PITTSFIELD — The first time they picked up violins, Gerdlie Jean Louis and Leila Paredes were in third and first grades, respectively.
They didn't know each another, though both attended Morningside Community School.
Though the same age as Jean Louis, Paredes was in the earlier grade because she was struggling to speak English and learn how to read it. Paredes' family grew up speaking Spanish. Her mother was a professional tango dancer from Argentina and her father's family is from Nicaragua. Paredes, though soft-spoken as a child, was eager to learn new things and encouraged to do so by her mother.
In contrast, Jean Louis was rambunctious and "very outspoken" as a child, she said. Her family moved to the Morningside neighborhood from Haiti with her extended family, including twin sister Gerdrose, brother Benjamin and a cousin, Geivens Dextra.
But together, they learned to read music and play violin through a free, after-school music education program called "Kids 4 Harmony," established in 2011 through Berkshire Children and Families.
The comprehensive program, inspired by Venezuela's "El Sistema" initiative, is designed to give kids, teens and their families access to opportunities and resources they might not have otherwise, from instruments and instruction to transportation and meals. Kids 4 Harmony began in Pittsfield and has expanded to engage children and families in North Adams based on fundraising and grants. Artistic Director Alicia Stevenson said there are about 44 students in the Pittsfield ensembles and 17 based at Brayton Elementary School in North Adams, with a new group of 14 third-graders slated to begin their study of a stringed orchestra instrument — either violin, viola or cello — in the fall.
Can't stop, won't stop
Today, Gerdlie Jean Louis and Leila Paredes are inseparable. Paredes caught up academically in school and the young women, now 15, play in the Pittsfield High School orchestra together, are earning top marks and take Advanced Placement courses.
Both students said other aspects of their lives, from academics to social interactions, have directly or indirectly benefited from their experience with Kids 4 Harmony.
"I love the feeling of openness and welcoming of the program," Paredes said. "I feel like I have a family here. I sort of need it and I want to continue it."
The two young violinists now play in the Elayne P. Bernstein Octet, the most advanced ensemble for Kids 4 Harmony, and are among the seven students from the Pittsfield group who, after performing at the Berkshire Children and Families Summer Gala Concert on Monday at 6 p.m., will be leaving the Berkshires around 3 a.m. Tuesday to fly across the country. This selected group, which includes Ginamarie Bocchino, Heather Cruz, Geivens Dextra, Gerdrose Jean Louis and Ethan Maisonneuve, will rehearse and perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic through the Yola National Festival for the next two weeks, another opportunity offered to students without fees.
"Every student has their own amazing story of how they've grown as individuals through this program," Stevenson said. "And their parents are so supportive. Our families are amazing."
But it only works because behind the scenes the students, teachers, families and supporters are committed to doing the work necessary to keep Kids 4 Harmony going strong.
Last Wednesday afternoon, the temperature crept towards 84 degrees and humidity hung in the air. Inside Morningside Community School, as cafeteria staff prepared meals for the city's free lunch program, 17 students, three instructors and two Berkshire Children and Families staff members clustered to rehearse in a teacher's lounge.
"I will be very picky about the first two to three measures," said Jorge Soto with an air of caution and good humor as he conducted the rehearsal. "In the beginning, people in the audience will be awake, at least most of them, so everything will have to be there. OK? Again."
Despite the room's stagnant air, the students stifled yawns and forced themselves to sit up straight, maneuvering instruments with poise as they practiced a dynamic Mozart arrangement designed for piano, violin and orchestra in D major.
Soto, a master teaching artist and El Sistema alumnus, has been with these students for five years. He was supported this week in rehearsals by teaching artist Courtney Clark, who has been with the Kids 4 Harmony ensembles going on eight years, and cello teaching artist Ignacy Gaydamovich, who is wrapping up his first year with the program.
