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

LA Unified's backlog of broken musical instruments 'like a war scene'

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As his third period beginning band students sat and waited, teacher Dan McNamara pulled a plastic lighter out of his pocket and lit the flame over the mouthpiece of a flute.

It's not a science experiment — McNamara is sanitizing the flute.

Despite being a magnet school with music as one of its specialties, Irving middle school doesn't have enough instruments to go around. Students have to share with each other and McNamara borrows theirs when he wants to teach them how to play a note — as he was doing during a recent visit.

After a quick wipe of a paper towel, he blew into the flute. Out came a screech.

"Whoa, this flute doesn't work," he said.

On any given day, McNamara said, a third to half of his students' instruments aren't working properly. Several alto saxophones, clarinets and flutes he sent off for repair have been gone for months.

Related: On AudioVision, a slideshow of L.A. Unified's music repair shop techs

Of the seven clarinet players sitting in front of him, just three held instruments in their hands.

"I didn't get to play," 11-year-old Isabella Hernandez said as class ended. She spent her 50 minutes of music time working on English and history assignments."I was just sitting down working on some other classwork."

As Los Angeles Unified launches an effort to beef up arts education — including providing more music access to students — at least 2,600 broken instruments are sitting on shelves at a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles.

Some have been waiting there for years. One bundle of elementary students' instruments was tagged as sent for repairs in July 2010.

Tony White, the performing and visual arts coordinator for the district's after school branch, Beyond the Bell, said that an instrument shortage means as many as five students have to share each one. In other words, those 2,600 instruments could bring music instruction to 13,000 students if they were working.

"For me, it's like a war scene," he said, looking around the 6,200 square foot warehouse. "We have thousands of instruments here that are in desperate need of being repaired to get out to our kids."

The shelves of instruments belong to the district's music repair shop - which has been around since 1960. It was once a well-oiled machine, its staff of 25 pushing the instruments out almost as quickly as they came in. Teachers would routinely get their repaired instruments back in a week or two.

Between budget cuts and a recent spree of retirements, only six repair technicians are left. None of them can repair woodwinds, leaving no one on staff to clear the backlog of broken oboes, bassoons and clarinets.

"It's a little demoralizing," said Edwin Barker, the shop's last remaining stringed instrument repairman. "The amount of work that goes out now compared to what it used to be, you know, when we had a full crew, there's no comparison."

Less than a skeleton

"It's less than a skeleton right now," he added.

Broken instruments are piled in bins or on shelves in their cases.  A cello missing its strings; a 1922 baby grand piano that someone poured paint into; a clarinet with a broken key.

The pace is unrelenting. On average, at least 150 broken instruments arrive at the shop on trucks each month, according to the district. Some months, the number is closer to 300.

One repair technician estimated that she can repair 10-15 instruments per day — if the repairs are easy.

That's not always the case, so the repairs keep piling up.

Donald McKinley used to repair strings, but was elevated to acting shop supervisor in early September after the former supervisor retired. The district hasn't authorized him to fill his old job — or otherwise expand the staff.

He said the shop needs to double its staff just to keep up the pace. He's begun contracting out some of the work in the meantime, but that hasn't been easy either.

"I've been working for the last few weeks trying to find enough qualified people to do strings," he said. "I can hardly find anybody that can do it."

The shortage of working instruments hits low income families the hardest because they can't afford to buy instruments of their own, said Julie West, a music teacher at Palms Middle School and president of the Los Angeles Secondary Music Teachers Association.

"It's hard enough to learn an instrument," she said. "If you have to work with an instrument that's broken or not responding the way it should, it's much more frustrating."

McNamara, the music teacher at Irving middle school in Glassell Park, said maybe 20 students in the past 10 years have come to class with their own instruments. 

Laisha Gallegos is not one of them. The sixth grader wants to play the clarinet.

Sharing with other students

She was still learning how to hold the woodwind last week. It was only her second day playing the clarinet six weeks into the school year, because she's sharing with other students.

"I was nervous and scared at the same time," Laisha said, describing the moment she was called on to play out loud by herself during class.

Walking through the large music shop and warehouse, White, of Beyond the Bell, said he takes the backlog personally. Playing the clarinet in middle school helped him to get where he is today.

 "Music changed my life," he said. "I think of kids all the time who may be like me."

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