A local program restores music education from flat to natural, By Christine Pasalo
Article printed in San Diego Magazine
Opus scholarship gala with students from Otay and Lauderbach Elementary, Oak Park Percussion Ensemble, the Balboa Park Core Chamber Ensemble

A PETTING ZOO FOR… musical instruments? Yep, you read that right. When music students in the Community Opus Project participate in a local event, they man a “petting zoo.” Violins, cellos, and other instruments replace farm animals, and students invite other children and adults to learn how to play.

It’s all part of the program at Opus.

Launched in 2010, the San Diego Youth Symphony (SDYS) sought to make music education available and accessible to all students in San Diego County. This school year, Opus will benefit 250 students from Otay, Lauderbach, Rice, Harborside, Rosebank, and Vista Square Elementary Schools.

“A lot of students don’t have a pathway to music,” says Dalouge Smith, president and CEO of SDYS. “They don’t have music in their schools. They can’t afford private lessons. There’s no route for them to get to the stage.”

SDYS is carving the path. It raises funds at the local, state, and national levels and brings the Community Opus Project to musically underserved communities. Students enrolled in the program get new instruments and instruction for free.

Inspired by El Sistema, Venezuela’s music program, Opus instruction includes learning to play one’s selected string, wind, or brass instrument, music theory, singing, art, and playing as an ensemble. Students are also encouraged to teach each other… and their parents.

“The last 10 minutes of every class session, the parents come in to see what the students are doing and the students teach their parents something on their instrument,” explains Lauren Widney, the education and community programs manager for SDYS.

Parent involvement can go beyond the last 10 minutes of class. Last year, one father bought his own violin and learned how to play it alongside his son. He continues to play with the student ensemble during Opus family potlucks.

Alejandra, fourth grader from
Lauderbach Elementary School

While most parents don’t take up the instruments, the families must be involved, if only to lend an ear. Students are required to perform their repertoire for their families in what SDYS calls Living Room Concerts.

“I love Opus because I get to play songs I know and some are new,” wrote 9-year-old Opus student Ruth Reveles in a letter to SDYS. “The most thing I love is I get to share my talent with my family. Finally, I get to have concerts and other people can hear my music.”

Although the program is now offered at six Chula Vista elementary schools, not every child interested in the program can participate. There is only enough funding to teach about 30 new students per school each year.

“We tell the families who don’t get in, ‘Talk to your administrators. Talk to your districts. Get groups of families together and make your voices heard,’” Widney says. “Families need to understand that they get to dictate what happens at their schools. They get to make the choices, too.”

To lend advocacy a hand, SDYS has partnered with The Neurosciences Institute, the UCSD Center for Human Development, and UCSD CREATE to measure the Community Opus Project’s impact on a student’s overall school performance. According to SDYS’ Year One Report, non-Opus teachers said that Opus students had better attendance, better behavior, and better engagement in their regular classes.

Beyond that, the proof is in the children’s smiles. “To see them with huge grins on their faces knowing they’ve accomplished something—that’s what makes me work for them,” says Widney. “They make me so proud! This is just the beginning for them.”

See them live! For details on the ensemble’s February 11th performance, visit sdys.org.