Ravinia’s regular concert season may have concluded in September, but its work will continue throughout the school year with its onsite debut of Sistema Ravinia, a free, after school, orchestral program catering to five underserved Lake County schools.
The initiative, which is part of Ravinia’s REACH*TEACH*PLAY education program, is an extension of Jose Antonio Abreu’s music education program El Sistema, which has been gaining momentum worldwide since its 1975 inception in Caracas, Venezuela.
Formed to provide children an opportunity to experience the power of creating music in a safe place, El Sistema is now educating more than 500,000 children in Venezuela and hundreds of thousands of children on a global scale. Ravinia president and CEO Welz Kauffman credits much of the program’s immense success to its “actions speak louder than words” philosophy.
“It’s that socialization and camaraderie that is key to inspiring a child to want to do it—you’re not in a practice room and going to private lessons, you’re doing it with your friends instantly,” he says. “It’s similar to a little league baseball team in that everybody starts playing immediately—you don’t go into a batting cage for three years and then get to play, you just start doing it.”
And doing it they are, for two hours a day after school, everyday. The commitment is cumbersome, but Kauffman sees such dedication working to the advantage of the kids. “If you do it this way, you get involved faster than you ever would if it were just once a week, like most jazz bands in junior high and high school,” he explains. “You also get the bond going much more quickly with the others kids and the instructor.” Those ties have proven hard to break at Catalyst Circle Rock Elementary School in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, where Sistema Ravinia got its start four years ago. “It’s been going great guns, to the point where some of the athletic coaches are a little upset because the kids would rather be in orchestra than on a team,” says Kauffman.
While Kauffman suggests that the needs of students may be more easily apparent in Chicago Public Schools, he notes the importance in recognizing the needs of Lake County students, as well. “Every public school system is so strapped for funds, and it’s always the arts that go first,” he explains. “Because instrumental programs are more expensive, programs in dance, visual arts, and theater tend to survive more easily—and that’s where we step in and try to help out.”
Years of researching schools and cities with financial strains and schools void of music programs led the Ravinia team to invite more than 100 students in grades four through six from North, Glen Flora, and Lyon Magnet Elementary Schools in Waukegan; Northwood Junior Academy in Highwood; and The Cove School in Northbrook to participate in the after school program.
The students congregated for their first day on October 29, when they met the other attendees and their instructor and chose their instrument from a full chamber orchestra lineup, which included violins, violas, cellos, oboes, basses, flutes, clarinets, and percussion. The teachers got to work immediately with the students, and the evening concluded with a performance by the children for their friends and family.
Meanwhile, families enjoyed tours of the festival grounds and performances by 12-year-old Mexican-American pianist Daniela Liebman and the Circle Rockets, Circle Rock’s orchestra, which was launched by Sistema Ravinia in 2012.
Since then, the students have been practicing at their respective schools, and several times a week they meet at Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall as a full symphony orchestra for rehearsal with a conductor. Once they’re ready for show time, the students will begin giving monthly performances for friends and family, just like Sistema Ravinia has orchestrated within the Circle Rock program.
In addition to increasing the interest in music for future generations, Kauffman hopes that students will be able to experience a sense of familiarity in their newfound friendships and environs. “This will become their own place, just like their school has, and I think we can all relate to experiencing that feeling of belonging and ownership,” he says. “It changes your attitude about a place, even if you didn’t know what it was before.”
Ravinia is located at 200 Ravinia Park Road in Highland Park, 847-266-5100, ravinia.org.