Six primary grade students take their places on the risers in the music room of Vincent Massey Community School in Saskatoon.

Some of them are children who need a little extra help, who've perhaps had some problems in and out of the classroom.

But today, they're riveted. With their eyes on the adult trio seated before them, they listen attentively to a short classical piece.

Soon the children are clapping in time to the music. A little later, they're learning how to hold string instruments with cracker-box violins and mattress-foam cellos, practising proper motions with thin wood dowel bows.

After that, they're hammering out rhythms on ten-gallon plastic drums.  

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Two youngsters are learning rudimentary bow technique using wooden dowels. (Kathy Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Adan Whitehead dons a black tuxedo jacket with tails, grasps a dowel baton and takes his place as the day's conductor. The Grade 2 student is wearing a big grin as he waves the stick.

Later, he talks to a CBC reporter about a classroom exercise where the other children are clapping and the tempo picks up as a hidden stick is located.

"When they get closer to a stick, they go faster and if they get farther, they go slower," Adan says.

Musicians involved in Sistema Saskatoon

Jim Legge, principal viola, Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra

Scott McKnight, cello, Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra

Stephanie Unverricht, principal bassoon, Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra

Sara Spigott, oboe, music and band specialist, Vincent Massey & Caroline Robins Community Schools

Transforming lives the goal

These are the beginning steps in the launch of a bold new undertaking in Saskatoon. 

It may look like an effort to train the next generation of symphony players, but teacher Sara Spigott and her three symphony colleagues have another aim — to transform the lives of the children and their communities across the city .

"Our goal I think is to reach out to as many of the schools as possible," Spigott said. 

"I mean right now Vincent Massey is the centre because I teach here," she said. "But I also teach at another community school, Caroline Robins, and we could see kids being bused here, you know reaching out to a lot of the kids in the area.  And trying to reach as many kids as possible to have this program."

The program is called El Sistema and is now an international movement. 

It was first launched in Venezuela nearly four decades ago as a free daily after school activity.  Since then, it has spread across the United States and into the U.K., Portugal and Canada.  There are now programs in Moncton, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Ottawa.

Kindness and co-operation

The idea behind the original El Sistema is that children make music together — literally "in concert" — and by doing so, they learn kindness and co-operation,  values that will help them overcome poverty and other setbacks. 

Ultimately, it's about preventing the offshoots of deprivation — crime, violence and drug abuse.

But it's also about planting the seed for what could be a lifelong love of music. The Saskatoon organizers note that some students have gone on to brilliant careers. 

"[In Venezeula] some of the musicians that have come out of that program are now some of the greatest classical musicians out there,"  violist Jim Legge said. "Gustavo Dudamel  of the Los Angeles Philharmonic-conductor came out of that program ... and there's people in the Berlin Philharmonic."

Keeping kids focussed

Legge went to a summer conference in Moncton to see how El Sistema is working there. 

"They really sought out the children who needed it the most, kids with the most attention-deficit issues and things like that," he said.  "And to see these kids now, to see these kids like a few years later ... and they're so disciplined.  We saw an orchestra of about 90 players, all of them between Grade 2 and 5 and they sounded incredible and they clearly loved it."

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Symphony musician Stephanie Unverricht leads students at Vincent Massey Community School. (Kathy Fitzpatrick/CBC)

So far Spigott and her Sistema friends are conducting the El Sistema lessons in two Wednesday afternoon classes at Vincent Massey, because that's when they could fit it into their schedules.  

One is a regular Grade 2 and 3 class, while the other is this smaller group that needs extra help on social skills and self-image.

Spigott says in just six weeks "already their rhythm has enhanced their attention."

Principal Ian Wilson says the children know they're taking part in something special and their excitement about that makes them more engaged in school in general.

For musicians, a satisifying experience

The payoff for the symphony players is the satisfaction.  Bassoonist Stephanie Unverricht says it's been "fun to get these kids working with each other 'cause really that's the funnest part about music."

Legge and the others know there is a long way to go to match the size and scale of the program in many other cities. To this point there are no government grants for Sistema Saskatoon — unlike well-established programs elsewhere. So they are starting small.

"It's been all non-instrumental because we don't have the money right now for instruments," Legge said.

Up next: real instruments

With luck, and community support, they won't be working with pretend instruments for long. Their next goal is to acquire about 40 real ones — mostly violins and a few cellos.

They recently performed at the Woods Ale House to start raising money and the public exposure from that night alone netted them several donations. 

El Sistema's grip on Legge is undeniable.

"I think it's really the most exciting thing I can think of in the classical world right now, " Legge said.

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Teacher and musician Sara Spigott oversees students on their cracker-box violins. Someday soon, she hopes, the El Sistema program will have real instruments for their children to try. (Kathy Fitzpatrick/CBC)