It’s late in the afternoon on a beautiful day in May, but Daniel Lopez, 9, of the Franklin Elementary School in Santa Barbara, and Gustavo Dudamel, 32, of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, are both stuck indoors, rehearsing with their orchestras. Lopez plays the cello and has a concert coming up, so he and the other members of his 4th-grade string ensemble are hard at work with their teacher, Katie Mendenhall, from the Incredible Children’s Art Network (iCAN). Gustavo, on the other hand, is at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, preparing the L.A. Phil to play Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. For that concert, there will be big-name singers involved, a set by a famous architect, and Azzedine Alaia’s designer costumes. Still, Lopez and Dudamel have two important things in common: They are both happy to be indoors making music on this warm day, and they are both products of El Sistema, the revolutionary music education program that began in Venezuela and is now spreading around the world.
It’s easy to see why Dudamel, so evidently blessed with prodigious musicality and charisma, enjoys such an extraordinary level of prestige. Yet the role of El Sistema in bringing him to such a pitch of excellence is perhaps less commonly known or understood, and the implications of Dudamel’s rise in relation to music education worldwide remain to be seen. In an era of relentless competition and ever-increasing pressure for young musicians, El Sistema represents a fundamentally different approach, one that sidesteps the drama of rejection in favor of inclusiveness yet nevertheless manages to produce performers who reach the highest levels of achievement.
The secret behind this distinctive approach are alive and thriving in Santa Barbara at Franklin, where Lopez and 89 other students like him participate in iCAN’s five-days-a-week music program. Built from the ground up over the last two years by Adam Johnston, a dynamic young Yale graduate and former Whiffenpoof, the iCAN program at Franklin exemplifies the El Sistema ethos in which the focus on music is always understood as part of something much bigger. In order to describe what that larger objective is, Johnston offers an example: “I was working with the 4th graders, and it was the early days. But the music started coming together, and everyone was feeling it. One of the boys, a tough kid who had lost his father, spoke out in the silence that hung in the air after the piece, and he said, ‘I feel like my father is here with me.’ I know that’s not going to happen every day, but when it does, it gives you all the motivation you need to keep going.”
With this spring’s addition of Jeffry Walker, a distinguished arts educator whose most recent position was as executive director of the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, the iCAN music program at Franklin has gained an experienced administrator who will help free Johnston to do what he does best: lead and motivate in person. You can see the impact of Johnston and the iCAN program immediately when you talk, as I did, to the parents. When Lopez’s mother, Xochilt Vargas, spoke to me about iCAN, she never mentioned pressure or competition. Instead, there was a clear sense of well-being emanating from this woman as she detailed the specific ways in which the experience has helped her son. “I wanted to let him try it because he’s passionate,” she told me, adding that “Daniel was shy and introverted before iCAN, but this experience has opened him up. He loves the group and the teachers, and now I think this is the main place where he sees himself.”
Later on, when Lopez himself takes a break to speak with me, he, too, is happy and confident, offering a hearty handshake before sitting down to discuss what this program has meant to him. “I have a dream,” he tells me with a smile, not specifying what that dream might be, and I am instantly won over. He reflects on leading warm-ups in his chorus lesson that day by saying of his teacher, “I like to help her.” He concludes, “I’m about the learning,” and then trots off to practice more cello.
At the final concert of the school year, a festive family event held in the school’s courtyard, Lopez and the other members of the iCAN Advanced Orchestra played a composition called “Pristine Machine.” Next year, the group will grow in number and move on to a higher level of the curriculum, but even before school starts again, there will be another chance to hear them in a special concert at Franklin Elementary School on Friday, July 19. The event will also feature guest artists from the L.A. Philharmonic’s El Sistema–inspired program, YOLA at HOLA, and is open to anyone interested in attending.