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Russian Youth Ensemble Hits High Note on, off Stage

After watching a performance by the children's folk ensemble Grenadita, Natalya Vasina went home and wrote a poem.

"And I don't usually write," the schoolteacher giggles sheepishly.

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Inspiring such creativity in its members and audiences is the goal of Grenadita, an unusual community of professional musicians and young Muscovites. The group provides young people with the chance to learn music and perform at a professional level, while at the same time giving them a supportive community in which to develop not only as musicians but as people.

About 100 kids - from infants to college students - are part of Grenadita. While some attend the festive weekly rehearsals only occasionally, others describe the ensemble as "life" and perform in concerts both in Moscow and abroad. Anyone can join; there are no auditions or fees.

The children themselves recognize the effect Grenadita has on them. Says teenager Masha Papchenko, "It helps not only because it teaches us music, but our characters change a lot." She adds that performing in front of large audiences has boosted her self-confidence.

Others have even warmer words for Grenadita. Anton Mironov, who, like Papchenko, has been part of the group for eight years, calls it his "second home. I've spent half my life here, can you imagine? It's a part of me."

Grenadita's success is all the more notable, given that it is based in a country that is only just beginning to develop a tradition of volunteerism. While many youth organizations existed in the Soviet Union, they were largely tied to state and Communist Party structures and used as vehicles for propaganda. In contrast, Grenadita has never received any government funding; it sustains itself solely on concert profits and the goodwill of adult group members.

Grenadita was founded 10 years ago as an offshoot of Grenada, a successful adult ensemble that plays everything from Russian folk songs to American rock as well as original pieces. Grenada was formed in 1973 by a group of friends who enjoyed singing together. Its name is taken from a poem by Mikhail Svetlov about the Spanish Civil War, but the members say they did not choose the name for political reasons; they just liked the poem's romanticism.

The leader of the six-person band is Sergei Vladimirsky, a renowned composer/musician, whose extensive collection of musical instruments numbers about 350. While for Vladimirsky, Grenada/Grenadita is a full-time job, some of the band members have other professions. Vladimirsky's wife, Tatyana, has a PhD in history and works at the Latin America Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. But, as her husband jokes, "Grenada is her work. The Academy of Sciences is a hobby."

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Grenada members decided to form the children's ensemble when they saw how many young people were attending their concerts and writing fan letters.

"We wanted to give them something to do, so that they didn't just love us as an ideal, but so that they, too, lived our ideals," Tatyana explains.

One of Grenada's major principles can be summed up as "Don't be shy." Rehearsals begin with Tatyana asking rows of sitting children what news they have to share. A hand shoots up, and Tatyana approaches with a microphone. In this way, new participants are introduced, friends are congratulated on birthdays and achievements, and knowledge is shared.

"When they come [to Grenadita], they don't know how to talk in front of people, how to express their thoughts," says Tatyana. "They become frightened right away. In school they don't teach them any of that. They teach them how to memorize."

Ksenia Partsevskaya says that Grenadita has introduced her to "the kinds of people you don't meet on your own." Through the Vladimirskys' international connections, Partsevskaya has met Argentines, Greeks, and Americans.

But perhaps even more significant than Grenadita's international friendships are the friendships the group fosters with Muscovites.

"Many of them live in small families and are never taught how to interact in a big group," Tatyana says. "How does this play out in life? For example, one child sees that another child sings well. He thinks, 'He sings well, and I don't. Therefore, I hate him.' We teach that this shouldn't be."

"In spite of the age differences, we have a very creative atmosphere, built on improvisation and interaction," Sergei says. Thus, the kids often work out new numbers on their own, rather than waiting for adults to teach them.

On trips abroad, which usually have a specific goal such as raising money for a hospital or orphanage, Grenada pays for students unable to pay their own way.

Grenada chooses students for tours based on their performance and dedication to the ensemble. "We also try to take only those who couldn't go on their own ... especially children who have big problems in their family," says Tatyana.

Often hidden talents are realized. As Vera Borobieva says of her daughter, Olya, "Before, I thought she had no voice and no musical ear, but it turns out she has an ear, and in the chorus her voice sounds fine."

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