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.
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.”
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.