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What Is That ‘YAMA Feeling’?

YAMA Program

Hi, I’m Jen (or Mrs. Moultine, as my students call me) and I have been one of the YAMA Teaching Artists since January of 2014. I think all of us who teach at YAMA have varied and big reasons for why we do what we do. By its very nature, this job requires a certain buy-in of the heart. As with any start up, there are limited resources, many obstacles to overcome, and few guarantees. So why do we do this? I can’t answer for my colleagues, but I can at least try to rub up against why I am a part of this thing.

First, though, I have a question for you: Do you believe in magic? Or, if it is easier on your sensibilities to rephrase the word ‘magic’, do you believe in the power of intention?

Okay, I am aware of the fact that there may be many eyes rolling right now, which is just fine. But before I get into that, I have a confession:

I don’t work at YAMA because of altruism alone, though, of course, there is a certain satisfaction in doing work that makes a difference.

I don’t work at YAMA because I love teaching music so much that I can’t imagine doing anything else. In fact, I never wanted to teach music; it always seemed like such a huge and impossible task, to turn a hoard of young, squirrely, usually hormonal non-musicians into skilled participants of an ensemble while somehow surviving all of that horrible intonation. Frankly, I never thought I was up to the task.

I don’t work at YAMA because of the oodles of cash that I bring home every pay period. Okay, you’re right, this is sarcasm. Music teachers do not make oodles of cash. Neither do non-profit employees, generally speaking.

I am a part of YAMA because I love YAMA itself – the students, my colleagues, the community that supports the program, the creative energy it carries, the way it asks me to grow and stretch every day, and the fact that I get to show up with all of me to do this job.

Two elated cellists after their first solo recital:

Daniela, left, Heidi, right.

                                            When was the last time you got to see smiles like these?


All of the Teaching Artists at YAMA come from varied backgrounds, giving us a collective wealth of abilities and knowledge to draw from. We have been a small team with a big dream and a whole heap of integrity, and I think we have begun to create something really unique and incredible, something that feeds not only the vision we hold for the students we are fortunate enough to work with, but that also feeds us. Daily.

Some of us started out on our career paths knowing we wanted to teach music. Others of us, like I said, not so much. My path to YAMA has been a winding one, and I really never would have guessed, had you asked me 10, or even 5, or even 3 years ago, that this is where I would be right now. Yet it doesn’t feel accidental. (If you were paying attention at the beginning then this might be where you are asking yourself, “Is this where the magic comes in?” The answer is yes. In a roundabout kind of way.)

When did you first learn about El Sistema? Maybe you heard about it from a friend, or maybe you did some research after watching the Super Bowl halftime show last month. Maybe you just know about it because of YAMA, or maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, in which case I really recommend you check out this short talk by Jose Antonio Abreu, one of the founders of El Sistema. (It’s only 16 minutes long. Just watch it – you won’t regret it, even if you’ve seen it before.)

I learned about El Sistema right after spending a few months living and studying in Ecuador. I went down there to learn, to push myself, and to re-organize my brain and heal some personal stuff. I was fresh from the jungle when I first watched Tocar y Luchar, translated as ‘To Play and To Fight’, a documentary about El Sistema in Venezuela. I connected deeply and immediately to this film for many reasons.

On the surface, I think I was really missing the culture of warmth, physical closeness, noise, and color that I had just come home from.

(If you’ve spent time in Latin America, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, allow me to paint you a little picture: On one of the many long, crowded bus trips I took across Ecuador, I had a 4 year old leaning against my right arm while she held her baby brother in her lap and an old woman sleeping on my left shoulder (all total strangers to me), a woman behind me holding three chickens by their feet so they slept, a man in the back of the bus chasing down his chickens that he had accidently let wake up, Reggaeton blasting from the magenta and gold tasseled speakers just over the head of a young boy sitting on a sack full of corn on his way to market, and at every stop swarms of children and adults alike boarding the bus to sell anything from chicle to helados to bracelets to t-shirts. Surrounded by all of this for hours, I felt comfortable, grounded, at ease. Not right away, mind you, but eventually you find your center amidst so much . . . er . . . so much. It was like I was being held my all this life around me. And then there was the incredible natural beauty everywhere, which in and of itself is nourishing to a person, and the whole living in the jungle thing, which is another story altogether.

