Thursday April 26, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- The scene at Morningside Community School on Wednesday evening was one that's been recreated countless times at elementary schools across the nation: a small group of young students nervously showing off their new musical chops in concert while parents proudly watch from the audience and raise their cameras to capture the moment.

But organizers believe the performance was more than just a concert. They see it as the beginning of a program that will provide the long-term means to help change the lives of the neediest youths in the area.

The brief concert was the first showcase of Berkshire Children & Families' Kids 4 Harmony program, which is giving free instruments and intensive training to 17 Morningside students between kindergarten and fifth grade and is working on singing lessons with 40 students at the nonprofit's West Street preschool.

The young violinists and cellists played several classics, including "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" -- an impressive showing considering nearly all the students hadn't picked up an instrument before Jan. 17 -- and they were later joined by the Cantilena Chamber Choir.

Kids 4 Harmony is based on the El Sistema program of music and social justice. Carolyn Burns, president and CEO of Berkshire Children & Families, said it has the long-term potential to help kids become better citizens and assets to their communities, while also nourishing talents in areas with limited opportunities.

"It has transformative potential for people's lives," said Burns.


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El Sistema was started in Venezuela in 1975 and has been hailed for its ability to produce talented musicians and instill the kind of self-esteem and dedication that can change life trajectories for those who go on to other careers. Similar programs have since popped up in the United States and throughout the world, but Kids 4 Harmony is believed to be the only one in the nation operated by a social service agency rather than an arts organization or youth orchestra.

Single mother Felicia Osoro's two daughters, Mackenzie, 6, and Michaela, 5, are in the program. Osoro said she couldn't have afforded to buy her kids instruments or pay for lessons, so she's grateful her daughters are part of this program.

"They love it," Osoro said. "I think it was an amazing opportunity."

The fledging program is garnering rave reviews so far, and organizers hope to eventually expand to other schools in the community. The program has even caught the eye of Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, who was on hand to watch Wednesday's performance.

"This is the kind of program that I think will change lives and that will change our community," said Bianchi.

To reach Trevor Jones:
tjones@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6214.
Follow him on Twitter: @BE_TrevorJones.