photo by Steve Yeater

A student in the Harmony Stockton program prepares for a performance at a class-completion ceremony.

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Community Engagement

A Harmonious Partnership

Christopher HerediaJul 11, 2012

El Sistema: It has produced the likes of Gustavo Dudamel, the 31-year-old music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and is a model for youth music programs around the world.

Now, Stockton has its own version of "El Sistema," thanks to a partnership of the Stockton Symphony, University of the Pacific, the United Way of San Joaquin County,  and Stockton Unified School District.

Called Harmony Stockton, an education program delivered through music, it is transforming the lives of 40 children and their families since it began last August. It is a cornerstone of Pacific's Beyond Our Gates and Tomorrow Project - President Pamela A. Eibeck's initiatives to broaden the university's investment in community life and improve college readiness particularly among low-income, academically struggling children.         

For many years, Peter Jaffe, director and conductor of the Stockton Symphony, had admired the El Sistema program. So when Pacific Conservatory of Music Dean Giulio Ongaro visited an El Sistema program in Venezuela, the two men talked and Harmony Stockton was born. The University of The Pacific hires the instructors, the Symphony schedules the classes and arranges the concerts, working in cooperation with the University, the School District and United Way.

"Not only is it poignant," Jaffe said, "It's timely and even necessary. Nowhere could it be more apt than in a city where there has been much focus on our economic and social woes. The beauty of this program is that the wonderful musical skills the kids are learning are translating into invaluable life skills as well.  Parents are ecstatic about what this is doing for their kids."

Harmony Stockton Photo Gallery

The students in the Harmony Stockton program have grown quite a bit since they started last August; not just as musicians, but as students too. Take a look at photos that highlight their experience from their first days to their most recent performance. more

Improving social skills and academic engagement

Founders of Harmony Stockton say the program's results, as with its counterpart in Latin America, have been twofold. Through exposure to a wide variety of music and diligent practice with the violin and voice, the children are showing improved academic engagement and social skills at a time when literacy is suffering, dropouts are alarmingly high and school districts have cut arts programs.

Study after academic study upholds the assertion that music education improves test taking, reading, memory, listening and concentration skills, said Lynn Beck, dean of the Benerd School of Education.

"If we make a difference in even one child's life, then we are accomplishing something great," Beck said. "We are reaching families. We've seen an enormous presence of fathers. It's not just 40 children, but 40-plus families."

Parents and instructors involved in Harmony Stockton say the children are displaying better manners and concentration. Many are setting sights on a college education, and not just in music, but sciences, art, technology and dance. 

A milestone moment: performance for The United Way

As they waited to begin a performance for the United Way one recent afternoon, the fledgling third through fifth grade musicians from Marshall Elementary, most of whom are black, Latino and Asian, gingerly held their tiny violins as if they were made of porcelain. The banquet room where they gathered to perform was a cacophony of adult voices, clinking water glasses and the pitter-patter of violin strings. Their parents stood lining the walls, some clasping their hands in anticipation.

Students from Harmony Stockton met mid-summer to perform for a group from
United Way. The United Way provided contributions to launch the academy.

The room fell silent as they began with a French folk song, studied over and over until they could perform it in their sleep. In unison, the children glided their bows over their instruments, emitting a sound that was warm, spacious and sweet.

"Ever since her first Harmony Stockton recital," parent Vickie Gray said of her daughter, Cheyanne, 9, "she's been saying she wants to major in music in college. My heart lights up when I see her play. It's opened up so many doors. She's blossoming and is going places."

Cheyanne, who lives with her family in subsidized housing, has been learning how to read music, and her spelling, reading and math scores have improved. Her mother said Harmony Stockton has raised her expectations of what kind of high school she wants to send Cheyanne to.

Since Cheyanne began learning how to read music and play the violin, word has spread among her peers about her new artistic pursuit. The bullying she'd experienced before has stopped. Instead, her playmates have become curious. Who is this Beethoven you're learning about? 

"When I learn music, I go into a different world."
Cheyanne Gray
Fourth Grade, Marshall Elementary 




It's a world where they can be anything they want and don't have to repeat the cycle of poverty that has afflicted many of their families, said Erik Urbina '11, a Pacific Conservatory of Music graduate and cellist with the Merced Symphony who serves as an instructor for Harmony Stockton.

"This is giving them many of the tools they'll need as young adults, whether they choose a career in music or to become astronauts or politicians," he said.

The United Way of San Joaquin County, which provided contributions to launch the Harmony Stockton, has pledged to match monetary gifts to the music program. To make a contribution to Harmony Stockton, please call Georgette Hunefeld at 209.946.7375 or contact her at