Coto, the baby howler monkey, who I was “mom” to a few days a week while I volunteered atamaZoonico

A little deeper down, though, there was this thing tugging at my insides – this sense that this life I had come home to wasn’t quite right. The music degree I was trying to finish seemed cold and remote compared to the vibrant groundedness of where I had just been. This institution of classical music education felt so controlled, so sterile, so confined, and, most depressing of all, elitist and exclusive. In an attempt to be honest, my own baggage was absolutely tied to this assessment, particularly the first 3 items on the list. But it is hard to deny the tradition of the last two. (If this isn’t obvious to you, then watch that Abreu talk.)

Deeply affected by my time in Ecuador, I felt like I wanted to participate in something that could help break cycles of privilege and inequity, and I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how playing classical cello could do that. This doubt, added to my recurring playing injuries and performance anxiety, gave shape to a balloon of grief that began to inflate in my chest.

Jungle transportation/simple life. Photo credit:

I was disoriented and depressed. Yet this growing grief and uncertainty was carving space for something to come in, making room for a seed to be planted. This is why I don’t think that the timing of when I was first introduced to El Sistema was accidental. (There it is again…)

It was love at first sight. A hopeless, tearful, seemingly unrequited, this-is-impossible-for-me-in-reality kind of love. But I loved everything about it – the message, the promise, the results that seemed so clear, the combination of vibrancy and discipline, and the bold social justice of it. 

And yet I was raw, young, and deeply insecure. So what did I do with this big love? I pushed it out of my mind while I tried to figure out what I should do with my life. I tried to be practical, realistic. Makes sense, right? Try to follow your heart while denying a big part of it. Totally reasonable.

Have you ever done that? Have you loved something so much and felt so unworthy of it that you pushed it away? Do you still have a little kernel of something wedged inside you, maybe between your ribs or just under your clavicle, just waiting to be plucked out and brought into the light to grow? If so, I encourage you not to give up on the idea that it might yet come to materialize – this whisper of a dream, this fragment of a vision.

There was a decade of time between when I was in Ecuador, resetting my insides, and when I first started working at YAMA. I went to the jungle because I listened to a whisper from my childhood – the desire to live with monkeys in the Amazon – which I had convinced myself in my practical mind would never come to pass. Until, suddenly, there the opportunity was, right in front of me.

And after years of dreaming big dreams of an integrated and accessible music education program (which seemed so out of reach for me to be a part of, let alone contribute to) and working in seemingly disparate disciplines, I suddenly found El Sistema in my back yard and myself ready to bring all these bits and pieces of my experience together to help create something new, along with a team full of people doing the same.

Accident? Coincidence? I don’t know about you, but that feels kind of magical to me. 

So what do we do at YAMA? And why is it so special?  


Well, friends, I invite you to come visit us to see for yourself.

And in the meantime, stay tuned to our blog for more stories about what we do, how we do it, what questions we are asking, both big and small, and how we are seeking out the answers.  

Finding Their Voice

YAMA Program

As I prepared for my second year of teaching at YAMA this fall, I forced myself to look ahead to the darker days of winter when the gloss of learning a new instrument starts to fade and motivation issues set in. In the beginning, classroom management is made easy by the fact friendships haven't yet blossomed and the student's eagerness to impress their new teacher. This is when the kids are the spongiest, eager and ready to take on the responsibilities of being a YAMA kid. It is a golden opportunity for the teachers to prepare the kids for the high standards of behavior we expect in the program. I knew that if I was able to set a tone that nurtured responsibility, curiosity, and pride, that when we faced challenging times, these roots would help keep us strong.

Movement while playing

They've seen the previous year's YAMA orchestra at school assemblies, heard about the many concerts throughout the year, and seen the buses coming to pick up students for field trips. We talk about respecting our peers, the importance of staying quiet while the teacher is talking, and taking care of our instruments. While these guidelines are crucial, there is a greater need at the heart of the matter.

We can all relate to feeling insecure in a group setting. The fear of making a mistake or some kind of social faux pas can immobilize us, ultimately creating walls that will prevent us from doing our best learning and shining our brightest. I wanted to get to the roots of those apprehensions. How could I make every child feel safe and understand the essential role they play in making their classmates feel the same way?  

Conducting Beethoven's 9th

Conducting Beethoven's 9th


I spent a lot of time creating routine with the kids in the early weeks.  As humans, we rely on routines to help guide our actions.  Once routines are established, especially positive and healthy ones, we feel safe exploring, expressing creativity and demonstrating vulnerability.  One of our favorite routines in the Preludio violin section is going from rest to play position.  Always the same five steps, always done to the best of our abilities, and always looking for ways to make it better.

