BRAVO Youth Orchestras: Social Change through Music

The Oregon affiliate of Venezuela’s famed El Sistema education system gives diverse students access to music education

While Oregon debates defunding the police, it’s already spent the past few decades defunding arts education. Our regressive tax system deprives lower-income students of educational opportunities common in public schools two generations ago. In response, nonprofit organizations have stepped up to at least reduce the opportunity gaps. 

One of them, BRAVO Youth Orchestras, celebrates its eighth birthday this month with the appointment of a new executive director, Alonzo Chadwick, and a virtual fundraiser you can watch beginning this Sunday night. As BRAVO recovers from the pandemic, it’s poised to bring its successful integration of music education and social change to more Oregon students.

Founding Visions

BRAVO’s founding executive director, Seth Truby, grew up on the edge of Duke University, and of poverty. “I never missed a meal, but I knew about being in the house when there was no water, no heat,” he recalls. In tough times, they’d resort to Goodwill, church, friends, teachers willing to give music lessons on scholarship. They didn’t let poverty deprive them of art. Sometimes they drove up to Washington, DC to see the taxpayer funded art at the nation’s heritage museums — then drive all night to get back home, as there was no money for a hotel. Truby, a white budding violinist who attended a mostly black public inner city school in Durham, was able to hear great musicians like Kronos Quartet or Joshua Bell perform at Duke. “It was a form of poverty with lots of riches,” he says. And it solidified the notion that poor people deserve access to the arts.

Over the years, Truby worked as a carpenter, professional violin maker, fundraiser, social worker. In 2005, after he and his family moved to Portland, he cofounded Portland Village School, the city’s largest public charter school, and served as Development and Community Engagement Director at Chamber Music Northwest. “The idea of starting BRAVO allowed me to draw from all of that organic whole.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


As he began thinking about creating a program that would provide impoverished kids with early access to the arts that he’d been fortunate to enjoy, Truby discovered that he wasn’t alone. Bonnie Reagan, a retired family doctor, social justice and health advocate, had been working along the same lines. She’d trained as a teacher, earned a master’s degree and taught high school before going into medicine. Music was also ever-present: she sang in Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble for many years, and started violin lessons at age 69. (Truby started at age 4.) Both rebels who often questioned the rules, during their respective school years, they hit it off and teamed up. 

They had a model. BRAVO is one of 120 U.S. affiliates of Venezuela’s famed El Sistema program, which grew from a single abandoned Caracas garage in 1975 into a worldwide phenomenon, with affiliates in 60 countries. Those organizations have not only brought music making to thousands of Americans who’d otherwise be deprived of it by systemic inequality, they’ve also planted seeds for addressing the rampant classism that has long pervaded American classical music. Los Angeles’s YOLA, mentored by El Sistema’s most famous graduate, LA Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, shows the potential for American El Sistema programs like BRAVO.

“What they built in El Sistema was our inspiration,” Truby says. “They combined the really intense focus on orchestral music with a mission of social change. That inspiration has resonated around the world.” 

Seth Truby

But Truby, Reagan and co-founder Mark Woodward didn’t want to simply replicate the Venezuelan program, even if that were possible. “Rather than take that model and plunk it down in our community,” Truby explains, “we asked, What is the best role for music in our community? That’s different for each community.”  

Whereas El Sistema’s Venezuelan founders had to build an entirely new music education system, “here in the U.S., we have the upper parts of that system,” like school orchestras and bands,” Truby says. “What’s missing is equitable entry into that system. What we have to figure out is who is getting those opportunities. That invites us to be creative and come up with our own answers.” 

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Dire Need

Ironically, El Sistema was itself was partly inspired by public music education in the United States in the 1970s, like public school band and choir programs. But the anti-tax, pro-privatization conservative movement that wealthy privileged interests sparked at that decade’s end helped starve public education of needed resources — including here in Oregon. 

Both Reagan and Truby were responding to their community’s alarming shortfalls in equal access to the arts since the passage of property tax limitations in 1990, which we’ve frequently, and depressingly, chronicled here. “Since Measure 5, we’ve seen Oregon go from one of the best funded states in per pupil spending to the bottom three or four,” Truby says, although he calls the Democratic-led state legislature’s recent education funding boost “a meaningful step in the right direction .” Of that public education budget, arts funding is “a drop in the bucket. How much can nonprofits fill in that gap? We can make a difference but not replace them.” 

The impact has been severe. “I’ve talked to so many people who told me they had a rich education in public schools when they were growing up and are appalled that we’ve lost so much of that,” Reagan says. “I’ve also talked to people who told me that having music in school is what saved them. It gave them something they could hang on to when they weren’t doing well in other ways.”

