NEW YORK – Opera superstar Placido Domingo is getting ready to conduct 35 New York City schoolchildren who are studying music five days a week under a program inspired by Venezuela's acclaimed youth orchestra program, El Sistema.
Domingo will conduct the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders from Public School 129 in Harlem and Public School 152 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, at a fundraiser Wednesday for their after-school music program, called Harmony.
The children will play Handel's Hallelujah Chorus and selections from Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony arranged for young performers.
"They don't seem to have fear," said Julie Desbordes, the director of the program at P.S. 129. "They're just very excited."
Program founder Anne Fitzgibbon said Tuesday that she learned how El Sistema transforms students' lives during a 2007-2008 Fulbright fellowship to Caracas.
Fitzgibbon, a former policy adviser in the administrations of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, had already started a music education program but said the year in Venezuela "changed almost everything about what I was doing."
"In Venezuela they are literally changing the life trajectories of these children through music," she said. "By being a member of an orchestral community, children learn to understand rules and organization and structure. ... They develop listening skills and the ability to cooperate and collaborate with their peers."
Most New York City public elementary school students have music instruction once a week — or not at all. They typically sing or play simple tunes on the recorder. The students enrolled in Harmony at P.S. 126 and P.S. 152 spend two hours every day either learning their instrument or playing with the school orchestra. They are expected to practice at home as well.
P.S. 129 principal Odelphia Pierre said the program teaches students to focus and stay on task, which helps them with academic subjects.
"It builds up their self-esteem," she added. "Now they know that if they set their minds to something they will be successful."
Carla Platt, whose fourth-grade daughter, Jordan, plays the trumpet at P.S. 129, said Jordan is more confident since she started the program.
"I'm so beyond impressed with her," said Platt, who can't read music herself. "There are no words for it."
Wednesday's fundraising gala is at Gotham Hall in midtown Manhattan. Fitzgibbon said she's hoping to raise $100,000 toward Harmony's annual budget of $450,000.