Multnomah County Board briefed on impact of Bravo Youth Orchestras music

October 17, 2016

She came to the board meeting -- ready.  With the presentation notes - prepared on her on own - 12-year-old Sapphire Thomas wasn’t fazed by the undivided attention from a Multnomah County boardroom audience.

“I am 12-years-old. I play the violin. I’ve played the violin for two years,” said the Rosa Parks 6th grader. “Bravo is special to me. I love the instrument that I play.”

Thomas was joined by her mentors and co-founders of the BRAVO Youth Orchestras, Dr. Bonnie Reagan and Seth Truby. The presenters updated the Board of County Commissioners on the social impacts of the rigorous music program.

Bravo Youth Orchestras student Sapphire Thomas smiles for camera after delivering board presentation.

BRAVO Youth Orchestras, which includes chorus, small group rehearsals and full orchestra, launched at Rosa Parks Elementary School in 2013. It started with roughly 40 students who joined the after-school orchestra. Since then, it’s expanded to serve more than 125 students at Cesar Chavez School, Sitton Elementary and George Middle School.

Young musicians practice after school, five days a week, for as much as two hours a day.

Their concerts, among many, include: the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, backing up hip hop and classical violin duo Black Violin, the Portland Festival Symphony Concerts in the Park, Portland City Hall, the House Chambers at the State Capital and the Multnomah Building.  But the program goes beyond music with family engagement, peer mentorship, leadership development and public speaking.

“Most of us would only think that we were only learning music but we are not,” said Thomas. “We are learning life lessons that will help us in the future. I learned that what we do today becomes habits for tomorrow. That’s a quote from our artistic director Mr. Mark.”

BRAVO Youth Orchestras' Executive Director Seth Truby described the musical movement that started in 1975 in Venezuela, which helps improve the quality of life for children in abject poverty and served as the inspiration behind Oregon’s program.

“El Sistema,” began with just 11 children in a garage in the shanty towns of the Caracas, Venezuela.  “Word spread and by the end of the week they had 25 kids. By the end of the month they had 75 kids,” said Truby. “They needed a bigger space.”

Today, El Sistema is a publicly financed, community-driven music education program with over 750,000 children.  Truby says statistics on the program show benefits in school attendance, grades, health outcomes and incidents of violence around music centers and progression to careers.

“Three-quarters of the doctors and engineers in Venezuela came through orchestra system. For every dollar invested in this (El Sistema), they see a $1.68 in avoided social spending, so the program actually pays for itself … They made a priority of addressing poverty through intensive music programs,” said Truby.

Truby cited disparities for black and hispanic youth in U.S. schools, jails and prisons and lauded the music program as an avenue for social change in urban and rural communities. He pointed to an initial evaluation by Portland Public Schools which showed 50 percent faster gains in reading for youth in the Bravo program.

Co-founder Dr. Bonnie Reagan, a retired family doctor, also noted the widely recognized health benefits of music programs.

“Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone,” said Reagan.  “People who are exposed to chronic stress are more prone to develop diabetes, heart disease, chronic hypertension that lead to difficult lives and shortened life-spans. This is especially worrisome when children are exposed to chronic stress.

Board presentation on social and health impacts of Bravo Youth Orchestras

“Music performance enhances certain physical skills that causes the growth of the brain and improves its functioning. It appears to have a strong association with general intelligence, it improves social cohesiveness, influences mood and affects blood pressure,” she explained.

Commissioner Judy Shiprack requested Thursday’s board briefing and applauded the program's progress.  

“This is really about you Sapphire,” said Commissioner Shiprack. “This is a performance that’s outside your ordinary range and you have done outstandingly.  It’s a performance assisted by a prop that you have a skill with that’s appreciated by the whole community.”

“I really thank you for standing up for the entire message that the grownups in the room want to applaud and endorse.”

Chair Deborah Kafoury echoed the sentiment. “You did an amazing job,” said Kafoury. “I have seen many grownups, shaking and sweating, because they were so nervous and you just delivered your presentation without missing a beat.”

(L-R) Bravo Youth Orchestras Co-founder Dr. Bonnie Reagan, student Sapphire Thomas and Co-founder Seth Truby

Photo courtesy Bravo Youth Orchestras

Photo courtesy Bravo Youth Orchestras