Now, it’s Americans who look to Venezuela for guidance on arts education funding. Starting at the end of 2011, the founders researched El Sistema’s other U.S. affiliates as well as Portland’s existing youth music programs, then identified potential funding sources, partners, board and staff members. Reagan and her husband provided seed money, grants followed.

Exactly eight years ago this week, they launched Oregon’s first El Sistema affiliated program — BRAVO. They chose North Portland’s Rosa Parks School for their home base “because of high need among the student population, strong leadership in the school, and a lack of access to music education in the neighborhood,” the website explains. BRAVO’s tuition free after-school music programs began there in fall 2013. 

BRAVO co-founder and
Board President Bonnie Reagan

The following year saw 60 second- through fourth-grade students receiving 10 hours per week of choral singing, stringed instrument instruction, and orchestra, while BRAVO’s In-school Program continued to provide half-hour violin lessons twice a week to all Rosa Parks students in Kindergarten and 1st grade. Students practice for two hours after school five days a week, and perform at over 60 public events per year, from a Max train station opening to the Governor’s inauguration. Guest artists — from Oregon Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar to visitors like renowned violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg to Black Violin and more — provide role models.

Four out of five BRAVO participants are students of color, nine out of 10 qualify for reduced-price lunches, and the diverse student body’s families speak 18 languages in total. While the original El Sistema focused on bringing Western classical music to Venezuelans, BRAVO also teaches music from folk traditions and countries around the world including South Africa and Zimbabwe, Russia, Mexico, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and beyond. 

“We’re introducing children to a wide range of musical styles beyond the classical canon,” Truby says. “Half or more of our time is spent on music well beyond classical. We’ve created over 200 original arrangements of different levels of difficulty. Most are non-classical pieces.”

Overstressed teachers in an overstuffed public school system often lack the time, resources, even space to provide that kind of focused attention and engagement. “Even though we are a music organization,” Truby notes, “at our core we’re an education organization that functions as an extension of the school day.”

BRAVO provides more than just teacher-to-student instruction. On Fridays, students share music they like with the others and perform it, whether it’s classical or pop or another genre. They might also collectively compose music and combine it with original poetry and dance. “Collective Composition is a revolutionary approach to music education,” Truby says. “It addresses hidden power dynamics and equity in a way that’s profoundly different than our other work.” Over a period of weeks, students create melodies, rhythms, harmonies and lyrics, and together, they create a piece incorporating it all, emphasizing student rather than faculty leadership.

Collective Composition is one way BRAVO helps give students a sense of autonomy and self-direction. “Many of our kids are used to being told what to do: ‘here’s how you’re going to spend your day,’” Truby says. Allowing students a voice in choosing the music and instruments they play is “a key part of introducing the idea that they get to choose in this world — not everything is pre determined.”

Another program, BRAVO Community Orchestra (BCO), allows more advanced students to play more difficult repertoire alongside community musicians of all ages. Players range in age from mid teens to mid-70s. BRAVO musicians have performed with many local ensembles and orchestras and appeared at venues all over Portland. On Monday, April 26, you can hear them performing with Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic, in the world premiere of Tomorrow’s Rain, billed as “a collective reaction of BRAVO’s student musicians to Nina Simone’s rendition of the yearning ballad, ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’ – featuring loops, beat makers, vocal recordings and the incorporation of their own instrumental sounds as well as performance clips from Fear No Music musicians.”

Besides learning how to play an instrument, BRAVO students are receiving the well-chronicled ancillary benefits music brings. “One thing we know is that learning an instrument does more for the brain than any other activity,” Reagan says, citing neuroscience research. “Learning music and playing music contributes to higher math and reading scores. Philadelphia studied students who participated in music compared to sports and tutoring and the music group did best. If we want kids who do better academically, who  pay attention better, who work together better, we need to listen to the research and kids and parents who’ve had music in their lives.”

BRAVO also provides ancillary benefits, like giving struggling kids a supportive peer group and mentors, and a safe, creative place to express complex emotions. “I’m a doctor, and I’ve been a teacher too, so I pay attention to children’s physical and emotional health,” Reagan explains, “so I’ve seen the ways children can be hurt. So we make BRAVO be a place where they feel like they belong.”

It seems to be working for many students. She recently interviewed several for a series of profiles published on the organization’s website. “BRAVO has taught me to open up more personally,” Cesar Chavez school eighth grader Aisea Takau, who plays trumpet, told her.  “My attitude is better.  BRAVO makes me feel good, welcome, included. I feel I belong. I’m proud of meeting new people.  I used to be a shy kid.  Now I can talk to anyone.”