Gaydamovich practiced alongside Bocchino, who, at age 12, is one of the advanced ensemble's youngest members. Throughout rehearsal, he would lean over and offer tips and jot a reference note on her sheet music to remind Bocchino to play a certain dynamic or inflection. Bocchino has been performing with Kids 4 Harmony for four years, and has come a long way from practicing notes on a woodwind recorder to developing her cello work, Stevenson noted.
"They have developed the technical skills and are now getting to the level of playing with style," Gaydamovich said.
Bocchino says she sticks with the ensemble, even through the summer months. "It's fun. It's something to do with friends and stuff, and it's a challenge."
"It's easier though because most of us have been playing together for years," said Maisonneuve. The 13-year-old has played viola going on six years, but this week will be the first time he'll board an airplane.
"I love going on planes," said fellow viola player, Jonathan Malloy, 15. He's starting his seventh year with his instrument and made the Yola National Festival trip last year.
Malloy said the festival is a good opportunity to meet people from around the country and set new benchmarks in music study, since rehearsals can last up to six hours a day. But the final performance, which takes place in the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall complex, is all worth it, he said.
Stevenson believes the program's depth helps students pursue excellence. But for many of its participants, it's just having dedicated time, space and support to figure out how to be excellent and to become more confident in a supportive environment that matters most.
Now that she's at a more advanced playing level, Heather Cruz, a 14-year-old cellist, says she can feel the pressure of concerts and more high-stakes auditions, whether for state festivals or for her Boston University Tanglewood Institute audition this spring.
"I basically had my first panic attack. It's so hard [to stop] thinking 'I'm not good enough' or that I'm still not proud enough of where I am," she said.
But in retrospect, she said she's grown from the experience.
"Now, five minutes before, I can try breathing and I tell myself I've got to go for it. These people came here for a reason and I've got to play," Cruz said.
While her twin sister embraced Kids 4 Harmony from the get-go, Gerdrose Jean Louis, now a 15-year-old cellist, said she wanted to quit at first. "But then it changed my perspective. I can't really remember the moment when it happened, but now I'm here because I like it, actually."
For 17-year-old Johan Serrano, the program has propelled him towards new goals. This spring, he became the first Kids 4 Harmony high school graduate when he earned his diploma from Pittsfield High School. A Kids 4 Harmony Facebook post that compiled photos of him over the years shows how he literally reached new heights. This fall, he'll begin studying music production at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
Serrano says the program inspires creativity.
"The school systems show you only one way of doing things, but this system shows us many ways of doing things. It's a different way of teaching that taps into a student's creativity," he said.
Students like Serrano, Paredes and the Jean Louis sisters are now helping younger kids starting out. They're also helping each other through group text chats, and regularly calling each other to practice or just to talk through an issue they're confronting.
Not all of those issues are negative. Gerdlie, for example, is trying to soak in the fact that she has her first passport. She's one of the 17 students in the country selected to take part in the inaugural YOLA National Institute. After the festival in L.A., she will join the L.A. Philharmonic for an intense round of rehearsal and performance in Scotland. Upon returning, she'll be paired with a mentor from the L.A. Philharmonic for the next school year.
She says she's grateful that Kids 4 Harmony has, "Put me in a place where I can interact with people who care about music as much as I do."
The students aren't the only ones who are growing, either. Paredes says she's seeing changes in her mother.
"Now that I'm doing music, she feels whole and happy again. She's starting dancing again," Paredes said.
Gerdlie said her mother is going back to school.
Both young women said they are aware that not many audiences and classical music venues in the United States represent the diversity that their Kids 4 Harmony group does. That's why, Gerdlie said, "Everything you do here matters."
"We don't have that much, because of history, because of fear and whatever. We need something to grasp that will help support us," Paredes said.
Despite having the opportunity to perform intricate symphonic music throughout the Berkshires, the United States and soon, across the pond, Gerdlie said, "I don't even own a violin."
Kids 4 Harmony loans her and all the other students instruments.
"I don't want kids to feel that just because they don't have the resources they can't do something like this," Gerdlie continued. "I used to think that. But anyone can do it, no matter where you come from."