It’s 3:15 p.m. at Grant Elementary School. Third, fourth, and fifth graders are hustling into their coats, grabbing half-zipped backpacks, headed for home. Some will be with a parent, some at the home of a grandparent, some stopping off at the deli, some looking for older siblings.

Forty of them, however, have other plans. For the children taking part in the new El Sistema – Trenton program, a partnership between the Trenton Community Music School and the Trenton Public Schools, it’s rehearsal time. They take their violins, violas, and cellos from the shelves in the music room, rosin the bow, tune up with their teachers’ help, and gather with their friends to make music.

Trenton Community Music School has launched a program similar to the ones having phenomenal success in the region and throughout the world. In El Sistema, the intensive after-school orchestra becomes not only where children learn music, but also where they learn to listen closely and collaborate, to bring their best to raise the level for all, that sustained effort brings beautiful results, and that their unique abilities make them an asset to their community. The orchestra is a model for personal development and an engine for social justice.

At the same time, in the West Ward, preschool is letting out, and a class of three-year-olds is greeting their parents and caregivers. They speak English, Spanish, Polish, and Creole. Today the children and adults are enjoying a snack with their classroom teachers, and after a few minutes of happy and noisy chatter, they turn their heads as Janet, a teaching artist from Trenton Community Music School, pulls out a guitar and begins to lead the welcome song. It’s time for Trenton Makes – Words! which uses music and movement to introduce and reinforce new vocabulary. The children are having such a good time that they won’t notice that they leave that class ready to understand and use some new words: they’re a few steps readier for kindergarten.

El Sistema – Trenton and Trenton Makes – Words! have joined Trenton Community Music School’s flagship Music for the Very Young program, which has been providing music instruction in Trenton preschools since 2000. In addition to teaching music, Trenton Community Music School’s teaching artists and music therapists also provide training for the teachers in threading music throughout the school day. Adaptive Music for the Very Young programs were created and are in place for special-needs classrooms in Trenton, Ewing, and at Katzenbach School for the Deaf.

“There is power in bringing children together around music,” says Executive Director Carol Burden. “When playing music connects them to one another, it also reinforces their learning in the classroom. And it gives them a new model for working as a group: as El Sistema founder Jose Antonio Abreu puts it, ‘the orchestra is the only group that comes together with the fundamental purpose of agreeing with itself.’”

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