The high-pitched hum of violins, the rhythmic beat of a snare drum and the occasional blare of French horns resounded through the hallways of an Oklahoma City church. Nearby, Jose Luis Hernandez-Estrada listened as Elliott Miller played the cello for the first time while London Shephard learned how to blow into a tuba.
The resulting barrage of sounds was music to his ears.
This week, more than 100 students participating in a new after-school music program called El Sistema Oklahoma are trying out instruments for the first time. Hernandez-Estrada, the program's executive director high-fived several children who grinned as they made musical sounds come from a clarinet, a saxophone and an upright bass bigger than them.
“There is expression happening in every room,” Hernandez-Estrada said recently as he walked through Trinity Baptist International Church, 1329 NW 23.
“I'm looking forward to hearing the kaleidoscope of sound.”
El Sistema Oklahoma 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 across the globe, including dozens of cities around the U.S. such as Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; Los Angeles; Brooklyn, N.Y., New Orleans; Chicago; Lexington, Ky.; Atlanta; and now Oklahoma.
Changing lives with music
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 — will gather together at Trinity Baptist five days a week for free musical instruction. Hernandez-Estrada said the ultimate goal is to form an orchestra of young musicians.
He said Abreu in Venezuela found that such a program held many benefits for children with limited opportunities. Abreu began the program with 11 students and it now includes more than 120 youth orchestras.
“Abreu believed that music can change lives, that it can bring hope. I feel the same way,” Hernandez-Estrada said.
El Sistema Oklahoma is a collaborative effort that brings together St. Luke's United Methodist Church, Oklahoma City University and the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools. St. Luke's members Phil Busey Sr. and his wife Cathy Busey of Edmond presented the idea for the Oklahoma program to leaders at their church and OCU, and the philanthropic couple also gave the necessary funds to get the program up and running for several years. Phil Busey is chairman and CEO of the Delaware Resource Group (DRG), an Oklahoma City-based defense contractor.
“The children have no idea how much love has gone into the dreams and planning for them,” Cathy Busey said. “We will leave something bigger than ourselves. It's not just about us — others will benefit.”
Mark Parker, dean of OCU's Wanda Bass School of Music, said El Sistema Oklahoma's outreach to children who likely would not have opportunities for such musical training fits the university's mission to serve the community-at-large.
“We've just been planning and looking forward to this day so much,” Parker said. “We say that we have loved these children before we knew their names. This is the start of something really important in their lives.”
The Rev. Bob Long, senior pastor of St. Luke's, 222 NW 15, shared similar sentiments.
“We believe that through El Sistema we could help children from more challenging economic situations achieve their full potential,” she said.
Volunteers helped children as they took turns trying various instruments on Tuesday. Hernandez-Estrada said the students would continue exploring the instruments for a few days.
Staff members will take the students' interest into consideration as they decide which instrument each child will learn.
We've just been planning and looking forward to this day so much. We say that we have loved these children before we knew their names. This is the start of something really important in their lives.”
Dean of OCU's Wanda Bass School of Music