Salt Lake school is changing lives through music

Published: Friday, April 26 2013 1:10 p.m. MDT

Gifted Music School director Eugene Watanabe works with the school's orchestra in Salt Lake City on April 13.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The row of brick storefronts on Salt Lake City’s 2nd South appear ordinary, hardly worth mention or notice, but on Saturday mornings, one of them doesn’t sound ordinary. Strains of classical music played by a string orchestra — a good one— waft into the street.

Inside, Shenae Anderson is playing a violin passage. It's lovely, but loveliness isn't enough for the conductor of the Gifted Music School Orchestra.

“Play this like you have a rose between your teeth,” says Eugene Watanebe, the co-founder and director of the school. “For this moment, you are Carmen.”

And with that reference to the opera world's fiery Gypsy woman, the 14-year-old violinist reaches deeper. As she does, the young cellists of the orchestra take their turn, digging their bows into a musical entrance with newfound gusto: “Dig-a-dig-a-DUM.”

“Bite into that entrance,” Watanabe coaxes. “Make the glissando rhythmic.”

Close your eyes, and this could be a seasoned adult chamber orchestra. Open them, and see children and teenagers completely focused on their joint pursuit, their faces fiercely intent as they prepare for a Spring Gala concert this Saturday.

This is no ordinary youth orchestra. These kids — ages 8 to 18 — have performed on the national public radio program "From the Top," which features the best up-and-coming young players in the nation. Orchestras that play this well typically aren't found outside the youth conservatories of legendary music schools like New York’s Juilliard School or Philadelphia's Curtis Institute.

It’s the high-profile showpiece of a music education program whose aspirations go beyond producing a world-class orchestra. The real gems of the Gifted Music School are the classes offered free to any child who qualifies for subsidized school lunch, Watanabe said.

A belief that intensive music training can combat the effects of poverty, help all students succeed in school and improve life trajectories for disadvantaged children is at the core of Watanabe's philosophy. It's an idea that's catching on around the world, with similar efforts under way in neighborhoods plagued by drugs and violence in cities like Juarez, Mexico, and the slums of Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Multiple studies have shown that music instruction increases math performance and spatial reasoning and strengthens social skills and work ethic, but Watanabe believes the U.S. is missing out on those benefits by decreasing music programs in public schools.

Changed lives

In Venezuela, a government-backed program called El Sistema was founded in 1975 to bring music training to the bleak slums of Caracas, with the goal of rescuing children from a culture of drugs and gangs. Children receive free instruction and instruments and grow up performing together in orchestras. More than 300,000 of Venezuela's poorest children now participate.

Observers from around the globe write exultantly of changed lives for El Sistema’s alumni. Students of the program learn to aim beyond their surroundings and gain the persistence to pull themselves out of poverty. Many become teachers for the next generation of El Sistema students; others apply the work ethic they learn from music study in other careers. Some, like Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel, become world-famous musicians.

El Sistema's program, which Watanabe admires, has spread to parts of Europe, Mexico and such U.S. cities as Denver, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Its success has sparked similar efforts in other nations. Brazil's government just began an intensive classical music program in its urban slums, aimed at providing positive alternatives to lives filled with poverty and crime. In China, classical music instruction for children is part of an effort to out-excel the West, Watanabe said.

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