"I love singing and I love dancing and I play my viola.  It's my life."

Nine-year-old Princess sums up what the Sistema program means to her.

Princess is among 30 students taking part in the free after-school orchestra program at Elwick Community School in The Maples in north Winnipeg.

Donations needed

If you have a musical instrument in playable condition and you want to donate it to Sistema Winnipeg, it can be dropped off at two locations:

  • WSO box office at 555 Main St.
  • CBC Manitoba at 541 Portage Ave.

Donations will be accepted at CBC until Friday, April 26.

You'll be entered into a draw for a CBC backpack full of prizes, including a CBC shirt and water bottle, a pack of "Do You Know Your Winnipeg?" greeting cards and tickets to the performance of Beethoven 9 on May 10. 

All donations are tax deductible, subject to an instrument appraisal.

Sistema Winnipeg is based on the revolutionary El Sistema program, which started in Venezuela nearly 40 years ago.

Children learn how to play an instrument — something they may not have had the opportunity to do otherwise.

The program is offered by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO), the Winnipeg School Division and the Seven Oaks School Division.

Sistema is in its second year at Elwick School and in its first year at King Edward Community School in Winnipeg's inner-city.

Leo, who is in Grade Two at King Edward, is learning how to play everything from Beethoven to Star Wars on the violin.

"I choose violin because it spoke to my heart," he said.

Leo is among 30 kids at King Edward learning what it is like to be part of an orchestra.

But before they pick up real instruments, the children practice with "paper" instruments. These replicas, made of Styrofoam and papier-mâché, are the same size as real violins, violas and cellos.

Heidi Poetker, a Sistema teacher at King Edward, says these replicas are valuable teaching tools.

"The whole idea was not only just respect for the instrument in general, but also teaching them where to place their fingers to create the scale," Poetker said.

"I have noticed that it makes a huge difference."

Positive impacts

There are early signs the program is having a positive impact.

"Some of these kids have been playing for a just a few months and already they can create a beautiful phrase," said Barb Hamilton, a Sistema teacher at Elwick School.

Hamilton grew up in a poor neighborhood in California. Music lessons were out of reach for her family, but Hamilton was fortunate enough to attend a school that offered lessons for some students.

She described the opportunity she had as a significant experience.

"My self-esteem just was boosted like crazy because I was able to do something that not everybody could," she said.

"I also had people speaking encouraging words to me, which doesn't happen for every child, right?"

Hamilton said she believes the benefits of Sistema run much deeper than learning how to play an instrument.

"It creates the ability to be empathetic," she said.

"We hear stories of the composers and we realize, 'You know what? There are other people in the world who've had difficulty, and the way they responded was by creating beautiful things.'"

Parents, school officials notice difference

Some parents have also noticed the positive difference the program makes. Princess's mother, Jemma, says her daughter is growing.

"She's a responsible kid now,"  Jemma said.

King Edward School principal Aaron Benarroch said staff are noticing two big things in terms of student success.

The school has a high rate of mobility, meaning families often move to other areas of the city.

But Benarroch said all 30 of the children who started in Sistema this past fall are still in the program.

Benarroch said what they are seeing with attendance is also significant.

"From our Sistema students, there are no attendance issues. Zero,"  he said

How you can help

CBC Manitoba is helping with Sistema Winnipeg's Musical Instrument Donation Drive.

About 30 instruments, from violins to cellos to clarinets, have been collected so far.

Brenda Batzel of Winnipeg donated her clarinet, which she played when she was part of an all-girls dance band in Saskatchewan, called The Teenaires, back in the 1950s.

Batzel passed down the clarinet to her daughter, and then to a cousin's daughter, but no one has played it for about 10 years.

When she heard that Sistema was looking for instruments, she wanted to help.

"Music has meant a lot in my life,"  Batzel said.

"If anyone has an opportunity that wouldn't have had an opportunity to have music in their life, that's good enough for me."

If you have an instrument in playable condition, it can be dropped off at CBC at 541 Portage Avenue until Friday, April 26.

Donations can also be dropped off at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's box office at 555 Main Street.

All donations are tax deductible, subject to an instrument appraisal.