WEST LOOP — As a girl of 11, a Pilsen mom wanted nothing more than to play the violin.
She went to a community center in Pilsen and signed up for lessons. But her teacher, an elderly white woman, ignored the young Hispanic girl and would not even tune her violin. After five classes, the girl went home and did not return.
That 11-year-old is now 50. And, in a few months, Mayra Bravo-Gonzalez will put her daughter Yesenia, a 17-year-old violinist, on a plane to Japan for the Suzuki Method World Convention.
Yesenia and 17 other students in Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings program have been chosen to represent their school at the convention, a five-day opportunity for students from around the world to learn from Suzuki masters.
The school is partially funding the trip through donations, but half the money needed for the trip must still be raised before the students leave in March.
All three of Bravo-Gonzalez’s children play the violin, but the chance to travel and play in Japan was not an opportunity available to her other children.
“It’s something we were not able to afford,” said Bravo-Gonzalez, a resident of Pilsen.
Thomas Bracy, executive director at Merit, said the trip would be an unrivaled opportunity for many of the students.
“We work with many children at risk,” he said. “Many of them don’t get outside their own neighborhoods.”
The Alegre Strings program, celebrating its 15th anniversary, is a Suzuki method that uses traditional Latino songs to get families in communities such as Pilsen and Little Village interested in classical music.
“But instead of using all of the Japanese folk songs, it uses the Latino folk songs. So it’s relevant to the student’s culture and history,” Bracy said.
The students have also been invited to perform pieces from Alegre Strings at the convention, an honor that will allow an international crowd to experience the Chicago-based program.
Bravo-Gonzalez worked at Merit School of Music, 38 S. Peoria St., for 12 years and was also instrumental in bringing the Alegre Strings program to Merit.
For many Latino children or parents, finding that “connection” to classical music is key, and the Alegre Strings program helps make that connection possible, she said.
“Once you have the hook and you’ve got the bug, I think then you can expose kids to the Suzuki pieces,” she said. “Then they’re exposed to those and begin to love and feel the passion for classical music.”
Yesenia is nervous about going to Japan but excited to learn more about the culture and to practice her Japanese, which she took for nine years in grammar school.
“I think there’s a certain thing with soup, like you have to slurp your noodles to say that you are enjoying your meal,” she said. “So we are all going to practice slurping our noodles.”
For Yesenia, playing the violin is a visceral experience she compares to singing.
“‘Emotional roller coaster.’ That’s how I would say [playing violin] is. Like, I don’t feel like I’m in a different place. But different emotions wash over me. It’s really fun to experience,” she said.