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Expression Engine

Expression Engine

by Grace Mullaney Humbles ’13


“When you teach a child to play an instrument, he is no longer poor.”


In 1975 Jose Antonio Abreu made this idea a reality when he started a youth orchestra in an abandoned garage in Venezuela, promising to turn a group of children with no musical background into one of the best orchestras in the world. Abreu succeeded, and today 500,000 children in Venezuela learn music through what became El Sistema programs, along with children in nearly 1,000 other programs in 55 countries around the world.


More than 2,000 miles from Venezuela, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Michael Kendall ’11 serves as the music director for New City Fellowship East Lake, a PCA church in the heart of the neighborhood of East Lake. In the fall of 2013, Michael’s classmate Evelyn Petcher ’10 happened to be in Chattanooga, and told him over coffee about the work she’d been doing in Baltimore with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s ORCHKids—one of the original El Sistema nuclei in the United States.


“I’ve always thought that music is such an important part of what it means to be human,” says Evelyn. “It enhances our experiences and relationships with each other and helps us understand the world better. I’ve learned so much from ORCHKids about what music can mean to a child’s personal development. A child’s ownership of their music affects their behavior, socialization, creativity, and ability to problem solve.”


Michael had always wanted to pursue something with music education and El Sistema, and after his conversation with Evelyn he started to think that this “something” could happen in his church’s backyard.


“I called Evelyn and told her we should start an El Sistema-like program right here in Chattanooga,” says Michael. “She said she’d already been talking about a similar idea with our mutual friend Libby.”


Fellow music alumna Libby O’Neil ’08, Evelyn, and Michael immediately began to plan. Their original idea was modest—they would strategize and fundraise for the next year and begin with a one-week summer camp in 2015, move on to a two-week camp in the summer of 2016, and hopefully by 2020 launch a year-round El Sistema-inspired program at East Lake. They started to call their project the East Lake Expression Engine.


“I always knew that I wanted to work with kids in the inner city, with music, as a tool for ministry, and also to give them a skill they may not have access to,” says Libby. “When Evelyn got her ORCHKids job in Baltimore she called me and said, ‘I have your job,’ and that’s when I was introduced to El Sistema.”


The three friends knew they wanted their El Sistema-inspired program in Chattanooga to focus on more than just physical poverty—the Expression Engine would allow them to bring both music and the gospel to children in East Lake.


Expression Engine


In March 2014, the three entered into a formal relationship with East Lake’s pre-existing tutoring program called ELECT (East Lake Every Child Taught), that runs out of the church during the summers and after school during the school year. On average, ELECT serves sixty local children during the summers and forty children in its after-school program throughout the rest of the year. By forming a formal relationship with ELECT at East Lake, the East Lake Expression Engine could get off the ground far more quickly than the three friends had ever thought possible.


“What El Sistema aspires to do is address the entire human being through music instruction,” says Michael. “The reality is that there are only so many problems that learning to play music can solve. It became apparent to me that the best way to use music as a tool to address the needs of the human soul, and the pain and difficulty that come from growing up poor, is through a local church.”


Michael and Libby explain that because the East Lake Expression Engine is a part of their small, local church in the East Lake neighborhood, parents, students, community members, and even potential investors were more ready to trust in the work that the program was hoping to accomplish.


In the summer of 2014, the Expression Engine pilot project launched, giving Michael, Libby, and Evelyn the chance to make the case for why the program should exist. The trio spent time raising money for instruments, planning curricula, writing music, and trying to wrap their minds around what they had gotten themselves into.


“There was no one telling us what to do,” says Michael. “It was like, ‘OK, there are no adults here. It’s just us.’”


After just a few months of planning and fundraising, the East Lake Expression Engine joined ELECT for its summer camp in June. From 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. every day, students who had never picked up instruments before began to learn how to play in an ensemble.


“Abreu’s idea is that students in ensembles learn music faster and better—from each other—in a different way than traditional, conservatory-style music education,” says Libby.


Expression Engine


For the first four weeks of the summer pilot program, students learned musical concepts—the basics of ear training, sight-reading, and notation. After learning some of the fundamental structures of music, the students from East Lake finally got to pick up instruments. With a chance to participate in choir, “bucket band,” and orchestra, the music camp took children with no musical background or training and gave them the tools to not only play music, but also to compose their own songs. At the end of June, the camp gave a concert in downtown Chattanooga at Miller Plaza, where, in front of more than two hundred people, the students presented a 45-minute performance, including a 20-minute collaborative composition that they had written alongside the instructors over a one-week period.


The collaborative composition was the result of Evelyn’s recent experience during her last semester at the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University, where she earned her master of music degree.


“I took a spring break intensive course called Creative Connections,” says Evelyn. “We partnered with ORCHKids and some area schools and together we spent a week brainstorming, playing games, and writing music. It was this incredible experience that made me realize that people were already doing the kind of cross-disciplinary, innovative musical work I had always aspired to do, and that it was a real way to bring communities together.”


