You may have heard of the musical and social program in Venezuela called El Sistema — it’s been featured on 60 Minutes, and the passionate conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, came out of it.

It’s also being looked at here in San Diego as an inspiration for after-school string programs for poor students whose schools don’t have music programs.

A program at Lauderbach and Otay elementary schools in Chula Vista aims to teach kids in grade three to play stringed instruments. The program, which launched in October, is run by the San Diego Youth Symphony. It costs that organization about $50,000 per school per year to run, spokeswoman Molly Clark said. That includes the kid-sized violins, violas, cellos and basses the students learn on.

I walked into the rehearsal at Lauderbach on Wednesday afternoon just in time to watch instructor Lydia Cooley lead the room full of third-graders in a run-through of “Hot Cross Buns.” She accompanied the somewhat cacophonous effort on the piano.

A few notes in, she stopped.

“Is it possible that some of us are playing the melody to ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ instead?” she asked.

A few pairs of 8-year-old eyes flashed in alarm to the music stands in front of them.

“Let’s try again,” she said, patiently.

During the rest of the lesson, she taught them to quiver their bows on the string in a technique called tremolo. She led them through a variation on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

And at the end of the lesson, all of the adults in the room, including me, traded seats with one of the kids so they could teach what they’d learned that day.

Eight-year-old Alejandra Escalera taught me to play a line from the sheet music on the stand, and to play the 12-Bar Blues, one of the kids’ favorites for its bluesy ending. They play that tremolo technique they just learned on a low string.

Escalera earnestly showed me where to put my hands, how to place my bow. As soon as we finished, I had to tell her the truth: I already know how to play the violin.

She was immediately full of questions. What songs do you know? Why are you writing all of the things I say down in your notebook? If you’re a reporter, does that mean you don’t play the violin anymore?

I reassured her you can still play the violin even when you’re an adult and you have a different job.

Our friends at NBC San Diego joined me at the rehearsal; here’s our clip from Friday’s newscast:

View more videos at:

I also asked 8-year-old Diego Garcia a few questions about his choice to play the viola, which in miniature looks much like a violin, a mistake I was embarrassed I made.

KB: How long do you think you’ll be playing viola?

DG: A long time.

Like ’til you’re how old?



Yeah, that’ll be a long time.

Yeah, no kidding. Why do you stay after school for this?

Because we need to practice our songs, to know our melodies to get better. So that when we’re at concerts, we don’t feel embarrassed or something.

Why is music something you want to have in your life?

Because it makes everything sound better. Sometimes when I listen to music when I do other things, it makes me feel … more attitude. Like proudness.

I’m the arts editor for VOSD. You can contact me directly at or 619.325.0531 and follow me on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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