By Derek Wilson/Marinscope
Eduardo Mejia’s roots remain firmly planted in the Canal, where he spent his youth, went to school, and learned and loved.
Sitting on a bench near a tree in Pickleweed Park, Eduardo heard the music that could be the soul of San Rafael’s largely Latino neighborhood. Sure, there’s the traditional mariachi music, especially during community celebrations. But listen more closely, and there’s the gentle whistle of a flute … a classical pipe that has led Eduardo and many others down a new path.
Eduardo, 19, is laying out a future as a business professional, but he has not left behind his dreams. His freshman semester at University of Redlands, where he has a double-major in music and accounting, was interrupted by a campus shutdown sparked by fears of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. So, Eduardo returned to his roots. He has a job to help his family pay the bills during a time when so many people are facing unemployment. And he brought his music with him.
“Music and ELM were very impactful, especially for college,” Eduardo said. “I had many opportunities to perform, to play in art museums, to play at immigration protests, to play at concerts, thanks to ELM.”
Jane Kramer handed a recorder to Eduardo nearly 12 years ago and showed him where to put his fingers over the holes and how to blow into the mouthpiece. It might have been the first time he felt the music emerging from within himself.
Eduardo entered the nonprofit Enriching Lives through Music program at about age 7 as one of the first students in Kramer’s class. Kramer established the ELM program in the Canal neighborhood in 2008 as a way to bring classical music to the children of the area.
ELM is described as a multi-year, intensive full scholarship music program that “inspires and empowers youth from San Rafael’s under-resourced Canal neighborhood to envision and achieve excellence in all facets of their lives through music education, performance, and participation in a music community. It is committed to the emotional and social well-being of its students.”
ELM is part of a larger international program called El Sistema, which started in Venezuela more than 40 years ago. It is based on the belief that intensive participation in music ensembles, with high expectations for excellence, rigor, and discipline, has a profound impact on the development of resilience, self-esteem, creativity and critical thinking skills.
“I looked at El Sistema and that’s exactly what I wanted to do here,” Kramer said. “We commit to our kids for their whole childhood, through high school and into college.”
Kramer started ELM with 15 students and gave recorders — simple flute-like instruments — to each. Eduardo still has his recorder and practices with it, even though he has advanced to learn the saxophone and now the piano.
Eduardo encouraged his younger sister to pick up an instrument and she is now another ELM student.
“I saw a gap with the children in the Canal who couldn’t play instruments,” Kramer said. “Once they got to Davidson or Venetia Valley middle schools, they were not able to easily access the ensemble music programs because they couldn’t play instruments.”
Kramer, on a sabbatical from her job at Institute for Adolescent Health Policy at UCSF, set out to close that gap as she founded the ELM program in 2008. Once she saw the joy on her students’ faces and heard the music they played, “I never went back to UCSF,” she said.
ELM and its teachers and students have overcome the barriers of language, economics and uncertainty to see the program grow steadily. Roughly 20-30 new students enroll each year. ELM has received assistance from the Marin Community Foundation and other groups to purchase more instruments, including flutes, trumpets, violins and cellos. Students are offered scholarships and are not required to audition in order to join the program.
The ELM program prides itself as not only a musical education center, but a community meeting place and support system. Earlier this month, ELM launched a GoFundMe to support struggling Canal families. Kramer initially set the goal for $15,000. Within only few weeks ELM had raised nearly $45,000 that will go directly to ELM families for rent, groceries, and other critical needs. The fund is nearing $10,000 in reserves to help the community.
“We do more than teach music,” Kramer said. “We support our kids academically and we support the community.”
The shelter-in-place orders have made classes difficult, but not impossible for ELM as well. Instructors are pre-recording group lessons and posting them to Youtube and offering one-on-one musical instruction via Zoom. “We shut down very quickly having never done distance learning before,” Kramer said. “It was a steep learning curve, but an incredibly impressive one.”
ELM is currently launching a new online program, a ukulele class for parents. The parents of ELM students are given the instruments and learn how to play them through online classes, sometimes with additional help from their own children. “They can play as an ensemble and sing on Zoom,” Kramer said.
Kramer found early on in her own life how music can change lives and the world. She started playing with a recorder at age 7, and quickly advanced to playing the oboe by age 12 and was considered a talented musician. She attended the Fine Arts Conservatory in Miami, Fla., co-founded by pianist Ruth Greenfield, who pushed for integration in the heavily segregated city of the time.
Kramer never pursued a career as a professional musician, but music has become a major part of her life. And she is returning to her roots as she has reconnected with Greenfield recently to take piano lessons.
Kramer and one of the ELM teachers also helped Eduardo find a piano so he could keep practicing while at home from school.
“It’s something I learned in my community. I want to give back,” Eduardo said. “Once I finish college, I want to return home and go back and help teach music students.”
The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree in this neighborhood.