Why wait for the dust to settle? A Sistema-trained musician from Minnesota makes the most of her gifts

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ComMUSICation students perform at Western Sculpture Garden for a mobile art fair during summer camp this year. The Minnesota-based program was inspired by the original El Sistema program in Venezuela – and also blends music with community and education. Photo: ComMUSICation

By Sara Zanussi, Sistema Fellow, Class of 2013

The Sistema Fellows Program, inspired by the world-famous Venezuelan musician and 2009 TED Prize winner Jose Abreugraduated its last class of Fellows this past May. Housed at the New England Conservatory (NEC), the training program was designed to equip 50 young musicians to create El Sistema-inspired youth orchestra programs in their communities. Sara, a vocalist and pianist who graduated from the program last year, shares her inspiring story below.

There’s a famous quote by Auerbach about music washing away the dust of everyday life. In Tanzania, where I spent a year after college teaching music to both expats and locals, dust was just part of daily life. The trip to the school in the rural area where I taught music involved a bumpy 50-minute drive through cornfields dotted with mud houses with tin roofs. When I arrived at my destination every week, the students from the Umoja Ensemble class would greet me with one-toothed smiles, their uniforms covered in dust. Umoja means “unity” in Swahili and that was the mission of the Umoja Music School: to bring people together through music. Here, we taught them Tanzanian drumming, songs, and dances, with my role being to ensure proper vocal technique. This voluntary trek to the porini (bush) was the highlight of my week and it was through this experience of teaching music to students – especially those who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity – that I knew I had found my niche.

After doing some research on Google, I came across Jose Abreu’s TED talk on revolutionizing music and soon learned of the Sistema Fellows program at the New England Conservatory (NEC.) Not wanting to play games with the Tanzanian post office and risk having my audition tape for the fellowship application get lost in transit, I returned to my home state of Minnesota inspired to start my own El Sistema program. In order to make that dream come true, I knew what my next step was: to become an Abreu fellow.

In late March 2012, I received a letter from the NEC telling me I’d been accepted into the fellowship program. During those 10 months, we had opportunities to visit other Sistema programs nationwide and even did a one-month stay in Venezuela. I will never forget asking a little boy in Venezuela what he wanted to be when he grew up. He told me, “Dudamel.” Not the typical famed jobs like a singer, basketball player, or the President, but a classical conductor from Venezuela who is now a Music Director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This is a reflection of how passionate and disciplined the El Sistema Venezuelan students are, and I couldn’t help but envision what it would look like if American children were to answer with a similar response; if classical music was made relevant to them. In Venezuela, every music student starts by singing in a choir – and I was astounded to hear the high-level, challenging repertoire even six-year-olds can sing. The level at which they strive for musical excellence in Venezuela – beginning at such a young age – was profoundly inspiring.

Being from Minnesota, also known as “the land of 10,000 choirs” – and taking to heart Dr. Abreu’s advice to “do what I know best” – I knew I had to start a Sistema-inspired choral program in my home state after graduation. After two months of extensive community mapping, I partnered with a charter school, the local music conservatory, the public schools, and the Promise Neighborhood, and ComMUSICation was founded – a program about community, music, and education that uses music as the language to communicate. Our mission is to empower all youth with life-long skills through musicking and building community. This involves a great deal of time, dedication, rigor, frequent community performances, an ensemble focus, and it’s made accessible to all youth in the community.

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Students and founding Director Sara Zanussi sing Hotaru Koi, a Japanese canon at their final concert of the pilot program last spring. Inspired by Jose Abreu’s TED talk on revolutionizing music, Zanussi joined the Sistema Fellows Program and upon graduation, launched ComMUSICation. Photo: ComMUSICation

In January 2014, we launched ComMUSICation with eight students from St. Paul City School and had a Midwest premiere men’s acapella group called Cantus host a rehearsal with us – with all of us performing at the neighborhood’s black history event within the first two weeks of launching. By the end of the pilot program in May, we had 23 students from three different schools participating and a 95% retention rate into summer programming growing to 32 students and an added drumming and intensive music literacy component.

I can’t say this growth has come without obstacles. Like any nonprofit, fundraising is always a challenge and it took awhile to learn how to cater grants to specific tangible projects rather than general operating startup funds. Another challenge was managing expectations of ComMUSICation for students, parents, and stakeholders. Having consistent attendance was a large obstacle as families seemed used to drop-in programs, so we had to communicate the importance of regular attendance. But as with everything, practice makes perfect, and by the end of our pilot program 98% of parents were at our final performance.

While we were certainly grateful for their generous pilot sponsorship, we decided the Extended Day Learning model was not the best vehicle for our program because of scheduling differences and differences in expectation and measures of success. Due to funding quotas, their concern was primarily on the number of students, whereas ours was about the quality of the music performances, the community we were building, the number of performances and the audience we were reaching.

Even with these challenges, I could not have a better job as I truly see the tangible difference in these children’s lives on a daily basis, whether it be a lesson on character or just their gleeful voices. ComMUSICation has put a new type of choir on the 10,000 choir radar: one that truly represents the demographics of St. Paul and embraces all cultures through multicultural music. In the pilot program, students sang with the local conservatory, performed at two school music concerts, sang for the new light rail inauguration ceremony, and had opportunities to see MN Orchestra and Cantus live. For this next year, we plan to learn Estonian music, do a community service project, perform a sung story “opera” with MN Opera, and learn about the rich jazz culture of St. Paul.

Now, that I am back in the most-of-the-time snow-covered roads of Minnesota, and as I see student struggles dissipate with ComMUSICation, I must say that I do agree with Auerbach: music truly does wash away the dust of everyday life.

Watch Jose Abreu’s TED Talk »

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