Salinas Youth Orchestra teaches classical music and life s…


There’s a youth orchestra in Salinas made up mostly of students from lower-income, underserved communities. The focus isn’t just on turning local young people into classical musicians — it’s also about giving them life skills they’ll carry with them into adulthood.

On a typical rehearsal day, some 200 students go in and out of the Salinas Youth Orchestra, each going to separate classes for their respective instrumental groups: upper strings, lower strings, brass, and woodwinds.

The program is open to all students in the Salinas area, and ranges from 1st to 12th graders. About 90% of the students enrolled come from low-income households, which plays a huge role in why YOSAL emphasizes not just the experience, but also the quality of their music.

“Unfortunately, society doesn’t generally have very high expectations of this demographic: of underserved, at-risk, low income, Hispanic people,” said Executive Director Ameena Khawaja. “There’s really a prejudice against it and there’s just not a lot of expectation. You know, it’s great if you graduate high school, it’s amazing if you go to college, right? Whereas in other demographics, that’s just expected — and that’s what you do.”

Khawaja said that’s the key to understanding why the organization cares so much about producing good musicians: because they have been denied the privilege of expectation.

“Being able to have a Youth Orchestra that is just blowing things out of the water quality wise and is made up of this demographic not only shows the community that they better have expectations, but it also teaches our students and our families to have expectations of themselves,” she said. “Because if society doesn’t have that of you then it’s hard to have that of yourself, right?”

Khawaja says a lot of the students had no musical experience before joining the program, let alone with classical music — which is why it’s so fulfilling when they end up mastering an instrument they may have never had access to otherwise.

Iván Pineda Barajas is one of those students. He’s in 10th grade, and he’s been taking classes at YOSAL for 11 years, starting when he was six years old.

“Well originally, I’m pretty sure it’s because my mom was like, ‘I don’t want to deal with y’all after school, so that’s an opportunity y’all to, like, do something productive,’” he said.

Iván plays the horn, the trombone, the tuba, and the trumpet. He’s learned all of it at YOSAL, and now he’s considering a career as a musician.

YOSAL's 2022 flyer provides information in both English and Spanish.

YOSAL’s 2022 flyer provides information in both English and Spanish.

He recently played a few pieces alongside professional musicians at California State University Monterey Bay as a part of a program called the California Orchestra Academy, which YOSAL is a fiscal sponsor of. One of the songs was an original piece written by Eliodoro Vallecillo, a brass specialist who’s also an instructor at YOSAL.

Vallecillo has been teaching at YOSAL for about five years. He’s the one who taught Iván how to play the tuba. And, just like Iván, he’s a Salinas native. He comes from a world impacted heavily by gang violence, and he said that music has changed his life.

“If it wasn’t for music, I wouldn’t have known the world outside of Salinas or met any people outside of this community. And, really, music for me… it was a life-saving kind of gift,” he saic. “I come from a neighborhood that was heavily impacted by gang violence. My brother was murdered and he was part of that world. And so kind of what I saw growing up was just that world.”

Now, Vallecillo uses his teaching position at YOSAL to give the gift of music back to his community. It goes further than just the music, though. He said what the organization really wants to do is empower their students to become better people — on and off the stage.

“It just kind of makes you a more well-rounded individual, really. Not just a great musician, but it just helps you all-around as well with, like, discipline,” he explained. “I’ve noticed that a lot of students here, especially with Iván. He’s been really stepping up to the plate and just taking on different things. Whether it’s trumpet, horn, tuba… he does it all.”

Vallecillo and Iván are good friends now. And it seems like Iván is taking his lessons to heart.

“The bar is always getting higher because you can never stop learning how to play,” Iván said. “Because… you can always be better.”

For more information about YOSAL, including how to join, you can visit YOSAL.org.

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