Youth orchestras are not a new idea, but that doesn't make the experience any less powerful for the members of the nascent Youth Orchestra of St. Luke's (YOSL). Fifteen students, ages 8 to 11, are the first members of this free music immersion program created and funded by the Orchestra of St. Luke's, an itinerate orchestra known for its commitment to music education.
After years of sending teaching artists into as many schools as possible, the orchestra is scaling back and going local. YOSL kids are from several schools in the same Hell's Kitchen neighborhood as the orchestra's new home, the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. The schools are Title I schools where about 75% of the kids are on free or reduced lunch plans.Teaching artists from the orchestra will guest teach regularly at YOSL and the hope is that the children and their families will be an extended artistic community anchored by the Orchestra of St. Luke's.
YOSL is modeled on Venezuela's lauded El Sistema program. Founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, 74, El Sistema is based on the idea that teaching young children to play classical instruments as part of an orchestral ensemble boosts self confidence and develops a sense of community. The program began as a social change initiative for Venezuela's then burgeoning population of young and poor children, but it's since been adopted by musical organizations all over the world, most notably in this country by Gustavo Dudamel's Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA).
Abreu is often quoted as saying, “The most holy of human rights is the right to art,” and some have drawn parallels between El Sistema and organized religion, particularly the Catholic church, because of El Sistema's almost zealous belief that music can save children from the social ills stemming from poverty and neglect. Nevertheless, the program was a feather in the cap of Venezuela's populist leader Hugo Chavez until his death last year and El Sistema receives substantial financial support from the Venezuelan government, as well as from foundations and private donors. But whether El Sistema is pseudo religion or simply effective education is no doubt irrelevant to the hundreds of thousands of children exposed to classical music through El Sistema inspired programs.
The response has been positive and YOSL continues to grow. Currently a string ensemble, it will expand within the year to include wind instruments, brass and percussion.