For a group of children in Yakima, Washington, life is changing one cello at a time.
Young children line up outside the music room at Garfield Elementary School under the only graffiti on campus. It says “La musica de la vida,” words that are true for these kids. They are members of YAMA, which stands for Yakima Music en Acción, or “Music in Action.”
The program aims to educate under-served children on classical music study and performance. Students in grades three through eight from nearby schools attend YAMA, and they rehearse at Garfield Elementary School.
In the music room, intermediate cello players work on a haunting Russian melody while the teacher encourages them to play, “Proud! Strong!” In the library, newly-minted musicians — the really little kids — make a rainbow shape with their bows and drop them onto violin strings for the first time. Down the hall in a classroom, the more advanced violin section is biting into the William Tell Overture. And it is biting back.
“Persistence!” program founder, Stephanie Hsu ['08], yells above the fray. “Nobody falls off this bus!”
Stephanie Hsu, a musician from New York City, relocated to Yakima to start YAMA. It is based on El Sistema, a program in Venezuela which has worked with thousands of children, including Gustavo Dudamel, who grew up to become the dashing young music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
YAMA utilizes many of the methods that make El Sistema so effective: all instruction and instruments are free. No child is turned away. Instruction is done in groups and many of the teachers are professional musicians. Performance is stressed from the beginning — kids are learning to play these instruments for the enjoyment of the community.
Stephanie Hsu '08 graduated from Swarthmore with high honors in sociology and anthropology and educational studies. Already an accomplished violinist and violist when she arrived at Swarthmore, Hsu enjoyed playing in the chamber music ensemble and also worked with the Chester Children’s Chorus, a program that offers music education to students at a nearby school district. Her inspiration and training prior to creating the YAMA program came from her time at the New England Conservatory's Sistema Fellows Program, launched by Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu's TED Prize Wish, and her subsequent travels in Venezuela. She performs with an eclectic Latin music ensemble La Cantina and in the viola section of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra.