Soundscapes, a nonprofit that mostly helps disadvantaged kids at Carver Elementary School in Newport News, was modeled after El Sistema, a free, statewide program in Venezuela which uses musical instruction to promote social change.
“We are using music as a vehicle to build valuable life skills,” said Reynaldo Ramirez, co-founder and program director for Soundscapes.
Anne Henry, also a co-founder of Soundscapes, said learning to play musical instruments helps students develop life skills such as self-discipline.
The nonprofit provides music instruction and instruments to its students for free and is primarily funded through donations from individuals and local businesses as well as grants from the Newport News Art Commission and the Virginia Arts Commission.
Soundscapes has been operating at Carver Elementary School, a Title I school, since the organization’s founding in 2009 and only students attending the elementary can participate.
However, children who do not attend the elementary school can sign up for the Summer Program for Arts, Recreation and Knowledge or SPARK, a summer activities program run by the city’s public schools and take music classes taught by staff members at Soundscapes.
“Most kids who start have no experience,” said Carol Minter, development director for Soundscapes. “Once you’re a Soundscape student as an elementary student, we continue to support those kids through high school.”
The program is split into multiple levels, the first teaches students how to read music, understand pitch and acuity, the second teaches students how to play an instrument and the third and fourth levels show students how to play in a large ensemble.
“Children are selected via lottery system, so they apply and then we fill in open slots,” Ramirez said.
The staff is comprised of professional musicians from different musical and ethnic backgrounds and have been trained to work with students as well as behavioral specialists who work with the children’s school counselors.
The students are evaluated three times a year in nine different categories related to music skills and social behavior from sound production and aural skills to how the students care for their instrument and relate to the audience.
Older students get the opportunity to perform at public venues at least three to four times a year, Henry added.
This past summer, three Soundscapes students participated in various summer programs across the country.
Jordan Hill and Christine Park, both in 8th grade, were accepted to play at the YOLA, a national festival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Another student, Liam Barnstead, who is in 6th grade, performed at the Interlocken Center for the Arts in Michigan.
The nonprofit plans to open a new site in January 2020 at Greenwood Elementary School, also a Title I school, where about 90 percent of the student population are considered disadvantaged. Minter said the school will have the same curriculum as Carver but the music selection will be jazz instead of a typical orchestra.
“We see our youth orchestra as a small model society where kids learn to work together,” Minter added.
Soundscapes is celebrating their 10th anniversary with a fundraising gala at the Newport News Marriott at City Center on Sept. 28. Tickets are $150 per person and Victor Wooten, Grammy winner and Denbigh High school graduate, is performing with the students.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit Soundscapes website.