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Changing lives through music


August 6, 2012

If music is the universal language, music education should know no boundaries. Thanks to a community effort, students at Hadfield Elementary School in Waukesha are learning to play classical music using "El Sistema," or "The System" — an approach to teaching music that originated in South America.

El Sistema began 25 years ago in Venezuela, notes Lawrence Harper, professor of music at Carroll University and administrator of the local program.

"They took kids from barrios all over Venezuela and gave them access to instruments and instruction," Harper says. "Now they have 4,000 kids involved. It’s an extraordinary success and is now being exported to other countries."

Retired Waukesha businessman Ralph North saw an inspiring "60 Minutes" story on El Sistema, and approached Harper about adapting it here. The Hadfield Elementary program, which began this year, is the first of its kind in Wisconsin.

With music programs becoming casualties of budget cuts, Harper says, elementary school music education has become nearly extinct.

"The idea is really to have the private sector take this over and that’s what we’ve done, and taken up where the schools have not been able to," Harper says.

Forty-four second-, third- and fourth-graders at Hadfield Elementary pay just $25 per year for professional instruction three days a week, playing instruments provided by the White House of Music. Substantial support comes from Carroll University, with partial funding from the Edith Olsen Music Foundation.

Musicians from the Wisconsin Philharmonic volunteer their time in the classroom to assist El Sistema’s three instructors, and students and their families receive tickets to the orchestra’s concerts. The Philharmonic’s String Quartet has also performed at the school as part of the program.

Harper says learning music is similar to learning a language, and the earlier the students are exposed to music education, the better.

"These kids pick it up very quickly and learn skills in discipline, attention, focus and imagination that just applies to everything else that they’re doing," he says.

The challenge remains to find funding for the El Sistema program and expand it to other schools.

"One of the things that’s been very rewarding about it is that people are really interested in it and think it’s, universally, a fantastic idea," Harper says.

The children have plunged in with enthusiasm, he adds, "and they’re having a terrific time."


This story ran in the July 2012 issue of: