The inaugural season of the El Sistema Oklahoma youth orchestra recently culminated with a concert performance.
However, leaders with the music program said the end is really just the beginning — as a major expansion is underway.
Robyn Hilger, El Sistema Oklahoma’s new executive director, said the program will expand to include 100 additional students next school year. She said applications are being processed at the six targeted Oklahoma City schools.
Hilger said the program’s growth is because of its popularity among students, the schools they attend and the community at large.
“I think that I would sum it up as everything exceeded our expectations,” she said. “It just makes my heart swell.”
The program is a partnership between St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, Oklahoma City University and the Foundation for Oklahoma Public Schools. It is modeled after an internationally acclaimed program called El Sistema — The System — that was started by musician and economist Jose Antonio Abreu in 1975 in Venezuela.
Programs inspired by Abreu’s model exist in areas around the globe, including in U.S. cities such as Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; Los Angeles; Brooklyn, N.Y., New Orleans; Chicago; Lexington, Ky.; and Atlanta.
As part of El Sistema Oklahoma, students in third through sixth grades from a half-dozen elementary schools in the Oklahoma City School District — Sequoyah, Linwood, Gatewood, Kaiser, Putnam Heights and Cleveland — have gathered at Trinity Baptist five days a week for free musical instruction, beginning in August 2013.
Hilger, who succeeded the program’s first director, Jose Luis Hernandez-Estrada, said the 100 additional students who will be accepted into the program will be mentored by the first-year students.
She said the program’s leaders want to see the first-year students continue to add to their musical repertoire. Blending the new students in with them would keep that from happening effectively, she said.
“It’s important that our first-year kids maintain the direction they are going. They don’t need to learn ‘Hot Cross Buns’ again,” Hilger said.
She said the program will effectively have two youth orchestras, but she envisions the first-year students and their new counterparts will perform together at some point.
She said the program’s growth spurt could not happen without the cooperation of Trinity International Baptist, whose leaders have agreed to allow El Sistema to use more space within the sprawling complex at 1329 NW 23.
Hilger said the program used 10 classrooms during its inaugural season and will use 20 classrooms next season.
She said each of the program’s partners has played a key role in its success. She said the El Sistema leaders also are appreciative of philanthropists Phil and Cathy Busey, members of St. Luke’s who brought the program model to the metro area and donated the funding to get it up and running for several years.
Hilger worked previously for the Foundation for Oklahoma Public Schools.
A longtime music teacher and the 2006 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, she said she feels her leadership role with the youth orchestra program has brought her full circle, “back to my true passion, which is teaching music to children.”
El Sistema Oklahoma
Executive Director Robyn Hilger said the El Sistema Oklahoma youth orchestra program is seeking music teachers and volunteers for the 2014-15 season. For more information, go online to www.elsistemaok.org.