Gatewood Elementary School third-grader Malachi Lewis said he was drawn to the tuba because of its size.
“It looked interesting to play and it was big,” said Malachi, 8.
Izzabella Truong-Richardson, 9, a Gatewood fourth-grader, said she has so much fun learning to play the bass that she's hardly aware of time.
“It only feels like five minutes when you're playing, but it's really 45 minutes,” she said. “It's awesome.”
And Kaiser Elementary School fourth-grader Jason Ngo said he loves to move the bow back and forth as he plays the viola.
“It's inspiring and it's helping me learn,” Jason said of the music that springs from the stringed instrument.
These and other students participating in the El Sistema Oklahoma youth orchestra are finding their groove.
As the inaugural music program starts its second semester Monday, the youths continue to fine-tune their abilities, and leaders are planning more public concerts and appearances for them.
“We are very excited to welcome the students back. It will be fun to see the progress they made as most took their instruments home for the first time over the holiday break,” said Cathy Busey, a member of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. Busey and her husband, Phil, provided the funding to start the program.
El Sistema Oklahoma provides free orchestral music training to a group of students in third through sixth grades from six Oklahoma City public schools: Sequoyah, Linwood, Gatewood, Kaiser, Putnam Heights and Cleveland.
The program, which started in August, is a ministry of St. Luke's United Methodist Church, in partnership with Oklahoma City University and the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools.
More than music
The youth orchestra held a mini concert for the students' parents just before fall break, and the event included an opportunity for some of the parents to get an impromptu music lesson from their children.
The orchestra's first public concert was in December at St. Luke's, 222 NW 15, filling the church's fellowship hall with the sounds of a whimsical Christmas medley and other songs.
“What we are seeing, what we are experiencing, is our future,” Jose Luis Hernandez-Estrada, the program's first executive director, said during the concert.
The program is about much more than music, he said.
“This orchestra is about joy. It's about teamwork,” he said. “What we're trying to do is not produce virtuosos of music but rather citizens of virtue — people who are going to grow up with the tools of life.”
In the coming months, there will be many more opportunities, not only for the full orchestra to perform, but for several smaller ensembles to be able to perform across the city, Cathy Busey said.
She said a special chamber orchestra will be formed with the older students under the direction of Robyn Hilger of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, a member of the program's leadership team.
Meanwhile, a leadership change has occurred within the program.
The orchestra started with Hernandez-Estrada, 29, at the helm. Although the internationally acclaimed pianist and classical conductor led the youths during their first public concert, he has left to pursue other opportunities, Busey said recently.
The program's board of directors will make a decision about leadership over the next several months, Busey said. In the meantime, Mike Raiber will be principal conductor for the full orchestra. She said Raiber has been a member of the program's leadership team and leads the program's faculty. He also is president of the Oklahoma Music Educators Association and a professor of music at Oklahoma City University's Wanda Bass School of Music.
For now, the program's students will go back to work learning to hone their musical skills during the El Sistema practice sessions every weekday at Trinity International Baptist Church, 1329 NW 23.
Dane Benson, 9, a Kaiser Elementary fourth-grader, said his challenge has been learning how to play each of the percussion instruments, but he said he is up to the task.
Linda Barrios, 9, a Linwood Elementary fourth-grader, said she is enjoying learning how to play the viola and especially likes the time when the full orchestra plays together on Friday afternoons.
Most importantly, her curiosity about the youth orchestra has been satisfied, she said.
“I was wondering what it was all about. I was asking questions,” she said.
“Now, I know.”