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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Banding together: Music Innovates finds eager students at Holmes

On a Wednesday afternoon at Holmes Elementary School, the all-purpose room off the main entrance is filled with the sounds of musical scales and warm-ups. It’s the weekly rehearsal for Music Innovates, a new after-school program for band and strings students, and the kids are sitting in green plastic chairs arranged in a semicircle around conductor Jorge Luis Uzcátegui. He lifts his baton, and the cacophony immediately subsides.

The student orchestra plays the opening measures of a song titled “Heading South,” and the sound is initially muddled and chaotic. Uzcátegui waves his arms to stop them. “Are we sure we’re ready to play?” he asks. The band starts up again, and the melody comes through like it hadn’t before.

After playing the song through once, they start breaking down the individual pieces of the composition. Uzcátegui is attempting to get the students to play the composition’s first note all at the same time, to rest at the appropriate times (and to stay silent during said rests) and then they work on picking up the tempo.

“Remember when we played that for the first time and were a very small orchestra?” he asks the kids after they’ve made their way through “Heading South” again. “It’s much cooler this way, yes?”

Music Innovates started at Holmes in October, about eight months after Uzcátegui was named the Spokane Symphony’s new assistant conductor. The program began with about 25 Holmes students; it has since grown to roughly 100 participants.

The group meets Monday through Thursday each week, with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students from three other schools (Audubon, Garfield and Montessori) getting bused to Holmes in the afternoon. The students break off into sectionals, and then they gather for a full rehearsal once a week.

It’s the kind of experience that Uzcátegui says he wishes he had had as a child, because he began his musical career as a solo pianist.

“My musical journey was pretty lonely,” Uzcátegui said. “I applied for a master’s in orchestral conducting, and that’s when everything changed. Everyone is important and indispensable, not just you. Don’t get me wrong – I love the piano, I wanted to be a concert pianist. But I would spend 15 hours in a practice room by myself, staring at the ceiling thinking, ‘What the heck am I doing here? What is the purpose of all this?’ ”

Music Innovates was partly inspired by El Sistema, a free after-school musical education program that was founded in the mid-1970s in Uzcátegui’s native Venezuela.

“In Venezuela, every week or two the kids (put on) a concert, with orchestras of all ages, from every remote town in the country,” Uzcátegui said. “I go as a guest conductor, and it’s the most magical thing. You go to these places and see that these people are as poor as it gets; they have nothing but their instruments. And these kids are from 8 to 15, and they come to just play. Their families get involved, and now everything is possible.”

Music Innovates currently has about 25 volunteers, including symphony musicians and older students, serving as coaches and tutors. Uzcátegui has also brought in a handful of educators from Venezuela who are familiar with the El Sistema model.

“They know how to teach something in a way the kids understand right away, that’s more efficient, that’s a little more hands-on,” he explained. “You don’t want the kids to get bored. You’ve got to boost their confidence first, and then there’s the reality check.”

When students first entered the program back in October, Uzcátegui said some of them had never picked up a musical instrument before.

“They’re learning things they wouldn’t be doing in their class,” said Janet Napoles, the Spokane Symphony’s manager of education programs. “By Christmas, they would only be plucking strings, and these kids were playing with bows and playing different rhythms.”

The students performed the three songs they had learned at a small concert in December, which both Uzcátegui and Napoles say further boosted their confidence. District 81 has also provided rental instruments for the kids who don’t already have them, purchasing 35 to 40 new instruments in recent weeks.

Stephanie Lundberg, the principal at Holmes, says she saw an immediate surge of interest from music students once the Innovates program began.

“Their experience with band and strings up to this point was pretty typical, where they had an hour of instruction per week,” she said. “We weren’t seeing a lot of success because maybe (the kids) weren’t practicing on their own at home. So we would see a higher drop-out rate when they got to sixth grade.

“We also had a fairly large problem last year with students coming to band and not bringing their instruments. … But now everybody wants to be involved, and we’ve got kids saying they’re absolutely going to stay in band and strings for the next year in order to continue the program.”

The point of Music Innovates, Uzcátegui says, is to instill a love of music within his students at an early age. Once the kids have grasped the basics of their instruments, he says, they’ll be able to embrace the craft and advance to compositions of increasing difficulty.

“When you see the effect it has on these kids and what it means to share what you know with them, it’s so powerful,” Uzcátegui said. “I always knew music was powerful, but now I know why. … You feel that your training was worthwhile, because you’re affecting so many people positively.”

“That’s what it really comes back to: How do we get these kids the opportunity to really experience music and learning the joy of something new and different?” Lundberg said. “Feeling successful after you’ve worked so hard to achieve something – there’s nothing better. And our kids are experiencing that.”

Uzcátegui’s vision for Music Innovates is to expand it beyond the walls of Holmes Elementary, and he’s hoping other schools in the district will eventually be able to participate. In the calm following Wednesday’s rehearsal, after the chairs have been stacked and the music stands stored away, it’s clear that Uzcátegui is pleased with his work: The students are making progress, he says, and they’re becoming more comfortable with the music.

“I want to spread this everywhere in the world I end up,” he said. “My dream is having the whole city involved, then the whole state, then the whole country, then eventually the whole world. Until somebody explains to me how it could do harm, I will keep going at it as long as I can. It makes my life worthwhile. It makes everything I do worthwhile.”

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