Video by: Norma Rubio, NBC News
Sonia Marie De Léon de Vega heard classical music for the first time at age six. She remembers changing the radio dial and stopping to listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 – she was mesmerized. Right away, she told her piano teacher she wanted to play it. As an adult, she created her own 80-member orchestra, Santa Cecilia, as well as an educational program called “Discovering Music,” which teaches about 20,000 students a year in 16 elementary school across Los Angeles, Calif.
Most recently, she is gearing up for her 20th anniversary season, as well as giving birth to a new youth orchestra, in November, for students in six to eight high schools in Los Angeles.
“There are a lot of gangs and drugs here, so I’d love to provide this opportunity for these youth,” says De Léon de Vega. “We’re really excited…We hope to reach all the schools in the area. A lot of these students know us from elementary school.”
She says when she first started her orchestra, she only had 28 members, and only 12 people showed up to her first concert. Nearly two decades later, 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 Léon de Vega. “I bought the music and got the musicians together for a free concert at a church Highland Park in Los Angeles.”
She says she loves educating people about music, especially young people, because it brings beauty to their world.
“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,” says De Léon de Vega. “If you put a violin in a child’s hand, they will never pick up a gun.”
The earlier they are exposed, the better the influence it has on them, she explains.
“What you’re teaching them is it’s for them too – it’s not just for rich people,” says De Léon de Vega. “A lot of the musicians they hear – a lot of those rock groups, they love classical music. You can hear it on Pandora, or on the internet, to expose it to them.”
What’s different about her “Discovery Music” program is that unlike other programs, which put kids in an auditorium, De Léon de Vega actually goes into each classroom.
“If a school has 40 classrooms we go to all of them,” she says. “I send different musicians that play different instruments. We let them hear them together, and it leads up to the concert at the end of the year. I wanted to find an interesting intimate way to have an impact on them.”
De Léon de Vega says it not only helps in their grades, but in their life.
“Once you open the door to music, they might want to play it too,” she says. “It builds their attention span and they’re self esteem. We need something in the world where kids are used to instant gratification through video games, and life isn’t like that.”
She says she’s proud of seeing her first vision of having Latino families at classical music concerts come to life, but she’s not done.
“What I would really like to see change is to see more Latinos in orchestras,” says the only woman in history to conduct a symphony orchestra at a Vatican Papal Mass. “We don’t have many people of color at all in orchestras, and I’d like to see what little I can do to change that.”