For Jane Kramer, a Ph.D. working in an adolescent health policy research position at UCSF, the third time really was a charm. After three attempts to secure a Time Out grant from Vassar College in which recipients are encouraged to “pursue a passion and/or take a risk,” the college finally selected her, on the condition that she drop her idea for a music school and simply focus on her childhood love of playing the oboe.
“It turned out to be the biggest gift of all because I spent a full year playing my oboe and traveling to study with some of the best oboists in the country,” she says. And in the end, that experience led her right back to where she started, ready to leave her research position and start a small music school for underserved youth in the Canal neighborhood, not far from her Larkspur home. “I was really centered in my own musicianship again, and able to do it.”
So in 2008, Kramer bought 15 recorder instruments and opened Enriching Lives through Music (ELM) in San Rafael, a program inspired by the Miami Fine Arts Conservatory, an accessible and inclusive school of the arts that she had attended as a child. The program requires a serious commitment from the students and their families: three days of practice a week after school plus Saturdays for the entirety of their childhood — and nearly all stay with it.
“It gives them a chance to get academic scholarship and feel that they are really excellent at something,” Kramer says. “By the time they are in high school they’re phenomenal musicians and most of them become the lead in their orchestra band in school.”
ELM is modeled after El Sistema, a program started in Venezuela in 1975 by composer and conductor Jose Antonio Abreu that has gone on to offer free music education to some 800,000 in-need students across the world. The idea is to offer full scholarships to kids to attend the multiyear, intensive program that builds music skills, academic proficiency and social connections.
One such ELM student is Nicolas Lau, who started on recorder at age 7 and is now a confident 17-year-old high school senior whose skill in violin has taken him on tours to Los Angeles, Boston, Aspen and even Europe, often by himself. “If it weren’t for ELM I would not be where I am right now; they’ve given me so many opportunities,” Lau says. “I love having a community full of musicians. Just having the same interest and sharing the love for music with other people is amazing.”
It’s not just that first group of kids who has matured; the school — which depends on grants and donations to finance the $7,000-per-student yearly scholarships — has also grown. It now serves 175 local students, has added brass and woodwind to the violin and cello offerings, and boasts 12 teachers and a conductor. And before the pandemic, performances eventually had to be moved to a larger venue at the Marin Civic Center to accommodate all those who wanted to attend.
As for what kind of music the children — mostly Mexican and Guatemalan students from immigrant families — play, Kramer says it is a combination of everything from classical to mariachi to contemporary and folk-style Latin. Kramer adds, “We recently did a beautiful Guatemalan piece where we collaborated with the foremost Guatemalan marimba player, and he performed with us in our Zoom concert.”