Pass / Fail

So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Among the tacos and Mariachis, tiny youth orchestra blossoms in Boyle Heights

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Mayte Castro's bedroom door is decorated with stickers that read,"In a world where you can be anything, be yourself." Three sets of butterfly wings made out of fabric hang on the wall above her bed. And on her bookshelf sits her most treasured object: a music box shaped like a tiny violin.

"It's like a little lullaby, but it's orchestra version," said Castro, 10, as she sat on a neatly made bed in her Boyle Heights home.

Castro, the second youngest of six siblings, is a violinist in the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra. She spends two hours at home everyday, practicing. Her mom bought her the music box on a recent trip to pick up new violin strings with her music instructor.

Using a patchwork of grants and donations, the one-year-old orchestra charged students only $30 for the entire summer, giving students 15 hours of weekly instruction and a year-end recital. Students could take home loaner instruments to practice.

The orchestra is certainly one of a few - and may be the only - option for classical music instruction for low income families in Boyle Heights.

That's in part because L.A. Unified had chopped the arts education budget to nearly 50 percent of '07-'08's $34 million budget.

"For middle and elementary students the access to orchestra and instruments right now is almost nill," said Natividad Rozsa, the elementary instructional director for L.A. Unified's Boyle Heights schools.

Under its new arts plan, the district promises to restore millions in lost funding. Rozsa said she hopes that money, coupled with an increase in education funding from the state for the district's low-income population, will help bring more resources back to Boyle Heights.

But it's going to take time, she said, and lots of teacher training. For now, arts access in local schools is very limited.

"Unfortunately that's the truth of our community," she said.

Boyle Heights orchestra teacher Micah Layne estimates that 50 percent of the orchestra's students had never held a classical instrument before joining the program. The lack of access to music education is something that Layne sees first hand - he lives in nearby Montebello.

"If you walk out in the street of East Los Angeles, which few ever get a chance to, you begin to very viscerally feel the lack of resources in this community," he said.

Joanna Friedman and Suzanne Gindin lead the youth orchestra. Most of the rest of the staff is made up of volunteers.

The summer program was largely funded via grants from the Roth Family Foundation and Music LA.

Going into the school year, Gindin said she has just $3,000 - far short of the $120,000 budget that the year-round program will need. The orchestra needs private donations to pay for instructors and instruments like piccolos and trombones to use when it starts back up in mid-September.

Friedman and her team have been working to coordinate with the district to try to access instruments that are no longer being used. 

"There's such a wealth of opportunity that's literally locked away in closets," she said, as districts have shuttered orchestra programs in schools. So far, she said, they're also tangled in a lot of red tape.

The program is taught using the Kodaly method, which teaches music as an accessible tool that all people are innately able to do. It encourages singing during childhood. The Boyle Heights orchestra teaches its students how to sing on pitch and hear harmonies as a way to improve their instrument skills.

It also teaches them something else.

"This program is 50 percent learning life skills and 50 percent learning musical skills," said Layne, the orchestra teacher. 

Since joining the group last summer, Castro has become so enamored with the orchestra that she now wants to become a professional violinist who teaches at USC.

The students performed their end-of-summer recital two weeks ago at the Boyle Heights Boys and Girls club.

About 30 kids filed into a gymnasium and set up to play under a basketball hoop. As they warmed up, there was a mix of emotions.

"I feel nervous, I feel nervous," said third-grader Mario Gonzalez. He was seated near the back holding his trumpet.

After the group sang a few songs, Castro collected her violin and sat in the front row. She made first chair and helped lead the orchestra with fellow violinist Kevin Paz. First up, a rendition of Largo taken from Antonín Dvorak's New World Symphony.

As the orchestra played, Castro's small arms held her instrument strong and steady.

To hear the orchestra play, click on the accompanying audio piece at the top of this page.

CORRECTION: Due to out-of-date information provided by the orchestra, an earlier version of this story misstated the year-round budget for the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra. The correct amount is $120,000. KPCC regrets the error.

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