Student Violinist from Brazil Founds Orchestra for Underserved Children

Deborah Dos Santos and children from the People's Music School

CHICAGO, IL (February 25, 2009) – Six years ago Deborah Dos Santos was 17 years old and playing her violin on the streets of Port Alegre, Brazil, so that pedestrians walking by might toss some coins into the instrument case. She hoped the money would cover the rent for a room in a house that was home to 10 other families.

“It was a very bad structure,” she recalls. “They hated me because I practiced the whole time.”

Today, the 23-year-old North Park University junior is pursuing degrees in music and business and is considered among the best Brazilian violinists of her generation. She has traveled the world and performed with renowned orchestras such as the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and the Symphonic Orchestra of the National Theater Claudio Santoro.

Discovered on the streets of Brazil by a member of one of the country’s largest symphonies, she was supported financially and encouraged by those who recognized her extraordinary talent.

“I want to provide the same opportunity I had,” says Dos Santos, who last October, formed an orchestra for poor children in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. She was inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema, a publicly funded program that has drawn worldwide attention for its ability to raise children from poverty by teaching them classical music.

Dos Santos herself began seeking refuge at a government-operated music school in Brazil at age 10 to escape an unstable family life. Each day after her regular classes, she would take individual and orchestral lessons as well as practice from 1–10 p.m. to avoid going home. “The music school became my home,” she recalls. “The people I played with and the teachers were like my second family.”

Dos Santos’ current teacher, Richard Young, brought her to Chicago and to North Park University, where she received a full scholarship. He also introduced her to the Peoples Music School in Uptown and the institution’s founder, Rita Simo.

Simo started the People’s Music School in 1976 in order to provide free music lessons to those who could not afford them. Dos Santos became a volunteer teacher at the school and announced her desire to reach an even greater number of underserved youth. So far, she has raised nearly $30,000 of instruments for the children’s orchestra and recently struck a deal with one of the largest online suppliers of stringed instruments for more. Every day after school, a host of volunteer teachers— including a Grammy nominated violinist and a Julliard-educated pianist—instruct the students. They hold group lessons according to instrument three days a week, and then students practice as an orchestra the remaining days.

“She is amazing,” says Simo, emphasizing that the program would not happen without Dos Santos. Young marvels at the dedication of his student, who even returned to Venezuela to learn how to implement El Sistema.

“This is a girl who really knows how to pay back,” he says.