“BRAVO has taught me music, taught me how to get along with people, both inside and out of BRAVO,” said another eighth grader, George Middle School violist Amirah Richmond. “In BRAVO we are like a family; it’s developed into that. Music can help connect kids who can’t express themselves. Sometimes I play when I’m really upset and it helps me.  It also makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger.”

 “Because of BRAVO, Cole wants to do better in school,” Tina White said about her son Cole, who plays euphonium and other instruments. “It has had a huge impact on him. He didn’t try , but now he has a reason to try. Cole has learned to be a happier person.”

So has his mom. “I play in BCO and they take me under their wing,” she said. “BCO has given me a social life where I didn’t have one before.  I just worked a job with long hours, or sometimes 2-3 jobs, and then came home and took care of my boys. They help me get out of my comfort zone. They help me take care of myself.”

Crisis and Change

But that sense of belonging was threatened when, as with every other music organization, the pandemic smacked BRAVO hard, forcing a pivot from direct, in-person and ensemble-based learning to online instruction. Suddenly, students and their families lost in person contact with people and resources that had become vital to their lives. How would BRAVO respond?

“We realized we needed to be more than a music program,” Truby remembers. “We’re part of the community with these children’s families. We had to figure out, what are the immediate needs of our families and what can we do to support them?” 

Within days of the March shutdowns, BRAVO had evolved into what Truby called “a mini social service agency,” providing regular delivery of hundreds of food boxes, distribution of over $20,000 in pre-paid VISA gift cards for discretionary use, and direct assistance to BRAVO families for rent, utilities, repair of storm damage, and other immediate needs,” the website recounts. “We recognize we’re a small organization relative to Portland Public Schools or big non profits like Oregon Food Bank,” Truby says, “but we can be a supplemental source of help to families in our program.”

BRAVO made a virtue of virtual learning’s necessity by emphasizing private instead of group lessons. “Realizing that the highest value is one to one teaching in that situation, we flipped our model around,” he explains, turning what had been 15 minutes a month of individual instruction into weekly private lessons for each student along with the virtual group classes. “It’s been really great for our kids,” he says. “The real plus is strengthening relationships one to one at the same time every week. We’re seeing kids develop in ways they hadn’t before.”

Of course, the pandemic wasn’t last year’s only big upheaval. “Last summer several things became clear,” says Truby. “Having the Black Lives movement come to the front of public consciousness, the whole conversation around equity and race, voice and power and representation just shifted this summer at a national level. Our leadership really needed to reflect our students and families better than it does currently. That started with me.” 

Not that equity is a new conversation for BRAVO, which has had a formal team working to advance it since 2018. But in other ways, the organization itself has changed over time. Now providing after school programs to nearly 200 students (from the original 40) and serving hundreds of students in total, BRAVO has grown steadily, adding five more sites at other North Portland elementary, middle and high schools. Staff has grown to 35, and budget from $200,000 to $1.3 million. BRAVO may soon serve all eight Roosevelt cluster schools. It even supported the launch of another Oregon El Sistema-inspired program, Junior Orchestra of Yamhill. 

It was getting to be too much for Truby, who also headed up the fundraising, to manage. The board decided to hire a development director to relieve him of that burden. But then he rethought. 

“We’ve grown so much,” Truby says. “It’s a different kind of organization than it was when we were starting at square one. The needs of the organization have changed a lot in that time. Going into year eight, it seemed like a good time for new leadership.” With the support of BRAVO’s board of directors, he decided to take the development position himself, and find a new executive director for BRAVO. 

“Under Seth’s leadership and with his passionate commitment to our students and his fellow staff,” Reagan said, “BRAVO has grown from a small, scrappy organization into a much more complex institution that now requires and deserves an expanded and more diverse leadership team.”

Applications came from around the country. This month, the board unanimously chose Alonzo Chadwick as BRAVO’s next leader. “His extensive nonprofit experience, his special interest in youth and family engagement, his deep connection to the community we serve, and his passion about making student voices heard make him exactly the kind of leader we need for the next phase of BRAVO’s development,” said BRAVO Board President Reagan.

Chadwick may be familiar to many readers who’ve heard him perform often as a soloist in the Oregon Symphony’s annual Gospel Christmas Concert, or as leader of his band. Zoulful Muzic. Offstage, he’s worked for more than 15 years in Portland non-profit organizations Black Parent Initiative (BPI), Metropolitan Family Services and Self Enhancement, Inc, where he was working when named BRAVO’s next leader. 

