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Witnessing the Power of El Sistema in Urban Communities: Sister Cities Girlchoir

Erika Kitzmiller

On December 5th 2012, the Sister Cities Girlchoir members gathered for a performance at the Union League, a famed elite social and philanthropic club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The girls wore their school uniforms to identify their respective schools and sported white carnation boutonnieres to show that they were all members of the same ensemble. Several family members were there to see the performance. For many of the girls, this was the first time that they were performing in such an austere space with choir members from another school. When the girls entered the building, with its crystal chandeliers, hand-carved mahogany staircases, and antique silk curtains, many of them remarked that they had never seen anything so beautiful. Moments later, they settled into the room where they would be performing and enjoyed a snack that the Union League members had prepared for them.

When they finished eating, the girls gathered to warm up their voices as the Union League members quietly filed into the room to mingle with their social peers and observe these young women. At 6:00 p.m., the members of the Sister Cities Girlchoir lined up in their designated places, fixed their boutonnieres, and prepared to begin their program. Under the careful guidance of their conductor, Alysia Lee, the choir sang a medley of several African American spirituals, including “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and then a Christmas classic, “Dona Nobis Pacem,” in the original Latin. Lee’s high standards were evident to everyone who watched these young women perform. The members of the choir had memorized the music. They watched for the conductor’s cues. They remembered the various hand movements that accompanied the songs. When the concert was over, several of the Union League members commended the girls on their performance and applauded their musical talents.

Afterward, the girls posed on the steps of the Union League for a photograph to commemorate this moment. Their families looked on with pride at what their children, nieces, and grandchildren had accomplished that evening. After their performance, the members of the Sister Cities Girlchoir and their families walked to the Kimmel Center to listen to the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra rehearse for their concert under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, the famed El Sistema prodigy. For many, this was the first time that they had ever been to the Kimmel Center or heard a professional orchestra in person. They were in awe of the beautiful space, but what made even more of an impression on the young women was hearing Dudamel speaking Spanish to his Venezuelan orchestra. Several of the Latina girls turned to me and remarked, “Miss, he is speaking Spanish.” What these young women remembered the mostfrom that evening was that the man who led this famed group spoke in their home language and came from the culture that was most familiar to them.