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Yakima Music en Acción

Ramshackle stucco homes, dusty yards surrounded by chain-link fences and fierce, protective dogs — this neighborhood of Yakima is infamous for being at the borderline of two warring gangs. 
It is also becoming known as an incubator for classical music. 
Just across the street from “Beware of Dog” signs, young children with cellos line up outside the music room at Garfield Elementary under the only graffiti on campus. It says “La musica de la vida,” and those words are true for these kids. Music is a huge part of their lives because they are members of YAMA, which stands for Yakima Music en Acción, or music in action. The program aims to lift the prospects of underprivileged children through classical music study and performance. Students in grades three through eight from nearby schools attend YAMA, and they rehearse at Garfield Elementary.
In the music room, intermediate cello players work on a haunting Russian melody while the teacher encourages them to play, “Proud! Strong!” In the library, newly minted musicians — the really little kids — make a rainbow shape with their bows and drop them onto violin strings for the first time. Down the hall in a classroom, the more advanced violin section is biting into the William Tell Overture. And it is biting back.
“Persistence!” program founder, Stephanie Hsu, yells above the fray. “Nobody falls off this bus!” 
Persistence is an understatement. This isn’t a once-a-week music appreciation class. It is a rigorous program to master a musical instrument, requiring two hours after school every day. Most of these children also practice at home in the evenings and on weekends.
YAMA director Stephanie Hsu teaches a violin lesson.
“Without YAMA, you are just bored at home, there is nothing to do. But with YAMA you can play music and it’s fun,” says Jaiden Cano, a rough-and-tumble, 11-year-old boy with a mischievous smile. “When you are really frustrated and you can’t play a part, practice. You will get better and then you will just feel it.”
Stephanie Hsu, a musician from New York City, relocated to Yakima to start YAMA. It is based on a famous program in Venezuela which has improved the lives of thousands of barrio children, including Gustavo Dudamel, who grew up to become the dashing young music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The program that shaped Dudamel and many other musicians is called El Sistema, and Hsu went to Venezuela on a fellowship to learn all about it. Yakima contacted her because they thought their kids fit the profile of the El Sistema model.
YAMA utilizes many of the methods that make El Sistema so effective. All instruction and instruments are free. No child is turned away. Instruction is done in groups and many of the teachers are professional musicians. Performance is stressed from the beginning — kids are learning to play these instruments for the enjoyment of the community.
Young violinists learn how to hold their instruments and bows.
“It is just what our kids needed in this school,” says Garfield Elementary Principal Alan Matsumoto. “Which was something to look forward to.” For Matsumoto, it’s been a kind of miracle to hear Brahms and Bach echoing through this neighborhood, instead of gunshots.
“For years I had students who specifically told me, ‘I’m going to be in a gang. My brother was in a gang and I’m going to be in a gang.’ That has completely changed,” he says.
Moira Boughton, one of the new kids in the program, is barely bigger than her violin. “When I grow up I want to play music and make money and give it to the people who need it,” she says.
Other kids describe classical music as a place where they can rest. “The music means to me peace, love and happiness,” says Louis Gonzalez.
Most of the parents of YAMA musicians are Spanish-speaking migrant workers who work in Central Washington’s fruit industry. They can’t afford to buy their children violins and classical music training. But the language of music is universal, and so are the parents’ reactions when they watch their children perform in a symphony hall.
“When I watch my girls perform my heart feels so big. I’m so proud,” says single mom Flor Mateos, whose two daughters have been in YAMA since the program started three years ago.  Speaking through an interpreter, Mateos explains that the program has brought her family closer, including the girls’ father, because they share the goal of helping the girls prepare for concerts.
Flor Mateos' daughters practice their instruments at home.
“At first, concerts were really scary for me,” says Mateos’ daughter Enerida. “I remember playing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and I was shaking! I don’t feel like that now.”
Enerida’s grades have also improved since she began playing the violin. Hsu says that’s quite common with kids who have been “YAMA-tized.”
“I’ve heard parents say, ‘My kid was struggling in math, but after a year of doing music at this intense level, it’s not a struggle anymore,’” says Hsu. 
YAMA is part of a national study looking specifically at the impact of programs based on El Sistema in America. Researchers in Venezuela found that intense classical music training improved academics and decreased gang involvement. Hsu is confident YAMA will show similar results.
Despite the obvious benefits, the curtain almost fell for YAMA in 2015 when the grant that provided much of its funding ran out. Luckily, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra stepped in and saved it temporarily. Hsu vows to keep YAMA going as a freestanding nonprofit. Not because she wants to create professional musicians, but because she believes YAMA can improve lives, one note at a time.
“My goal is to show our kids that they can do whatever they want to do in their future,” Hsu says. “There are no limits placed on them based on where they are from.”
(YAMA is currently funded by generous organizations and individual donors in and out of the Yakima Valley. Learn how you can support YAMA.)  



About Golden Apple Moments

The Golden Apple Moments program honors educators, programs and schools making a positive difference in Washington State education. Since 1992, award recipients have been featured in special segments that air on public television stations across the state and online. The KCTS 9 Golden Apple Moments are made possible through funding from PEMCO Insurance.

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The Pathways to Excellence awards recognize schools that are making measurable progress in closing the opportunity gap and creating greater educational opportunity for all students.

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Jenny Cunningham

Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.

As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in Theater

More stories by Jenny Cunningham

Kathy Tuohey

Veteran producer Kathy Tuohey has been working in broadcast television for over 25 years. From daily segments to documentaries, her expertise includes arts programming, human interest stories and education specials. She is managing producer of the Golden Apple Awards, produces the Pathways to Excellence education series, and is a contributor to IN Close.  This Northwest native’s natural curiosity about the people and places of our region keeps her on the lookout for the next great story.

More stories by Kathy Tuohey

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This is a fantatstic and inspiring story! Would that it could be replicated in many other communties around the country where so much goodness and talent awaits one who can "orchestrate" it and bring such magic to life in the way Stephanie TSU has done in Yakima!.
Blessings for all good success!
Janet mm