Santa Rosa Symphony’s Simply Strings program gives all students a chance to shine

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Latino Life

In this special edition during Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor the rich and nuanced heritage nurtured by all the generations in our Latino community and the value it brings to the lifestyle of Sonoma County. Click here to read our other Latino Life stories.

As a second-grader, Juliana Avalos was one of 20 fledgling students learning the violin through the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Simply Strings program offered at Sheppard Accelerated Elementary School.

That was in 2013-2014, the first year the program offered free instruments and free instruction— two hours a day after school, five days a week — through the social-action music program modeled after the famous El Sistema of Venezuela.

“I was in Mexico when they introduced it, and when I got back, I found out they had one more spot open,” said Juliana, 12, who just started seventh grade last month. “I made a lot of friends, and I learned how to be social.”

That first year her math grades went up dramatically. By the end of that year, she had performed at the Green Music Center side-by-side with Santa Rosa Symphony members, and her confidence began to soar as well.

“It’s made me more confident and has given me more experience,” she said. “Now, I know what I want to do in the future. I want to do some teaching and present concerts ... I am thinking of UC Berkeley. We had a concert there three years ago, and I loved everything about it.”

“It was so emotional for me when she played for the first time at the Green Music Center, ” said her mother, Florita. “With everybody playing together, the sound was so strong. I was crying.”

Like other El Sistema-inspired programs across the country, the goal of the program is to improve access to music education for underserved children while sparking positive, communitywide social change. L.A. Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel got his start in classical music through El Sistema, which was founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu of Venezuela, who used his 2009 TED Prize to train 50 fellows to teach and administer the program in the U.S. and beyond.

‘Transforming experience’

Here in Santa Rosa, the Simply Strings program was proposed by Christina Penrose, who earned a master’s degree in music education for social change from Sonoma State University and now serves as project manager of Simply Strings.

“It’s so clear there’s a social justice issue in music education,” Penrose said. “Most of the programs have a large portion of funding coming from parent groups ... We need to create an access point and break down that socioeconomic barrier so there’s a path to high-quality music education.”

When the Santa Rosa Symphony’s new music director, Francesco Lecco-Chong, auditioned with the orchestra last fall, he dropped by a beginning class of Simply Strings, where the students start out by learning how to carry and care for a cardboard violin made by their parents. He returned to the same class last spring to work with the budding musicians, who had advanced to playing scales on real violins.

“It is a transforming experience,” Lecce-Chong said during a reception at the Green Music Center. “Any time I need a dose of inspiration, I’m going to drive over there.”

The 31-year-old conductor, who is committed both to the educational and community engagement role of an orchestra, lit up and “made magic” when he worked with the young students, Penrose said.

“He’s creative and likes to experiment with new things,” she said. “That’s what it takes to be really responsive to the community.”

Latino Life

In this special edition during Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor the rich and nuanced heritage nurtured by all the generations in our Latino community and the value it brings to the lifestyle of Sonoma County. Click here to read our other Latino Life stories.

The El Sistema-inspired music programs tend to succeed because they are matched by a high degree of commitment from everyone involved. The program makes a seven-year commitment to each of its students from grades 2 to 8 — with all training provided for free — after which time the young musicians can audition for one of the symphony’s three youth ensembles and apply for need-based financial aid.

“Our hope is they will go into our youth orchestras and go all the way up,” Penrose said. “The reason music is an excellent social program is because of the nature of the relationships. It helps students set a goal and work hard to reach it. It teaches students to dream big.”

Intense commitment

For participating students, the commitment is also intense: two hours a day, every day of the school week, from grades 2 to 6.

“When we got home, we had to eat dinner and go to bed,” Juliana recalled of her elementary school experience. “But there was less homework.”

This year, a Simply Strings musician — cellist Joshua Huertas — is going to become the first from the program to audition for the symphony’s youth ensembles.

“We can take them through the youth orchestras, and through their life, to professional musicianship,” Penrose said. “Even if they don’t become professionals, they will appreciate music, and hopefully their input will help us remain relevant.”

Simply Strings is different from other music training in that it is a social program first and a training program second. It also embraces all kinds of music, not just classical music.

Some of the coaches specialize in jazz, and all of them are expected to perform as “teaching artists,” a standard first defined by El Sistema.

“Their role as a musician is just as visible as their role as a teacher,” Penrose explained. “So they play for the students.”

A handful of Simply Strings students, including Juliana, also take part in a vibrant mariachi program created by SSU graduate José Soto as a partnership between Cook Junior High and the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

“The mariachi music is faster,” Juliana said. “I am Mexican, so the singing is easy.”

Program expanding

Over the past five years, the Simply Strings program has grown and evolved with its burgeoning student body. Last year, the parents formed a support association and donated money. This year, more staff is being added. In addition to seven coaches for musical literacy and musicianship, there will be a new site coordinator, Enrique Rojas, running day-to-day operations, and Jerome Flegg, director of instrumental music at the Santa Rosa Junior College, who will lead the orchestra of both beginning and advanced students.

Also, for the first time, enrollment has been opened to all of the Roseland District schools, not just Sheppard.

“It’s all about opening doors for our kids,” said Jenny Young, principal of Sheppard Elementary School. “It’s an incredible opportunity for students ... Oftentimes, sports isn’t their thing, so they have an opportunity to express themselves in music.”

As one of the advanced students, Juliana is looking forward to serving a leadership role in the orchestra and mentoring younger students.

“Juliana is very into giving back,” Penrose said. “She’s extremely dedicated and a very good role model.”

“No matter what she puts her mind to, she takes it to another level,” Young said. “You know her future is bright. She just sparkles.”

On her calendar at home, Juliana keeps track of all her rehearsals, recitals and concerts, because she enjoys being organized and on time.

But she also enjoys the freedom of being a kid, hanging out with family on the weekend, and hanging out with friends at orchestra rehearsals.

“We always get to learn new techniques and skills, and we eat pizza and have fun,” she said. “It’s extra fun when you’re with your friends. In our school, it’s cool to play music.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

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