The student musicians of Yakima Music en Accion, the after-school program aimed at local at-risk kids, made the program’s director cry earlier this year.
They were at a potluck lunch hosted by one of the program’s teachers and the YAMA kids were asked to write one-word answers to complete the statements “YAMA means ____ to me,” “music means ____ to me,” and “music helps me ____ .” When they held up their answers — things like “everything,” “my life,” “family” for the first two, “feel strong,” “be myself” for the third — program director Stephanie Hsu was overwhelmed with emotion.
“I was just standing there crying,” she said. “Weeping. Because kids are so honest. They’re not going to say something because it’s what they think they’re supposed to say.
“They meant it.”
Such is the impact YAMA has had on local kids since Hsu founded it in 2012. The organization, which this year enrolled 66 students from third through eighth grade, has inspired devotion among its participants and their families and admiration from supporters such as the Yakima Symphony Orchestra.
So when YAMA’s organizational partner, the Opportunities Industrialization Center, saw its grant funding from the state Community Services Block Grant program end, the YSO was quick to step up and offer a lifeline. YAMA became a YSO subsidiary rather than an OIC subsidiary, and the organizations are working together to fill the $60,000 budget gap caused by cessation of OIC funding.
That’s a substantial chunk for YAMA, which last year operated on a budget of about $200,000.
“They were unable to support us going forward,” Hsu said. “But it was absolutely instrumental for the past two years to have their support.”
Crucially the new affiliation with the YSO, announced last month, allows YAMA to maintain nonprofit status as Hsu and a specially formed governing committee work toward making the program its own free-standing nonprofit entity. Hsu expects that to happen by the end of 2016.
From the orchestra’s perspective, helping YAMA make that transition is in keeping with long-term goals to reach a younger and more culturally diverse audience, YSO Executive Director David Rogers said.
“We don’t have a whole lot of role models for Hispanic youth on the professional symphony stage,” he said. “This is a very long-range approach of introducing students of color to instruments and music they might not otherwise be introduced to.”
Aside from musical concerns specifically, there’s also the added benefit of bringing parts of the Yakima community together who might otherwise never meet, Rogers said.
“It’s not just an after-school music program,” he said. “It’s really a social-action program that uses music.”
It’s not unique in that approach. In fact, YAMA is a direct outgrowth of a publicly financed music education program in Venezuela called El Sistema. Founded by musician and activist Jose Antonio Abreu in 1975, El Sistema — The System, in English — provides classical music education to children through an intensive after-school study program.
Hsu, a New York native, is one of 50 graduates of the New England Conservatory’s Sistema Fellows Programs. She moved here following that fellowship with the express purpose of spreading the system. Other graduates from the Boston-based NEC fellowship program have established similar El Sistema-driven outposts all over the country, “from Yakima to Atlanta, to Juneau, Alaska, to Los Angeles to Providence, Rhode Island,” said Heath Marlow, director of the NEC’s Sistema Fellowship Resource Center.
The model is a universal fit, he said.
“If you had to start with a blank slate and imagine, ‘What would really great music education look like?’ this is what you would come up with,” Marlow said.
So Hsu very much had existing examples to follow when she arrived in Yakima. She recruited other teachers using grant money through the YSO’s educational programs and started holding the classes for two hours every day at Garfield Elementary School.
The first year, 31 students participated in YAMA, and the program has grown by about 10 to 15 kids per year, Hsu said. Fifty-two students enrolled last year, she said.
Key partnerships keep the program accessible. The school district supplies the instruments and practice space. And fees for participants are kept reasonably low; the sliding scale this year tops out at $75 for the year. Even at that level there are some families who have trouble paying, and Hsu and her team are willing to work with them, even offering scholarships in extreme cases.
“We definitely start with the mindset that if you want to be in YAMA, we’ll let you be in YAMA, and we go from there,” said Alex Pualani, one of YAMA teaching artists.
In addition to the immersive music education, El Sistema prizes collaboration, problem-solving and goal setting.
“It becomes like a second home for them,” Marlow said. “They’re with their friends. It’s extremely social. They play music together all the time; it’s like music camp all year long.”
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a Bainbridge Island developmental psychologist who has written about the links between arts programs and student achievement, is a big fan of El Sistema. Its successes go far beyond the well-documented increases in learning potential that always accompany music education, she said.
“When they’re doing this much of something every week, the kids have to learn sociability,” Price-Mitchell said. “They have to learn to overcome small challenges and big challenges. They have to persevere and overcome everyday challenges. It teaches them to become resilient.
“Everything we really want to develop in a kid is actually part of El Sistema.”
The progress is already apparent, said Garfield Elementary principal Alan Matsumoto. Students who come from families on Yakima’s East Side, many of whom have never seen a relative attend college, are talking about continuing education, he said.
He remembers a YAMA field trip to Central Washington University in Ellensburg, where the students met with and played with professors in the CWU music department.
“In the meantime, they got to be exposed to college life,” Matsumoto said.
“They could kind of see that, you know, ‘Hey why can’t I do this?’ We had kids coming back from that trip saying, ‘I’m going to go to college.’”
That’s the kind of thing that make Hsu cry.
“That’s my vision,” she said. “My vision is we get them music scholarships or other scholarships so it’s not ‘if I go to college,’ it’s ‘when I go to college.’”
Her students talk like that already, she said.
“I’ve heard engineering, cardiology, teaching,” Hsu said. “I think they all know, as well as their parents, that to study music is not just to pursue music.”