Ren Martin-Doike Works with El Sistema’s “Kalikolehua”: Budding New Opportunities for Young Hawaiians

After an appearance on From the Top in 2008 (Show 192), violinist Ren Martin-Doike (now studying viola at the Curtis Institute) has been all about making connections with others through music. We’ve shared a number of these connections on our blog over the years, including a demonstration on the similarities between a string quartet and a rock band  for an eager class of 1st graders,  and a letter offering advice to young musicians on ways to prepare for the dreaded “college audition”. We just heard from Ren about her most recent adventure with the program “Kalikolehua” – the Hawaiian branch of El Sistema USA. A talented writer as well as an inspiring musician, Ren shared this beautiful reflection on her experience:  

Dear From the Top,

It is with great excitement that I share my recent experience with Kalikolehua, the El Sistema program in my home state of Hawai‘i.  Kalikolehua draws its name from two Hawaiian words: kaliko for bud, symbolizing the children or keiki of Hawai‘i, and lehua for the the volcano goddess Pele’s flower, which is the first plant to break through new soil after volcanic eruption. Auspiciously christened with powerful imagery, Kalikolehua was founded in October 2010 and is a burgeoning program serving to inspire the children of Hawai‘i to harness music as a vehicle to rise above poverty toward excellence and to grow a stronger sense of community through music.

A kindergarten classroom with a clear view of the ocean is where the music, and the magic, happens in Kalikolehua’s first nucleo at Ka‘a‘awa Elementary School.  From the moment I stepped foot into that classroom I could see how Kalikolehua was already bringing the Ka‘a‘awa community together through music.  On any given day in Mrs. White’s classroom there were bound to be curious visitors of all sorts.  Parents, siblings and classmates served as willing audience members for end of class impromptu performances daily and even the school’s principal Jennifer Luke-Paine often picked up a violin or recorder and learned along with the class.

The bright-eyed young musicians shared what they were learning freely and generously, from reminding each other to keep good posture to teaching their frequent guests all of the words to their songs.  It was quickly evident to me that these children were already serving their classroom and community as peer mentors.

It was this spirit of musical sharing that met me in Ka‘a‘awa on my first day as a young teacher with Kalikolehua.  After singing songs of cheerful greetings together, the students were intrigued to learn what instrument I had brought and why it looked so big.  When they learned that I played the viola they squealed with delight and broke into song.  And not just any song, but a viola song, sung to the tune of B-I-N-G-O, which teaches counting, rhythm and spelling.  Before long we were all having a great time learning and making music together.

After a short break where the children ran around in the grassy schoolyard alongside local chickens against a picturesque backdrop of beautifully green and jagged mountains, it was time to reconvene indoors for the last portion of class.  The children displayed their concentration and memory by playing through some of the pieces they worked on earlier in class for a gathering small audience.  When they heard the proud applause of their family the little musicians bowed instinctively.  It was so cute to watch!  As a treat for their good behavior, I would share some music I was working on while they sat on the floor wiggly, yet riveted.

Before I performed for them, we talked a little about the piece I was about to play.  I asked the class if any of them had heard of a composer named “Bach” before. A few hands flew up.  Some of students wondered what a composer was.   A small boy volunteered to explain that a composer is somebody who writes music.  To remember Johann Sebastian, or Papa, Bach’s name we decided to find a mnemonic close by – the “bawk” of the neighborhood chickens!  As soon as the air had cleared of gleeful “bawk, Bach!” noises, I announced that I was about to play was a type of dance from the time of Mr. Bach and asked the children to guess what kind of dance they thought it was.  I then put up my viola and proceeded to play the courante from Bach’s sixth cello suite.

“Happy!” a number of them shouted out.  “Fast,” added another.  I agreed, continuing that the name of the movement, courante, came from the French word for running.  “Did anyone hear any parts that were not so happy?” I asked.  Quizzical looks now flashed across the faces looking up at me.  “What about this part,” I asked before playing a more melancholy excerpt from the second half of the movement.  “It sounds sad,” one of the children observed.  “But after that it was happy again,” followed another.  After a fun first day of musical sharing it was already time for the young musicians to join their families and go home, yet the continual raising of their small hands showed that they were still full of questions.  I fielded many of the staples of outreach performances such as “when did you begin playing your instrument?” before we were down to one last question.  A smiling girl raised her hand and asked “can you play for us again?” to echoes of agreement from her classmates.  “I would love to,” I replied.

I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to become a part of this wonderful new musical community on my recent trip home.  Though I only had a few days to spend teaching, performing and learning with the little Lehua buds of Kalikolehua – El Sistema Hawai‘i this time, I look forward to playing as active a role as I possibly can with Kalikolehua in near future.  I cannot wait to visit the program again next year when it will have grown to include even more instruments and more keiki, or children, of Hawai‘i!

Ren Martin-Doike