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ComMUSICation focuses on life skills through music

Posted on 13 May 2015 by Calvin


Ryan LaBoy music directorPerseverance. Discipline. Teamwork. Collaboration. Empathy. All these skills that can help a person succeed in life are being taught to the young people participating in ComMUSICation in Saint Paul.

Founded by Sara Zanussi, ComMUSICation is based on the El Sistema system developed in Venezuela by Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu that uses excellence of the music ensemble to develop a transferrable set of life skills that fosters good teachers, leaders, citizens, and musicians.

Zanussi, a St. Paul native, did a Sistema fellowship in Boston at the New England Conservatory in 2012 and 2013.

“It was a year-long program that trained musicians who are passionate about transforming their communities, using music,” Zanussi explained.  She returned to St. Paul and learned there are no secular youth choirs in the city, and she particularly focused on the Promise Neighborhood, a program designed to give all St. Paul children the resources and support to be successful from “cradle to career.”  That area falls within the borders of Pierce Butler, Rice, Selby and Lexington.

ComMUSICation 2Zanussi said the Promise Neighborhood connection led her to St. Paul City School at 635 Virginia St., and she got Saint Paul Public Schools, the St. Paul Conservatory of Music and Sprocket Youth Development Network involved.

“I really wanted to do something that was using existing resources,” Zanussi said, “and the community collaboration was really important to me. As a result, 60% of our budget is in-kind.”

“We started planning the program in the summer of 2013 and started hiring staff that fall,” she continued. “We did our pilot program in January 2014 and continued until the beginning of May, and we had 100% of parents at our final performance.”

ComMUSICation follows the school year and also continues for two weeks in the summer.

“Something that makes our program unique is that we are not just about providing a program for the students but also something that connects families together,” Zanussi stated. “It provides an opportunity for parents to connect with their child in a positive way through seeing their child perform, as well as providing community performances that anyone can go to. We’ve done a ton of partnerships with the Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Opera and Minnesota Orchestra. We’ve built bikes with Cycles for Change and done a ton of things that involve the greater community. We introduce these kids to a lot of cool opportunities that I didn’t have as a kid.”

ComMUSICation 1The program is divided into two choral groups, Crescendo Choir and ComMUSICation Choir.  Between the two, they will be meeting five days a week next year.

“Both groups will meet together on the fifth day, drumming and doing activities together,” Zanussi said. She said new members will likely go into the Crescendo Choir, where they will learn about building a team as well as how to sit through a vigorous rehearsal of two and a half hours, five days a week.

Zanussi said a lot of kids come to the program thinking “I want to sing. I’m going to be a star.”

“They think it’s an American Idol trainee program,” she joked. “Instead we’re focused on the chorus ensemble.”

There are no auditions, and anyone can participate in ComMUSICation. Zanussi said 38 children from grades 3-6 have been served this past year and a half, with a current active group of 25. They represent five different schools: Ben Mays, Jackson, Maxfield and St. Paul City Schools’ primary and middle schools.

“Next year our five-day-a-week group will allow us to become a St. Paul Public School bus stop, and so it will be much more open to any kid in the neighborhood,” Zanussi said.

“We’re really excited about that, and this summer we’re also doing a two-week day camp with the Boys and Girls Club at Mt. Airy, with a theme of how animals evolve and grow. Mt. Airy draws kids from all over the city.”

Zanussi said funding for the program comes from many sources, with 60% in-kind. This includes such things as afterschool busing and a practice space provided by St. Paul City School. There are also government and corporate grants, free will donations at concerts and a $10 registration fee from students if they can afford it.

“Anyone can join,” Zanussi reiterated, “but currently 100% of our students are on free and reduced lunch. If a student from a more privileged background came, we would do a sliding scale type of thing.”

She said the students arrive for practice between 3:15-3:45pm, depending on the end time of their school.  “During that time they can do homework and teamwork activities,” she said. Recently, for example, the students wrote letters to students in Baltimore.

ComMUSICation 3“We have college interns who come in and help weekly, and they have been fantastic,” Zanussi added.

“We also do music literacy games, pen pal activities and get a snack,” she said. Students write back and forth to community members as part of a pen pal project, and each one has been exchanging letters with a member of the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Opera.

“They got to build individual relationships with pretty big organizations, and then they gave a concert for them, so they performed for someone in the audience that they knew,” Zanussi said.

She said that between 4- 5:45pm, the children practice choir and percussion, learn how to read music and learn the songs they will perform. They perform one to two concerts a month, as well as doing four big concerts a year.

Zanussi said the program has presented a couple of challenges. She said that for her, personally, not being from the neighborhood she is working in meant that it took time for her to gain credibility with the parents. The other challenge has been transportation.

“Transportation has been our biggest barrier so far,” she noted. “It’s worked out because St. Paul City School provided vans, but it’s difficult when we have performances outside of program time. That is a very important part of what we do, because it’s a risk-taking opportunity for the kids and a chance for their families to celebrate their achievement with them–but finding transportation for outside of programming has been very challenging.”

The most rewarding part of the program?

“Hearing them sing. In less than a little over a year, they sound great, doing three-part harmony and singing in five languages.”

“In the first year, we have seen up to 50% fewer behavior incidents at school, which is huge. Kids who used to say they had stage fright are now singing solos.”

“To quote the founder of El Sistema, ‘To create music is to create beauty.’ To see these kids create beauty together regardless of socio-economic background, race, different schools, different genders and different cultures, is really powerful.”