Keeping a routine gives the students time to practice a very specific set of skills, and while review can sometimes lead to sighs or eye-rolls, it's ultimately showing each student that they can do something very well.  There is a fine line between the excitement of learning something new and the frustration at not being able to do it right away.  Insert a routine and a reminder that this skill was once difficult, and group morale is immediately boosted.  

Always rosin your bow before playing.


Always do your best

Two words that are challenging and frightening for all of us, yet without these in place how can we have strive, explore, and express?  I often have students play for one another. Mistakes are always made, second and third chances given, and my response usually goes something like this, “That was very brave of you to play for us. I loved the way you went for it and how your classmates listened quietly. Thank you for sharing that with us.” I've had students avoid eye contact with me, begging me not to ask them to 'perform,' yet after experiencing positive reinforcement every student is now eager to share their very best music making.

Peer Teaching

Peer teaching is another way to build trust among the students, and an opportunity to learn a very specific skill. There is a silent understanding, an exchange of vulnerability and trust between 'teacher' and 'student' that creates a tangible feeling of empowerment and pride.

The incoming YAMA kids walk through the door their first day knowing that they are going to be a part of something special. As teachers, we have the opportunity to go beyond teaching the skills needed to play an instrument.  The students are handing us their trust, and it's up to us to cultivate an environment where they feel safe to show vulnerability, discover pride, and find their voice.

YAMA Preludio violins and violas


-Jenny Humphrey, Teaching Artist

My Story

YAMA Program

My name is Alex Pualani and I am a teaching artist at YAMA. I began the cello at age 10 in the Yakima School District at Martin Luther King Elementary School. I remember going to the gym on instrument trial day and picking my top 5 instruments.

  1. Flute
  2. Sax
  3. Trombone
  4. Violin 
  5. Cello

6th Grade Alex

Instruments were passed out alphabetically, so by the time they reached my name my only option left was the cello. This turned out to be for the best.

I loved every moment behind my instrument.

My teacher was a cellist with the Yakima Symphony Orchestra and was incredibly attentive to my hunger to learn more. Mrs. Baisinger would give me lessons if I stayed after class and helped her clean up the room, or organize music. In middle school she came to my house to pick me up to take me to Davis High School so that I could play with the older kids during zero period. Orchestra was the most exciting time of my day. When there was a drive-by at my middle school and my parents pulled me out to home school me for the remainder of the year, I still came to school to play with the orchestra every class meeting. Without such a dedicated teacher, I know music wouldn’t play such a large role in my life.

One of my best friends picked up the cello as well. We played together through most of high school, but eventually he had to cut some of his activities, and orchestra had to go. His parents had purchased him a great cello that would no longer be of use, so they lent it to me.

When a music-hungry kids gets a great sounding instrument, it’s like throwing gas on a fire!

That act of kindness by Mike and Kay Funk, giving me a cello, made possible a future of performing and teaching music and I am so happy that I am now able to effect the next generation of Yakima Musicians

I feel a very strong connection with my students in Yakima Music en Acción (YAMA). Not just because we play music together five days a week, or because they laugh at all of my music jokes, but because I am from where they are from. Many of the same struggles they have felt, I have felt. I have lived in the same neighborhoods and gone to the same schools as YAMA students, and I am so excited about what we have created together.

Cello Sectional

On any given day in the Garfield neighborhood where YAMA is housed, you could hear the sounds of a pick-up soccer match, police sirens, children’s laughter, gunshots, lock-down announcements, and reverberating from the gym - a Mozart symphony.

YAMA is shining a light, focused on what Yakima could be. A place where students and families feel safe. A place where the emphasis is on creation and sharing those creations. A place that everyone can be proud of; members, families, and the greater community alike.

Our YAMA students fight every day to be heard above the violence present in our neighborhoods, the poverty all around us, and the voices of those that doubt the power of music. Every day the music grows stronger, the community grows stronger, and we turn down the volume on the many “distractions” that plague us.

The YAMA staff is made up of a diverse group of Teaching Artists who are constantly and feverishly innovating in the classroom and beyond to best serve our YAMA families. Through the staff and our partners, students have access to a world that used to be reserved for only the select few.

The next generation

We currently serve over 60 students with 10+ hours of high quality music instruction a week. Through music, YAMA Teaching Artists like me help to instill qualities that will make all of our students successful in the future; confidence, risk-taking, communication, conflict resolution, leadership, public-speaking, and so much more.