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Salt Lake school is changing lives through music

SALT LAKE CITY — The row of brick storefronts on Salt Lake City’s 2nd South appear ordinary, hardly worth mention or notice, but on Saturday mornings, one of them doesn’t sound ordinary. Strains of classical music played by a string orchestra — a good one— waft into the street.

Inside, Shenae Anderson is playing a violin passage. It's lovely, but loveliness isn't enough for the conductor of the Gifted Music School Orchestra.

“Play this like you have a rose between your teeth,” says Eugene Watanebe, the co-founder and director of the school. “For this moment, you are Carmen.”

And with that reference to the opera world's fiery Gypsy woman, the 14-year-old violinist reaches deeper. As she does, the young cellists of the orchestra take their turn, digging their bows into a musical entrance with newfound gusto: “Dig-a-dig-a-DUM.”

“Bite into that entrance,” Watanabe coaxes. “Make the glissando rhythmic.”

Close your eyes, and this could be a seasoned adult chamber orchestra. Open them, and see children and teenagers completely focused on their joint pursuit, their faces fiercely intent as they prepare for a Spring Gala concert this Saturday.

This is no ordinary youth orchestra. These kids — ages 8 to 18 — have performed on the national public radio program "From the Top," which features the best up-and-coming young players in the nation. Orchestras that play this well typically aren't found outside the youth conservatories of legendary music schools like New York’s Juilliard School or Philadelphia's Curtis Institute.

It’s the high-profile showpiece of a music education program whose aspirations go beyond producing a world-class orchestra. The real gems of the Gifted Music School are the classes offered free to any child who qualifies for subsidized school lunch, Watanabe said.

A belief that intensive music training can combat the effects of poverty, help all students succeed in school and improve life trajectories for disadvantaged children is at the core of Watanabe's philosophy. It's an idea that's catching on around the world, with similar efforts under way in neighborhoods plagued by drugs and violence in cities like Juarez, Mexico, and the slums of Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Multiple studies have shown that music instruction increases math performance and spatial reasoning and strengthens social skills and work ethic, but Watanabe believes the U.S. is missing out on those benefits by decreasing music programs in public schools.

Changed lives

In Venezuela, a government-backed program called El Sistema was founded in 1975 to bring music training to the bleak slums of Caracas, with the goal of rescuing children from a culture of drugs and gangs. Children receive free instruction and instruments and grow up performing together in orchestras. More than 300,000 of Venezuela's poorest children now participate.

Observers from around the globe write exultantly of changed lives for El Sistema’s alumni. Students of the program learn to aim beyond their surroundings and gain the persistence to pull themselves out of poverty. Many become teachers for the next generation of El Sistema students; others apply the work ethic they learn from music study in other careers. Some, like Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel, become world-famous musicians.

El Sistema's program, which Watanabe admires, has spread to parts of Europe, Mexico and such U.S. cities as Denver, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Its success has sparked similar efforts in other nations. Brazil's government just began an intensive classical music program in its urban slums, aimed at providing positive alternatives to lives filled with poverty and crime. In China, classical music instruction for children is part of an effort to out-excel the West, Watanabe said.

"In this country, we talk about 'No Child Left Behind,' but we make the cultural arts just an option," Watanabe said. "My goal through the school is to bring about change one step at a time at the federal level."

Training people for music careers isn't the school's goal, he said. Adding humanity to the world and giving children the tools to succeed in all of their pursuits is the focus.

"As teachers of music, we have great influence on how children see the world," Watanabe said. "These aesthetic values carry over to so many other parts of life. We need to make the world more beautiful, to become empathetic. I see kids left out of that — we want them to join in."

Gifted Music School

The 28 students in the GMS Orchestra come from a variety of economic backgrounds and win their coveted places through artistic merit, as determined by audition, as did five young pianists in the school’s scholarship division. Thanks to money raised through grants and donations, they pay no tuition, ensuring that any child of sufficient talent can participate. The annual cost of a similar program at Juilliard School's youth conservatory would be about $9,000 per student (including private lessons, which the GMS scholarship does not cover).

