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Four Pittsfield Students Go To California To Play In El Sistema's National Concert

Berkshire Children & Families, an adoption and family services agency, has sent four Pittsfield students to Los Angeles for the National Take a Stand Concert in an effort to create social change. 

The Berkshire Children & Families’ Kids 4 Harmony is an intensive, free, after-school classical music education program.

It sent four students to California for the National Take a Stand Concert – July 15-22. The week-long youth orchestra camp brings together students from all over the country, culminating in a performance in Los Angeles under the direction of conductor Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, and Music & Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“I mainly like to see the trees that we don’t really get to see in Pittsfield,” Geivens Dextra says.

Geivens Dextra is a middle schooler at Herberg Middle School in Pittsfield who plays violin.

“The music sounds really fun to play. When comes to shifting up to high notes, it’s really stressful,” Dextra says, “and I look forward to playing it in the concert.”

“Especially when you can’t get the notes,” Leila Paredes says.

Leila Paredes butts in.

“Sometimes you get frustrated, but try your best not to yell,” Paredes says.

Artistic director, Alicia Stevenson, says the group is based on El Sistema, a Venezuelan philosophy that seeks to create social change by strengthening family and community relationships through music.

“The top musicians in El Sistema programs from all over the country,” Stevenson says, “so they get to meet kids just like them.”

Donna Bernstein joined the group’s advisory board six years ago. Bernstein says El Sistema’s approach to music education emphasizes intensive ensemble participation, group learning, learning through performance, and peer teaching.

“Building a community, especially in Pittsfield after GE left, has proven to be 100 percent effective. With the community we have created – all the different families, different backgrounds, different heritages – that the kids have become a family, it’s just so touching,” Bernstein says.

Gerdlie Jean-Louis is excited for her sister, Gedrose, and her friend Hannah Beckington to go to Los Angeles.

“I think we are really close due to the fact we have grown up so much in front of each other and, yeah, we know each other’s weaknesses and at the same time strong points, too,” Jean-Louis says.

“Because we have all grown together so it seems we would be all proud of each other because we have seen our progression through the years,” Paredes says.

Stevenson says they see every day how much the program pays off – this trip will be no exception.

“Hard work, dedication, the grit and the practice day to day, meeting up with their friends on the weekends and practicing. And seeing the payoff: You know, understanding that you work hard, you put a lot into it, you get something out of it. You get to sound this good,” Stevenson says. “But also seeing and understanding what El Sistema is outside Pittsfield and outside the Berkshires and getting to connect with kids just like them.”

The full group will perform again with pianist Manny Ax at a gala performance at Berkshire Community College on July 31st.

“They’re playing the Schumann Piano Quintet,” Stevenson says.

Last year, they only played one movement with Ax, but this year they’ll perform all four.

They will also be performing at Tanglewood on August 6th. Bernstein says they’ll be performing the same day as cellist YoYo Ma.

“I am not sure if they realize exactly who he is,” Bernstein says.

Bernstein says the program has operated out of the Morningside Community School in Pittsfield since 2011, and is filled to capacity.

“It’s more than what the school can handle,” Bernstein says.

The kids are often found practicing four days a week after school in the hallway, cafeterias, or various classrooms. During the summer, they get ready for the concert season in a divided room: half gymnasium, half music room. The program is also held in North Adams, at Brayton Elementary School since 2015.

Times do get tough in the Morningside neighborhood – it has some of the highest rates of poverty and crime in the Berkshires, and a large immigrant population.

But officials say the kids find a way to stay strong. They’re looking forward to holding Ax to his word: he promised them the royal treatment if they were ready for their July performance.

“Do it for the limo!” the group yells.

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