NJSO pilot program at Newark school inspires students

Apr 26, 2013

“I like it because you can express all your feelings — any emotion you have you can play it out with the violin,” said Precious, 10. “One day I came to violin and before I’d had an argument and I was mad, but once I started playing everything that I held in came out.”
– University Heights Charter School student Precious, as told to The Star-Ledger

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is presenting an innovative education program at University Heights Charter School (UHCS) in Newark, in partnership with the school. Inspired by the social development and music education program El Sistema in Venezuela, the NJSO pilot program seeks to develop students’ goal-directed behavior and skills to foster social and academic success; improving their self-esteem, academic achievement and lifelong character traits like perseverance and leadership.

Through the pilot program, 25 UHCS students in grades four through six are receiving intensive after-school violin instruction for two hours per day, three days per week.

The Star-Ledger and SymphonyNOW were on the scene at UHCS on Friday, April 19, when students participated in an extended rehearsal and performance day. The students heard a special performance by an NJSO violin-viola duo, then rehearsed with their violin instructors and later gave a performance for their classmates.

The Star-Ledger’s Peggy McGlone writes:

Last Friday’s rehearsal with [NJSO Education & Community Engagement Conductor Jeffrey Grogan] marked a turning point in a six-week pilot program run by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Fashioned after El Sistema, Venezuela’s music education program, the program aims to improve academic performance, discipline and focus through violin instruction.

The concept is a good match for University Heights Charter School, said its executive director, Misha Simmonds. “The program really aligns well with our focus on character, scholarship and leadership,” Simmonds said. The students have learned discipline, focus and grit, he said …

“Today was extra special,” Grogan said after the rehearsal. “This shows them what it feels like to work together.”

SymphonyNOW’s Jennifer Melick captured video of students performing for their classmates and presenting their own cheer that, Melick writes, “says better than any words how they feel about the violin.”

“There’s nothing quite like the buzzing energy of a roomful of excited fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders,” she writes.

The UHCS students will perform a showcase piece at the Greater Newark Youth Orchestras annual spring concert on Saturday, May 4, at Orange Preparatory Academy in Orange. Last Friday, their excitement about playing onstage, supported by the members of the NJSO’s youth orchestra, was palpable.

“The kids keep talking about how excited they are about playing in the concert, and they’re constantly asking the teachers about performing,” NJSO Manager of Education and Community Engagement Shirley Chang says. “[On Friday,] someone asked when the concert was, and all the students shouted ‘May 4!’ in unison—they can’t stop thinking about it.”

“Misha [Simmonds, UHCS executive director] and the UHCS dean of students have said that the participating students have already shown growth in confidence and self-esteem,” Chang says. “This experience is creating social bonds and a sense of belonging for them, and it is giving them new interest, a new passion. Misha has said that when students in the program have been out sick for a day, the next day they’ll run up to make sure they’re still in the violin class! They really look forward to it.”

The NJSO and University Heights Charter School have agreed to a three-year partnership that would see the program expand for the next school year, funding permitting.

“Over a full 30 weeks [of violin instruction], we would definitely see a big jump in their skill level and appreciation for music,” Chang says. “And even beyond music, they will continue to strive for a standard of excellence. We have high expectations of them, we call them scholars in the school; they are getting real positive reinforcement from their teachers. We would see them take even more pride in their accomplishments. There is a lot of character building of skills like discipline and perseverance; it’s not easy to master an instrument, and they are learning what it takes to do something well. They are learning empathy in how they are playing for each other, and leadership in how they are helping each other.”

“The program’s lessons clearly extend beyond the music on the page,” The Star-Ledger writes. The students, UHCS and NJSO agree.