The school’s preparatory division currently serves about 100 students, offering beginning music classes, private lessons and a choir, no audition required. GMS also raises funds for this part of its program to help low-income students with tuition costs. Fifty percent of the students enrolled receive full or partial tuition waivers. Some GMS programs, like a music day-camp coming up in July, are free for students who qualify for school lunch subsidies.

"Music is a fundamental, indispensable part of a well-rounded education for every child," Watanabe said. "Our goal is to provide that resource and set a standard for what quality music education is."

It's a bold statement, made by a polite, shy man whose humble manner defies the concert artist’s flighty stereotype. Watanabe is not to be underestimated, however. The Salt Lake City native, 42, showed prodigious talents for piano and violin at an early age, soloing with the Utah Symphony for the first time at age 9. He won his way into the most selective U.S. music conservatory — Philadelphia's Curtis Institute — on full scholarship at age 17, where he became the first person to graduate with degrees in both piano and violin performance. A prize-winner in several important music competitions, Watanabe chose to embrace his first love — teaching — instead of chasing a concert career.

High-profile support

World-famous pianist Leon Fleisher, 84, is Watanabe's former teacher and one of his many admirers in the upper echelons of the classical music world. He knows well his student's musical talents, but was surprised by other gifts he discovered when he came to Salt Lake City as a GMS guest conductor and performer last year.

"Eugene was always a very serious young man, and terribly accomplished not just as a pianist, but as a violinist," Fleisher said. "One could forecast all kinds of wonderful things, but not this kind of almost-Messianic leadership. He's taken on an extraordinary task and is fulfilling it in all kinds of wondrous ways. He devotes a kind of energy that is amazing."

Fleisher said he was impressed by the enthusiasm, energy and discipline displayed by the orchestra's members.

"It's very unusual to find anything in our lives today that enables young people to concentrate on one specific idea or state of feeling for any prolonged period of time," Fleisher said. "That is certainly something that is required in music. It is a quality that seemed to be very, very present with those young children of Eugene's."

The level of the Gifted Music School Orchestra ranks with the top youth orchestras in the United States, said Utah Symphony associate conductor Vladimir Kulenovic, a former conductor of the GMS orchestra who continues to work with the group. Kulenovic's close ties with music schools and orchestras in Europe and the Eastern U.S. give him a vantage point for the comparison.

"There are several institutions that have similar programs, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand," he said. "I have worked with the music directors of the New York Philharmonic, (Germany's) Gewandhaus Orchestra, the orchestras in London. I tell you that Eugene, as a teacher, can rival what any of these people can do with what he can give musically to a student. He chose to devote himself to a life of teaching, and he's the best at it I've seen anywhere."

What Watanabe needs and deserves, Kulenovic said, is the support needed to expose more children to the high-quality music instruction his school provides. The school receives support from several foundations and businesses and the Salt Lake City Arts Council. Watanabe's dream of improving educational outcomes for all children through music will require more.

"His idea is complete," Kulenovic said. "He needs the means to make it happen. I hope he finds the support to do everything he can."


At the orchestra rehearsal, the music continues. When Watanabe steps away, the young players’ bows continue their intricate collaboration with no loss of confidence, the musical texture unmarred.

“They are trained to be independent musicians and to play like a chamber orchestra,” Watanabe said.

After the rehearsal ends, violinist McCall Andersen, 12, talks about the challenges of coming from her Brigham City home each Saturday to spend most of the day at Gifted Music School, and devoting long hours to practicing on other days. She’s clear about why she does it.

“I’m with all my best friends, doing what I love to do,” Andersen said. She sees other benefits, too, like increased aptitude for her schoolwork.

“I have realized that this helps me focus a lot more, to get things done fast and not be distracted,” she said. “You can’t be distracted when you are practicing — it gets you nowhere.”

Like the other players in the GMS Orchestra, Andersen is a top student at school. It's no coincidence, Watanabe said.

"These students learn early how to focus, apply left- and right-brain learning and coordinate creativity and logical thinking all in one package," he said. "All the research in music points toward a profound impact on students' well-being, and the ability to be successful on a long-term basis."