 “The consistent lanes in my life over the last fifteen years are music, youth, family engagement, social justice and community partnerships,” Chadwick says. “It was amazing to see all these puzzle pieces come together in this position with BRAVO, and that’s one reason I knew this was the right step.”

BRAVO Executive Director Alonzo Chadwick

Himself a North Portland native who grew up a block and a half from Rosa Parks school, Chadwick had already worked with the organization shortly after it started when he reached out on behalf of BPI to partner with it, and also performed for BRAVO students as a guest artist. Those and other interactions over the years made him familiar with the organization’s approach and philosophy.

“There weren’t programs like BRAVO when I grew up in that area,” Chadwick remembers. “So the fact they were providing opportunities for students who look like me, students from all diverse backgrounds, creating a program bringing them together around the love of music — that was really powerful.” 

Although he’s a musician himself, for Chadwick, BRAVO’s value transcends music. “I’m big on relationships. It’s not just providing music but also getting involved in the lives and families of these students.” 

That’s why it’s so important to him that BRAVO was rooted in a community institution like Rosa Parks school. When you think about the ways to be a community, where does the community all go? Most attend the school. You draw the families, you get the students — the whole community is involved and invested. I’m grateful for the chance to connect with my roots in the very place where I grew up. I want to provide opportunities for kids in the same situation I was in. I’m really excited about this new journey.”

Expansive Future

Chadwick cautions that while he’s got plenty of ideas for BRAVO’s next steps, he’s just getting started, and has much to learn. As much as he admires BRAVO’s neighborhood roots, “I really want to see us expand outside the north Portland cluster. Many students of color would love an opportunity to be part of BRAVO, but don’t have the opportunity,” because they don’t live in the neighborhood — and many who do may soon be displaced by gentrification. He points toward areas east of 162nd avenue as especially in need of such community services. He’d also like to connect BRAVO to other schools’ after school programs, building on his SEI connections and experience.

He also hopes to leverage his connections in Portland’s music scene to build more and stronger connections with local musicians. “I want to bridge those gaps so more of our professional artists are able to connect with BRAVO students and show them what they can do professionally. They can be mentors in the community.” 

Of course, much depends on how recovery from the pandemic proceeds. Some learning will continue on screen. While the digital divide still disproportionately affects students of color, Chadwick says surveys show most BRAVO students now have the tech they need — but are overwhelmed by the amount of screen time they’re forced to endure. (At this point in the pandemic, the whiter the school, the more likely its students will be to receive in person instruction.) After being onscreen with classes for hours, it can be exhausting to return for after-school music lessons.

Members of BRAVO Youth Orchestra joined collectif9 at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Steve Billow.

 “Everyone’s excited about coming back and being back together,” he says. “Students want to be together and have in person lessons. We have to figure out how to navigate that, and how we can still connect even if it’s not in person. We’ve introduced cool software for composition and so on, and that’s been super relevant, helped us come into the digital and virtual age. But we’re still missing that one on one connection.” He’s weighing the possibilities of at least occasional socially distanced teaching this summer, including maybe outdoors.

“Alonzo,” says Truby, “is just the leader BRAVO needs at this stage in our growth. We know our families so much better than when we started eight years ago, but we’ve just begun to see the potential for how music can transform our community. Alonzo’s personal experience and professional connections are woven through this neighborhood and the wider world of music in such an organic way. There’s no substitute for that. I’m excited for the vision, energy and skills he brings as our next leader.”

Reagan says BRAVO’s future might also include teaching students the technical skills of recording and engineering, more electives in different musical styles, and more individual instruction based on what they’ve learned during the pandemic. But whatever new aspects it embraces, BRAVO’s foundation will remain in the sense of community it creates around music. She recently interviewed students for a series of profiles, including one who’d had a turbulent childhood in a Central American country, and moved to the U.S. when his father died. In school, he told her, he was always nervous. How, she asked, did he feel when he was in BRAVO. “In BRAVO,” he said, “I feel like I’m home.” 

Reagan says: “That’s why I do this work.” 

You can see BRAVO’s first virtual fundraiser, featuring Justice Adrienne Nelson, percussionist-educator Alex Addy, Alex & Alma Martinez, and legendary singer Norman “Boogie Cat” Sylvester here starting at 6:30 pm Sunday.

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell has been classical music editor at Willamette Week since 2008, music columnist for Eugene Weekly since 1996, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal since 2000. He is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities and has also written for The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer. He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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