ASO Sympatico is a music education program underwritten by the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and provided in partnership with the Alexandria City Public Schools. The inspiration for Sympatico was born out of the ASO’s commitment to education, the youth of Alexandria, and social change. In 2012, ASO staff and trustees began thinking about the best way to give back to the community while contributing to the city’s deep appreciation of the arts. After learning about numerous models for music education programs in public schools, the ASO concluded that establishing an El Sistema-inspired program would best accomplish its mission.
El Sistema originated more than 40 years ago as a music education initiative in Venezuela, in which students receive high-quality music instruction at no cost to them, with the goal of social change. Today, there are El Sistema programs in 55 countries, and more than 100 El Sistema programs active in the U.S. Each of the programs, including Sympatico, are guided by similar core principles: equitable access to students regardless of income; intense and high-quality music instruction; the use of an ensemble as the main learning environment; community and family engagement; and of course, social change.
In 2013, the ASO tested the concept of El Sistema in Alexandria City Public Schools with two week-long music composition workshops at John Adams Elementary School (JAES) that engaged students, teachers, and parents. These workshops brought guest musicians from around the world to the students at JAES and culminated in students composing new music for bucket band, strings and Orff instruments. The composition produced during the second workshop was premiered on stage with the ASO in a Spring 2014 concert. Those initial composition workshops helped to officially launch Sympatico and have now become a staple and highlight of Sympatico’s yearly curriculum.
Since Sympatico’s official launch in 2014, the program has grown to include six unique ensembles at John Adams (The Percussion Experience, XyloKids, The Mallet Machine, Cantamos, The Fiddle Factory and Horns a Plenty) with more than 130 students in grades K-5. In September 2019, the program expanded into Patrick Henry K-8 offering two ensembles: a chorus/Orff group and a strings/winds/percussion ensemble.
Rehearsals are every school day, Monday through Friday, either before or after school, at a cost to the ASO of less than $4 per session per student. There is no cost to participating students or families, and no prerequisites for enrolling. Sympatico serves students of all abilities, musical and otherwise, as well as those with special needs. More than half of the program’s funding comes from grants, and the program’s budget now approaches $100,000.
Sympatico students, parents and ACPS teachers complete mid-year surveys, which have revealed that students in the program show more focus, better leadership skills, higher school attendance and stronger ability to work in groups than students who are not in the program. Beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, Sympatico has partnered with ACPS to collect data for each academic quarter on participants’ grades, attendance, standardized test scores and disciplinary records. This information will allow Sympatico ensemble leaders to tailor instruction to individual students and will provide a more quantitative assessment of the program.
Sympatico provides students with opportunities to experience success in themselves and with others in their ensembles, their school, and their community. Each year Sympatico participates in more than 20 performances, both in school and in the city of Alexandria. Past performances include special appearances at the George Washington Masonic Memorial, the Torpedo Factory Art Center, Alexandria City’s First Thursday festivals, Alexandria Market Square, Child and Family Network Preschool, the Alexandria City Council Inauguration, and the National Teachers of the Year celebrations. Sympatico ensembles have also performed alongside various performing groups and soloists, including the Alexandria Choral Society, Virginia Bronze, National Symphony Orchestra violinist Marissa Regni, and Washington Performing Arts soprano Karin Paludan.
In April 2022, ASO Sympatico students will join with ASO musicians to present a world premiere inspired by the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven and commissioned by Classical Movement’s Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program.
Sympatico garners attention throughout the national community of El Sistema inspired programs. About a dozen Sympatico students were recently invited to participate in a program at the Kennedy Center that was sponsored by El Sistema USA, a national alliance of El Sistema-inspired programs. Sympatico was also the recipient of a 2016 Mayoral proclamation in recognition of its contributions and service to the youth of the City of Alexandria.
About John Adams Elementary and Patrick Henry K-8 schools
Both John Adams Elementary School (JAES) and Patrick Henry K-8 school are Title I Targeted Assistance schools. More than three-quarters of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
JAES represents ACPS’ overall ethnic and cultural diversity—42% Hispanic, 27% African-American, 19% White, 10% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2% multi-racial. With more than 40 languages and dialects spoken among the JAES student body, more than half of JAES students are enrolled in English language learning (ELL) classes. In Sympatico, music serves as a common language. Many JAES parents work multiple jobs, creating a need to drop students off earlier and pick them up later than the school day allows. With both morning and afternoon ensembles available to their children, Sympatico alleviates the need for additional childcare for many families.
At Patrick Henry K-8 school, slightly more than one-third of its student body receives ELL instruction. The student population is 44% African-American, 30% Hispanic, 12% White, 9% Asian/Pacific Islander and 4% multi-racial. Sympatico provides an important extension to the school day for middle-school students there.