Students in Catalyst Circle Rock Elementary School’s burgeoning orchestra program displayed their musical chops when they put a classical spin on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ popular Hip Hop tune “Can’t Hold Us.” 

On flutes, violins, French horns and cellos, the students performed the tune during a free Feb. 11 concert at the school, located at 5608 W. Washington Blvd. But to hear the students, one would never think they just picked up the instruments only two years ago.

“We know how talented our kids are,” said Sharon Morgan, Catalyst Circle Rock’s director of community outreach. 

The Austin-based school partnered in 2009 with Ravinia, the summer musical festival program, to offer a music education program. Ravinia brought in resident musicians to work with students. But in 2012, the program was expanded to create a full symphony orchestra based on the El Sistema model. 

El Sistema is a Venezuela-based program that works to improve the lives of low-income children and their families through music education. At its core, El Sistema focuses on ensemble participation, peer teaching while making music fun and enjoyable. 

“The basic idea behind El Sistema is that kids will learn music by being in an orchestra,” Ravinia’s Christine Taylor said.

Developed four decades ago, El Sistema now exists in 25 countries, including the U.S. which has more than 50 youth orchestra programs. With nearly 70 student musicians, the Circle Rockets Orchestra, as they are dubbed, is one of the largest African-American symphony orchestras in the country. 

Circle Rock is the first school Ravinia partnered with to do an El Sistema program, although it has provided music education in Chicago area schools for 50 years. The program targets fourth, fifth and six graders.

“There aren’t that many orchestras in schools that are African-American based [so] we are thrilled to be working with Circle Rock,” Taylor said. “We want to have a presence in schools that don’t have music otherwise.”

Students learn traditional classical music from Mozart, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to Pachelbel’s Canon in D and Rossini’s William Tell Overture. But it is not all just about the classics. Students also learn popular tunes like “Can’t Hold Us” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” on classical instruments. 

“What’s interesting is the kids like all of it,” Taylor said. “They’re young so nobody has told them yet that you have to like this music; you’re not supposed to like that music. They pretty much like all of it.”

The program includes trips to Ravinia performances and professional development with other classical orchestras. But a key component of it is peer education. Second year students in the program teach and coach their younger counterparts. Taylor says gives them a better appreciation of classical music often not seen when adults play for kids. 

“When they saw other kids do it, they realized they can do it as well,” Taylor said. 

“The real magic of this is the way it is brought to the child which is nonthreatening, non-challenging. It’s all about fun,” said Ravinia’s President and CEO Welz Kauffman. “But it is a very serious discipline with it too.”

Students practice two hours a day five days a week on top of their five hour school day. But the sense of accomplishment from the hard work and performing well is “huge,” Kauffman said.

“I started playing the piano when I was seven years old, and I was terrified to play for years. This is all very normal [for them] and I love that part of it,” he added.

Thirteen-year-old Keosha Miller joined the orchestra because she wanted a challenge. She found it in playing the cello. 

“I decided to be in the program because I thought it was going to take me far in life, and I wanted to have a challenge,” said Miller, who already comes from a musical family. Her mother played the clarinet in high school and a host of family members play the piano, trumpet and trombone. 

“It seemed pretty complicated,” Miller said of the cello. The challenging part was learning the notes and the fingering.

“At first we have to look and see where our fingers were supposed to go. But now since we understand, we don’t have to look anymore. We know where to put our fingers,” added fellow cellist Chardae Hassel, 13.

Ravinia provides all the musical instruments for the orchestra program. But students choose their instruments. Ravinia hosts a “petting zoo” for instruments where students get to play, touch, feel and get a musical demonstration at Ravinia’s Highland Park headquarters in the northern suburbs.

Hassel chose the cello to be different. At first, she wanted to play the violin, but balked at the instrument when too many of her classmates gravitated to it.

“You don’t see kids playing these types of instruments and learning it that quick,” said Hassel, who’s been with the orchestra for two years. “That’s very surprising to some of the adults that see us play these instruments.”

That’s why Miller wants to pursue a career as a cellist. She decided to be a cellist because “you can make money doing it” and there are not a lot of African Americans in orchestras. 

“Not a lot of Black people play it, especially women,” said Miller, also a second year student with the orchestra.

The beauty of the program, Morgan said, is that it provides a skill for students even if they don’t chose music as a career. She said it is an opportunity to get scholarships for college or to get into a selective enrollment high school. The program really helps their self-esteem and gives them a sense of accomplishment, she noted. “To me that’s bigger than anything. Our kids sometimes don’t believe they can really do things, even after we tell them they can do it. They are still skeptical,” Morgan said. “This helps them see… that when you try hard enough … they can really do it.”