More than ‘just a bunch of noise’

Union City Music Project teaches harmonious life lessons; will hold expansion fundraiser

“When we moved here I wasn’t aware I would be having children, and once I did I was a little hesitant to stay in the area,” Union City resident and mother Mary Trigg said last week. “My husband and I are creative people, and music is the first thing taken out of a budget. But since my daughter enrolled in the Union City Music Project (UCMP), we’re going to stay here. That’s how strongly I feel about the program.”
Trigg’s 4-year-old daughter, Olivia Mulraney, spent the month of July building her own paper violin alongside 49 other students fortunate enough to have been accepted into the non-profit music program that recently started in Union City. The program is free.
UCMP’s founder, Melina Garcia, quit her job working for the Bill Clinton Foundation October of last year so she could devote all of her time to the program, which is based on Venezuela’s legendary free youth orchestra, “El Sistema.” She has since received several private and public donations and grants, and the city’s Board of Education loaned her the Early Childhood Center on 22nd Street over the summer.

“Since my daughter enrolled in the Union City Music Project, we’re going to stay [in Union City].” – Mary Trigg
But as she has built the program from scratch, Melina has a long way to go. UCMP has generated so much interest she can hardly keep up, she said, and is devastated when she has to turn children – and their eager parents – down.
“I get daily e-mails from parents who have heard about our program,” Garcia said. “It’s not that the children are not allowed in the program, it’s that I simply don’t have the capacity. I was able to get this thing working from nothing, and I still think, ‘Wow, imagine how great this could be.’ ”

Roots in ‘El Sistema’

“The idea is to teach everything in an orchestral setting and to emphasize the importance of teamwork between children in different age groups,” Garcia explained. “It helps with bullying, and it provides a positive and compassionate environment for children to grow in.”
Garcia grew up in Venezuela and was inspired by her own experience with the country’s rigorous “El Sistema” music program for youths. When she moved to Union City, she believed the city to be the perfect environment to begin her own version of the program.
In 1975, musician and economist Jose Antonio Abreu created a system of youth orchestras in Venezuela with the notion that the orchestra is an ideal microcosm of life as a whole. The discipline, community, and talent of group musicianship can help create the foundation for a thriving, healthy society. But one must start early.
Students as young as 2 attend free local music class groups called “nucleos” up to six days a week for around four hours a day, not including the many supplemental retreats and intensive workshops.
“Students in our program aren’t competing against each other, but working together,” Garcia said. “You cannot make music without team work. If there is no harmony, music is just a bunch of noise.”
Musical giants such as as Los Angeles’ Philharmonic Director Gustavo Dudamel, world-renowned bassist Edicson Ruiz, and the popular Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra share roots in “El Sistema,” and the program has around 50 American variations nationwide.

The benefits of UCMP

UCMP has held two sessions thus far. The first began in March and ran for three months, during which students built paper violins with their parents and learned the finer points of form, instrument construction, and working together in a mock orchestral setting.
The summer session ran in July and offered students a more intensive music immersion, including body movement and basic music reading lessons twice a week..
“Parents and children build instruments together for several reasons, the first of which is financial since thus far we cannot afford the real thing,” Garcia said. “The second is to create that bonding experience. The program requires parent cooperation and the violins helped draw them in.”
At the summer session’s conclusion, the 3 to 5-year-old students came together for a paper orchestra recital.
Four-year-old Gabriella Cordero was among them, and she loved it, according to her mother Samarah.
“This is something she’s so interested in now, and I’m hoping she will carry it through in the future,” Cordero explained. “They’re so young, if they’re instilled with music now, there are so many ways this could help them in the future. Maybe Gabriella will become a composer or a music teacher or wind up in Juliard.”

For the future

Garcia hopes to start the next session in September. In late July, she received a $15,000 grant from the Geraldine Dodge Foundation, which was a gift because the foundation usually does not work with start-up organizations.
“They saw the potential in the program and I’m so thankful,” she said. “Thanks to them, and to the generous donations from the community, we hope to expand the program.”
Garcia wants to increase the number of students she can accept, add more teachers, and, of course, eventually bring in real instruments. The Sept. 12 UCMP fundraiser she will hold at 7 p.m. at Park Avenue Bar and Grill, located at 3417 Park Ave., will help her achieve the latter goal, she said.
“It’s been such a fantastic experience, and the children are amazing,” Garcia said. “If all continues to go well, one day perhaps we will have our orchestra.”
For more information on the Union City Music Project, visit

Gennarose Pope may be reached at


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