(The Santa Cecilia Orchestra performs the program “Fate and Passion” at the Alex Theatre, in Glendale, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006. Sonia Marie de León De Vega, Music director/conductor. Maria Bermudez, flamenco artist. (Photos by Damian Dovarganes))

Latina conductor uses classical music to brighten children’s lives

Sonia Marie De Leon de Vega heard classical music for the first time at age six. She was changing the radio dial and stopped to listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 – she was mesmerized. Right away, she told her piano teacher she wanted to play it. De Leon de Vega didn’t waste any time either when she saw the need for classical music in Los Angeles public schools. She created an educational program called “Discovering Music” which teaches about 20,000 students a year.

This Sunday, her 80-member orchestra Santa Cecilia, will be performing their annual “Latinos Clásicos” concert in Los Angeles, where she is now applauded by a standing room of more than 1,000 audience members – who are mostly Latino.

“I wanted to take music to the Latino community,” says the feminine and powerfully voiced De Leon de Vega about her mission two decades ago. “I bought the music and got the musicians together for a free concert at a church Highland Park in Los Angeles.”

She says back then, she only had 28 musicians, and only 12 people showed up.

Latina conductor uses classical music to brighten children’s lives soniaconductor2 people NBC Latino News
(Photos/Rodolfo Vega)

“I thought, ‘Wow, ok, this is not going to be easy. There has been no access to classical music. You can’t present something and expect them to be there all of a sudden. It’s hard to convince an adult, so I’m going to do it with the children because they are open-minded.”

She started going to schools that didn’t have music in their curriculum in East Los Angeles. She personally went to every classroom so each student could get the opportunity to know the different instruments of the orchestra. She started three youth orchestras and a free string program with free instruments and lessons every week throughout the school, including violin, viola and cello.

It’s been 12 years since starting this program, and the kindergarteners she started with are now going on to high school. She says although so many lives were touched, there’s so much more to do.

“Art is important to put beauty in a child’s life,” says De Leon de Vega. “It improved my self esteem, and it taught me self discipline, because you have to work at it everyday…I wasn’t having any problems as a teenager because I had my music. If you put a violin, in a child’s hand, they will never pick up a gun.”

One day, she says she walked into a classroom with an armful of questionnaires, because she wanted to see how students felt when they heard classical music. She says comments like this one from a fourth grade girl serves as her inspiration:

“I felt as if everything bad, and there is a lot of bad inside of me, floated away and it could never ever come back.”

“What other subject could do that?,” says De Leon de Vega. “I saw so many comments so close to that. One boy wrote, ‘I felt as if a light has gone on in a black room;’ and a 15-year-old gang member said, ‘I’m really tough and nothing has ever moved me or touched me, but this music touched my soul.’ I’m very inspired, those comments keep me going. I know what it is doing.”

Although De Leon de Vega’s days are full working with students, she still wakes up early to make breakfast, lunch and dinner in the morning for her 14-year-old son and husband. Then she goes to the orchestra office, where she is also is in charge of fundraising and meetings, rehearses with the orchestra for a few hours, and then goes back home to help her son with his homework.

“I enjoy it all,” says the humble woman who doesn’t even mention that she is the only woman in history to conduct a symphony orchestra at a Vatican Papal Mass. She only focuses on the fact that she absolutely loves to see the same reaction with kids that she had when she first heard classical music.

She says her goal is to have her program continue even after she’s gone.

“The concert on Sunday will bring 90 percent Latinos and families, but it’s the children begging the family to go,” she says. “They introduce their parents to it. They are really excited about this…To truly put culture in a child’s life, it must be experienced as a family.”


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