Inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema music education program, Kids 4 Harmony is an ensemble-based music program for social justice change.  

This free, intensive classical music program currently serves over 60 elementary to high school aged students in Pittsfield and North Adams.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Courtney Clark, Artistic Director and Sean Elligers, Assistant Director, to hear more about the impact this remarkable program has had on its students. 

This story originally aired on February 10, 2022.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema Music Education Program, Kids 4 Harmony is an ensemble-based music program for social justice change. This free, intensive, classical music program currently serves over 60 elementary to high school age students in Pittsfield in North Adams.

I spoke with Courtney Clark, artistic director, and Sean Ellligers, assistant director, to hear more about the impact this remarkable program has had on its students.

Courtney Clark, Kids 4 Harmony: So typically with social services, people come in when there’s already a problem or an issue in their lives. And with Kids 4 Harmony, we’re establishing those relationships with the students and the families early on.

So then later on down the road, if something does happen, they already have a support system that they’re connected to, which makes it a lot easier on families. It’s not as intimidating for them to access different services within our agency. And it makes it unique to our El Sistema-inspired program that we’re in the social service agency. A lot of other organizations don’t have that.

And what’s also unique about us is that we have two family liaisons in our program. And those family liaisons, their focus is on connecting our families to different community resources, and they also have skill groups with the students during the program to work on mindfulness and resilience and interpersonal relationships. So, we’re able to focus on the whole — the whole child.

Sean Elligers, Kids 4 Harmony: The access to the family liaisons was particularly helpful during the pandemic. While student families were working through unemployment or access to food, the family liaisons — in connection with 18 degrees — really provided a nice wraparound service to give them any information they needed moving forward with that.

Zydalis Bauer: And right now, the program currently serves over 60 students in Pittsfield and North Adams in the Berkshires.

How have you both witnessed this art form impact the children, and how have you also witnessed this art form and music impact social change?

Sean Elligers: I think every day I witness something really nice happening with our students. I think one of our goals in general is to just give the students an outlet to feel good about themselves. And we try to do that through a bunch of different things, whether it’s performance or we actually offer composition to our students as well.

So whether a student is practicing really hard and getting into an audition that they worked really hard to get into and makes them feel good about that way, or — or just achieving, they play a couple of measures of music really well, and they feel good about themselves that way. Or they compose a piece of music and their students, their peers are telling them, “That was a great piece” Really, really great!” And that just makes them feel good. And you can tell they’re — that motivates them to keep going.

I don’t know. That’s that’s the change that I see every day, and it’s really, really it’s really rewarding.

Zydalis Bauer: I can imagine the confidence boost that being part of this program gives the students.

Courtney Clark: I’ve also seen a change in the families as well because, you know, they get to see their kids perform, and it just gives them hope and it lets them celebrate their kids.

The goal of our social service agency and Kids 4 Harmony is to provide as much access as we can to the program, so we meet in the public schools, so we eliminate the transportation need. Everything is at no cost. So a family doesn’t pay a penny for anything. The instrument rentals are covered, the lessons are covered and everything, so that access to the program is a really big part of the social change.

Zydalis Bauer: And having worked in Kids 4 Harmony, what has a moment been that has happened that has really made you think to yourself like, “Wow, this is exactly why I do what I do.”

Courtney Clark: We have a lot of students, when they get a little bit older, they audition for summer music festivals. And one of those is the Yola National Festival out in Los Angeles. And if they’re able to get into this festival, then it’s an all expenses paid flight out there, all the room and board and everything.

And they practice music intensively all day. And they get to connect with other kids from other El Sistema-inspired programs and other teachers. And there’s — a lot of the teachers also go out for a music educator symposium, and so we get to see all of our students get together and perform together and — and the kids are just so excited by that — that opportunity.

And you know, those big opportunities like that are what make the everyday little things worth it.

Sean Elligers: I run the composition program, so I’m really close with the kids as they work on constructing their own pieces. And recently one of our students, Davis, was asked to write a full symphony, which he he which he did.

And we printed out the score to give to him — he had to make some edits — and just handing him the printed out score, he was like running around, celebrating like, “It’s here. It’s ready!” And you know, he’s just — he’s just over the moon and he’s so, so excited.

And that’s just, I don’t know. It’s just so exciting to see.

Zydalis Bauer: Talking about writing a full symphony like this is some high-level musical excellence and success that the children achieved during Kids 4 Harmony. I know Courtney, you were talking about the Los Angeles trip.

Tell me more about some of the amazing opportunities that have come about for the students that have been part of this program.

Courtney Clark: We have a lot of opportunities that range from smaller things in the community to bigger things, like the trip to Los Angeles. We perform for a lot of different community events so the kids can get connected to the community that way.

There’s also, through that Yola National Festival I was talking about, they have a more intensive program where we had a student able to travel to Scotland and London before the pandemic happened, to connect with other musicians more on a global scale.

And we’ve also been very lucky to perform with world-renowned pianist Emanuel Ax at our gala concert for the past several years. And being able to watch the students work with him is also another really fantastic opportunity for the kids.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, as artistic director and assistant director, what are some of the things that the kids have taught you about yourselves during Kids 4 Harmony?

Courtney Clark: Patience, for sure. And just creativity. And it’s…as the kids get older, it’s just developing that relationship with them is really, really nice. And just being able to talk with them, not just about music, but about other things in their lives, too.

And just building that relationship and feeling like you’re a mentor to them is really nice. It really makes the work very valuable.

Sean Elligers: On a very practical level. I’m actually not a string player, I’m a trumpet player. So, when I’m not teaching composition, the students teach me very much how to play cello or violin when I’m working with them. And that’s always really nice for them to teach me.

But also, you know, I think they’ve just…further — I’ve always — I’ve always just, you know, come to the program being very curious as to what they’re working on and also like what other interests they have like, Courtney said. Just getting to talk to them about what their what their other interests are. And, you know, teach me what’s going on on the internet, and that’s always fun.

Zydalis Bauer: Courtney, you were talking about working with them, being younger and then as they grow into grow up in the program.

What ages does Kids 4 harmony serve and how long are they within the program?

Courtney Clark: We start kids out in about third grade usually, and there are students all the way through the end of high school. And we even have some college students that, you know, occasionally come back and visit. So, it’s a pretty wide age range of kids.

And as they go through the program, we have a lot of mentoring opportunities. So the older kids get to help the younger ones. So, we’re kind of, over the years been able to build this larger community, which has led us to be able to have our older students become employees.

So, they’re teaching artists. So, we currently have two high school students with us that are that are string teachers as well.

Zydalis Bauer: What do you both hope for the future of Kids 4 Harmony? How would you love to see this program grow?

Courtney Clark: I would like to see us be able to serve more kids and families than we currently are. I would like to be able to see us…take advantage of even more opportunities than we are both at, like, the state, country, global level.

Sean Elligers: I think also, you know, in terms of collaborations with other community partners in the Berkshire area and also within Massachusetts, we already have a great establishment with partnerships in Boston with the Laundry School of Music and Williamstown Theater Festival. But I would love to see that grow and just connect with more and more communities in our area.