elizabeth Mandell Music Institute at Crossroads School. She, along with other music majors from Crossroads, in satisfaction of their community outreach requirement, work as mentors helping Saint Anne students as they learn to play a string instrument.
Inspiration for the music program comes from “El Sistema”, the Venezuelan success story that, for over 30 years, has reached children all over Venezuela, but especially in the poorest barrios, and has used music as the path to bring them out of the barrios and out of poverty. Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the LA Philharmonic, is a product of El Sistema. He sees teaching classical music as a path to creating a more just social future and has continued the tradition in his work in Los Angeles.
The music program at Saint Anne’s is a part of the movement, inspired by El Sistema, to use music as a way to help children out of poverty and to create stronger and safer communities. The Belgian-born composer Jan Van der Roost said, “I think if all the countries in the world would do El Sistema, there would be a lot less problems and a lot more happiness.”
Saint Anne School started in 1908 with 55 children, to serve the large, migrant farm-worker families in the community. Migrant farm-workers from Mexico worked side by side with those from Oklahoma and the Southern states as their children studied together at Saint Anne School.
Maryann Cummins, a gifted musician and teacher, is the Director of the Elizabeth Mandell Music Institute at Crossroads (EMMI) and, among her other responsibilities, teaches music to the youngest of the children at Saint Anne School. Cummins said, “When any of the music teachers or any student mentors come through the door the students surround us with hugs, love and happiness. They are hungry for music and the arts. It feeds me to teach these students.”
Third, fourth, and fifth grade students who want to study a string instrument, are mentored by EMMI students. To be in the string program children must commit to working with the student mentors 4 days per week after school, in addition to their lessons during school taught by faculty provided by the Santa Monica Sol La Music Academy. The violins and cellos they use are provided by donors and through fundraising. All Saint Anne students study music. If they decide not to learn to play an instrument then they are taught music through choral training. And all students participate in the School’s Christmas and Spring concerts.
Juan-Salvador Carrasco, a EMMI student, said of one child trying to learn to play the cello, “After a long struggle trying to teach one of my students a proper bowhold, one day everything I had been pestering him about finally clicked. It was amazing to witness his hand fall into the right mold, something I had often deemed impossible. Not only did I feel immensely satisfied, but it also made him feel proud to accomplish something so complex and intricate.”
Mentors take pride in their teaching and the Saint Anne students take pride in their learning. Mentors for the music program are: Elisa Abondolo, grade 6, age 11, violin; Seth Biagini, grade 12, age 17, cello; Juan-Salvador Carrasco, grade 12, age 16, cello; Sebastian Carrasco, grade 9, age 14, violin; Marina Chen, grade 12, age 17, violin; Mayumi Kanagawa, grade 11, age 16, violin; Maxwell Karmazyn, grade 11, age 17, violin; Esther Kim, grade 12, age 17, violin; Min-Jae Kim, grade 10, age 15, violin; Mackenzie Kugel, grade 8, age 13,violin; Alexzandra Morris, grade 10, age 16, violin; Avery Morris, grade 11, age 16, violin; Katrina Schaefer, grade 11, age 16, violin; Jeronimo Sexton, grade 11, age 16, cello; Chandler Yu, grade 10, age 15, violin.
El Sistema, as it is practiced at Saint Anne School is transforming life, both for the Crossroad mentors and the Saint Anne students. One of the student mentors, Katrina Marie Schaefer, expressed the feelings of the entire group of mentors saying, “Music is an essential part of life, allowing an escape from the stresses of everyday routine. It stirs emotion and allows one to communicate with others, as it is a universal language.”