During camp, Evelyn took what she had learned at Peabody and taught it first to the other instructors, getting them used to the idea of improvising, listening, and building on each other’s ideas. The instructors composed a chorus for the collaborative piece and taught it to the students as a springboard for the rest of the composition that would center on love, joy, and peace. The students broke into small groups and composed music and lyrics together. Middle school girls wrote about forgiveness, fourth grade boys wrote about Lookout Valley on a beautiful day, and the second graders wrote about everything their families do for them out of love.


“It was really neat to see how the different students thought about the concepts,” says Evelyn. “They each brought something different to their lyrics and music. Most of our students had no trouble sharing their ideas even though they were not musically trained before the camp.”


Libby tells the story of a student named Roger, who came into the summer program four weeks behind everyone else. He didn’t get the original music instruction the other students had received in the first few weeks, but Roger picked up a trumpet and immediately fell in love. A child who, other than a recorder class in elementary school, had never picked up an instrument, now wants to play trumpet all the time.


“Beginning trumpet doesn’t always make the most awesome sound,” says Libby. “But Roger loved it from the very beginning.”


Expression Engine


The summer concluded with a culmination concert at the end of July, featuring the three main ensembles along with performances from each instrument group: brass, woodwinds, strings, and percussion. There was no question in anyone’s mind—the East Lake Expression Engine pilot project was an upbeat, inspiring, and resounding success.


Originally, Libby, Evelyn, and Michael were planning to take a break after the summer to reflect and consider what they should do next with their fledgling program. The momentum and triumph of the summer changed all that. With many community members and fellow instructors advocating for the program, the three decided to begin their after-school program that fall, more than five years before their goal launch date of 2020.


“There is so much potential to love these kids in a community-focused way through this work,” says Evelyn. “My hope is that Expression Engine will allow for a more holistic exploration of character building and for the students to start asking deeper questions like: Why do we want to play music? Why do we want to be joyful? Why are we supposed to love each other?”


The three attribute part of the success of their efforts to their common history as Covenant music alumni.


“The fact that I already knew Michael and Evelyn and that we share a history academically and musically was huge,” says Libby. “I’m not sure this would have gone the way that it did without that foundation we have together. There’s a level of trust that is very necessary when taking on something like this.”


On September 3, 2014, the East Lake Expression Engine after-school program began in tandem with ELECT. Students in the East Lake community came to New City Fellowship East Lake for academic tutoring from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m., and then went to the East Lake Expression Engine from 5:00 – 6:00 p.m. The students continued to build on what they had learned throughout the summer and fell more in love with their growing musical abilities.


“I think the only way to explain the success of this program so far, in the summer and now in the school year, is that this is like an El Sistema program on steroids,” says Michael. “Kids are learning, they’re developing, changing, growing, and coming alive in ways that are startling, to be honest. This style of education, done in the context of a local church is 100 percent logical.”


Now, every Monday through Wednesday from 5:00 – 6:00 p.m., students in Chattanooga’s East Lake neighborhood pick up trumpets and violins, drumsticks and flutes, and practice together as an ensemble within the walls of New City Fellowship East Lake. Every Monday through Wednesday, East Lake Expression Engine instructors live out the belief that music and the gospel can powerfully disrupt both physical and spiritual poverty in their neighborhood.


Expression Engine


New City Fellowship East Lake

New City Fellowship was formed in 1968 as a Sunday school, and became a church in 1976 with the vision for racial reconciliation, cross-cultural worship, and the goal to minister to the people of Chattanooga.


In 2008, elders at New City Fellowship decided to plant a church in East Lake, a neighborhood of Chattanooga. East Lake is an incredibly diverse neighborhood with nearly equal numbers of white, African American, and Latino residents. With a population of around 10,000, only forty-two percent of East Lake residents graduated from high school. The church describes the neighborhood as a place full of personality and “kind, warm people.”


To learn more about the work of New City East Lake and the East Lake Expression Engine, you

can visit and



Covenant College Music Department

The music department at Covenant is passionate about the work Michael, Evelyn, and Libby are doing at Expression Engine. The department recently donated seventeen instruments to the East Lake Expression Engine, including violins, trumpets, trombones, and flutes.


“We’re trying to figure out what it looks like to come alongside the Expression Engine,” says Dr. Scott Finch, assistant professor of music. “We are sure that it includes sending our students and lending our time. It gives the Expression Engine students the opportunity to be inspired by Covenant students and gives Covenant students the chance to get off the mountain and into the community.”


The Covenant orchestra participated in a joint rehearsal with students from Expression Engine, allowing East Lake students to see what it’s like to rehearse and play music in college and connecting Covenant students with some of their neighbors in Chattanooga.