Brooklyn, N.Y.— As the strings, woodwinds and horns rose into a crescendo, one would have thought it was the opening gala of the New York Philharmonic. Instead, the resounding passage from Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony was being played by about 50 fourth- and fifth-grade students from the Harmony Program at PS 152 who were warming up for their winter recital at Gershwin Theater.
“They sound incredible,” said Pierre Millien, whose nine-year-old son Sebastiane joined the program in 2008, the year of its inception, and now plays the drums. “It was a pleasant surprise to find out that PS 152 was offering musical training,” added Millien, a member of the school’s Parent Teacher Association, thankful that the school partnered with the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College to make the program possible.
Inspired by Venezuela’s national system of youth orchestras called “El Sistema,” the Harmony Program provides daily after-school instrumental music lessons to children from economically disadvantaged communities. Led by Executive Director Anne Fitzgibbon, the program taps New York’s college- and graduate-level music students as teachers, training them to develop the talents of young people who would not ordinarily be exposed to music education.
“Without the program, these children would not have had the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument,” said Fitzgibbon, the deputy to the senior university dean for academic affairs, who spent a year in Venezuela studying the El Sistema model.
Now in its third year, the program has expanded to City and Lehman colleges. This semester, five Brooklyn College students participated as instructors: Johanna Aguilera (clarinet), Christian Alonzo (brass), Sarah Kuzma (flute), Jason Silva (trombone) and Laura Vuksinich (percussion).
As he waited for the recital to begin, Millien expressed concern that his son may not receive similar opportunities when he starts middle school next year. “I hope students are offered ways of continuing their musical education,” he said.
Fitzgibbon is working to make that happen. “We’re trying to establish a Saturday Orchestra session at either PS 152 or a community center that would allow these kids to keep training,” she said. “We don’t want them to forget what they’ve learned.”
Laura Vuksinich, who taught percussion to Millien’s son and is pursuing a master’s in performance, agrees. “The kids ask great questions that often guide me in formulating new ways to present the material. I’ve learned so much from them and from other extraordinary teachers,” she said. “They really inspire me.”