“Elementary kids don’t see adulthood as a reality yet. So they can think big about what they’d like to accomplish. If we can give them the tools to set and reach small goals, climbing that ladder of success… if they can do that at a young age, they’re set,” says Rey Ramirez, program director of Soundscapes, a nonprofit, educational intervention organization for children.
The idea for Soundscapes came from Anne Henry, co-founder and executive director. Henry grew up in Hampton, but lived elsewhere for 30 years. Returning in 2003, she was shocked by changes in drug and gang crime since her childhood. A 60-Minutes feature about the El Sistema program in Venezuela and its success as a social intervention program intrigued her.
On a mission to start a similar program in Hampton Roads, Henry asked for help from the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, where Ramirez was director of education. Ramirez started the conversation with Newport News Public Schools, and Soundscapes found its home at Carver Elementary School. Although the program happens at Carver during the school year, it expands to three other elementary schools and one middle school for summer programs. Newport News Public Schools has been an active partner with Soundscapes from the beginning, offering facility space and free transportation to the after-school program.
Ramirez has been in Hampton Roads since 2005, moving to the area when his wife was stationed at Langley as a clarinetist with the Air Force band.
When Soundscapes was still an idea, Ramirez was heading to Baltimore to work on the education program for the Baltimore Symphony and saw an El Sistema program start there.
He says, “I was so inspired by it but my family was still here and I needed to come back home.” Fortunately, Henry was still searching for someone to run and design Soundscapes, and Ramirez filled that gap.
That was in May 2009, and by October 2009, the program was up and running with 40 first graders.
Soundscapes is the fourth oldest El Sistema-inspired program in the U.S. and the first in Virginia, one of the now more than 120 organizations in the U.S. that participate in a global movement, using music as a dynamic tool to reshape the lives of needy children. All of the program teachers are active musicians and models for the children.
Any first or second grader can apply and is selected through a random lottery. The program is structured around three levels, and children advance a level when they’ve reached musical and behavioral markers.
At the first level, children learn basic skills. At the second level, they choose an instrument and learn in groups. At the third level, they play together in ensembles and an orchestra, and there are divisions of music difficulty so that each child can play in the group without becoming discouraged.
Soundscapes, now in its ninth year, has several ninth graders who have participated since the beginning. To provide a middle and high school pathway for graduates of the elementary program, Henry and Ramirez formed a partnership with the Peninsula Youth Orchestra (PYO), which practices next door at Crittenden Middle School. Soundscapes provides the instruments and tuition for the older students to join the PYO. “Their job is to audition and get accepted,” Ramirez explains.
Participation in the PYO offers Soundscapes students the opportunity to engage with middle and high school musicians around the Peninsula. Many of them return, some of them daily, to act as junior instructors and mentors to the elementary students.
There is one family of four siblings who have all come through Soundscapes, with twins in the elementary program and an older brother and sister in the PYO who return to Carver every day just to continue being part of the younger orchestra.
Soundscapes emphasizes public performance. There are three major concerts each year, and 12 to 20 of their orchestra students travel multiple times a year to play for 20 minutes prior to a Virginia Symphony performance.
Over the years, Soundscapes has developed a close relationship with Christopher Newport University (CNU). Music students visit for practice teaching experience, and several classes of business students have used the program as a study model. Members of CNU Greek music societies perform an annual talent show, donating all proceeds to Soundscapes.
Soundscapes’ free instruction and free instruments provide access to serious music instruction at an early age to students whose families could otherwise not afford it. Music education has been greatly reduced in many elementary school curriculums, but the team effort, with the support of Newport News Public Schools, has made it possible for more than 1200 students (to date) in Newport News to develop the musical and social skills to excel at the Soundscapes curriculum.
In 2016, Henry received a Humanitarian Award sponsored by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. It’s a prestigious honor given to those who better the community with inclusivity, as Henry has done with the Soundscapes program.
Ramirez says, “It’s so important to find staff who are passionate about what they do, and if they are, they will transfer that knowledge in a passionate way and hopefully get the students excited.”
TO THE POINT
Address: 11009 Warwick Blvd., Ste. 215, Newport News, VA 23602
Contacts: Rey Ramirez, program director
Anne Henry, executive director
Business: Nonprofit education