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‘More confident’: Indy kids learn ukulele and how to perform

Mia Lopez (left) smiles after finishing playing a song on ukulele with classmates May 2, 2024, during an El Sistema after-school music education program at Meredith Nicholson School 96 in Indianapolis. Credit: Jenna Watson/Mirror Indy

(MIRROR INDY) — Abi Chinchilla sat in the corner of the bustling gym, surrounded by a half dozen other students strumming their instruments. Concentrating on the paper in front of her, she slowly picked up her ukulele and joined them.

Chinchilla — who is sometimes shy, her mom says — didn’t show signs of it May 3 at the Harrison Center. The IPS fifth grader darted across the community center’s gym and laughed along with classmates just minutes before their warm up. The group was next in line to perform at the center’s regular First Friday event. 

This month’s event coincided with the IMS Porch Party, drawing lines down the block. But Abi — whose dad, grandmother and sister all joined her mom in the front row of the audience — wasn’t nervous. It’s her third year with El Sistema Indianapolis, and it’s become a place she’ll feel sad to leave when she goes to middle school next year.

“It’s a good opportunity,” she said, thinking of advice she’d give classmates. “It may seem crazy at first, and it will be crazy, but you will get comfortable with it.”

El Sistema Indianapolis provides free music education to students who otherwise might lack access. The nonprofit started its first program in an Indy school four years ago at George Washington Carver School 87 and launched a second group this year at Meredith Nicholson School 96.

El Sistema places an emphasis on teaching music as a means of building community and contributing to students’ growth socially. Abi’s mom, Carmen Chinchilla, said it was a good fit for her daughter because she’d already shown an interest in guitar. She credits the program with helping bring Abi out of her shell.

“These kinds of events at the beginning were very hard for her, but now she likes it,” Carmen Chinchilla said. “She feels more confident.” 

How El Sistema began

El Sistema Indianapolis is inspired by a movement that originated in Venezuela, which seeks to provide classical music education to all children, regardless of their background or ability to pay. The program has since expanded globally with the El Sistema USA organization supporting 140 member programs across the U.S. and Canada.

Katie McDermitt Blandford, executive director of the Indianapolis group, said El Sistema first started in Indianapolis after a steering committee of music educators and advocates identified a need for more accessible music education in the city.

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McDermitt Blandford studied the international organization’s methodology years ago during a study abroad trip to Venezuela when she was in college. She said it added to her excitement when she heard a group was trying to start up El Sistema in Indianapolis.

El Sistema traditionally teaches orchestral instruments. The Indy program decided on the ukulele after surveying parents, McDermitt Blandford said. The instrument is affordable and, with its four strings, is easy to teach beginners. She’s also hopeful the program will help build an early interest in string instruments in a state that often sees students choose band over orchestra in high school.

Ukuleles are provided for every student for the length of the 10-week program and there’s no cost to join. This spring, the program had about 10 students in second through fourth grade at School 96 and 25 second through fifth graders at School 87. 

Students meet after school twice a week. They start with simple chord progressions and strum patterns and move up into songs they can perform together.

In this year’s end-of-semester concert at the Harrison Center, students performed “Best Day of My Life” by the band American Authors, “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic and “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons. 

McDermitt Blandford said the group usually picks contemporary songs because the kids respond well to songs they already know. “Riptide” by Vance Joy is a recent favorite.

What’s next for El Sistema

The group has school concerts each semester, but McDermitt Blandford says the group also plans a series of public concerts so students can perform for bigger audiences. McDermitt Blandford said there’s a hope in the long term to grow the program to other schools within IPS. 

The nonprofit is also gearing up for a summer program at Brookside Park.

“This is really exciting because it gives them a chance to play for people besides their family members and their friends,” she said. “I call it being welcomed into the arts community.”

Sara Collins said her daughter had trouble making friends and has grown since joining El Sistema. Sarriah Cannon, who’s a fourth grader at School 87, said she likes how encouraging mentors are within the program. She said she’s excited to continue in El Sistema next year and to learn “new patterns, new songs and to meet a lot more new people.”

“They said ‘once you go down, always get back up,’” Cannon said. “It’s OK to start doing something.”

Mirror Indy reporter Carley Lanich covers early childhood and K-12 education. Contact her at or follow her on X @carleylanich.