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Old, broken LAUSD musical instruments holding back some students

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A year after a top administrator said Los Angeles Unified School District's music repair shop would resolve a backlog within a few months, the number of broken instruments is up 24 percent, according to district numbers.

At a school board meeting last February, LAUSD Chief Academic Officer Gerardo Loera said the district expected "all of the instrument numbers should be cleared by May of 2014." As of last week, 599 broken instruments were awaiting repairs, up from 485 at the same time last year. 

“My limited vision of this is that I don’t see that things have really changed all that much,” said Barbara Aran, a retired LAUSD teacher who now volunteers in schools helping district music teachers. 

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

Instruments in disrepair mean that Venice High School senior Alexis Hernandez, one of the top music students in the school, can't achieve his goal to learn every instrument in the orchestra. 

When he's "stuck" with a broken instrument, he said it not only hurts his ability to play, but the entire class as well. "Everyone that has the decent instruments is playing it good and then you wish you were playing it good, but you just sound horrible. You’re kind of killing the whole sound," he said.

The repair shop has made good progress since KPCC first reported on its work in October 2013. Back then, it had a backlog of about 2,600 broken instruments; by February 2014, repair techs had reduced the numbers by more than 80 percent.

"While I understand the concerns of the past," said district Area Facilities Service Director LaMonte Douglas, who took over direction of the shop in January. "We have made some marked improvements from what did happen a couple years ago."

Music repair shop supervisor Rudy Saldivar said one possible reason for the increase in backlogged instruments from last year is that more teachers and schools are sending instruments into the shop since it's improved. 

Yet with nearly 600 instruments still out of circulation, and instrument shortages at many schools, some students who want to learn to play must wait their turn or sit out entirely. 

Even when instruments return from the repair shop, many are still not working properly, Aran said. About 90 percent of the instruments that go back to elementary schools where Aran works don't have functioning tuners or have problems with things like strings installed incorrectly, she said.

Plus, she says many instrument cases are covered in gorilla tape, hiding styrofoam or plywood that's falling apart. "It affects me on a gut level. I don't get used to this."

Several teachers said many of the district's problems with instruments go beyond what the shop can handle. New instruments and cases are needed at many schools — and basic materials, like rosin, are in short supply.

Plus — there are issues of trust to rebuild among teachers after years of budget cuts have ravaged the district's arts offerings.

Julie West, a music teacher at Palms Middle School and the President of the Los Angeles Secondary Music Teacher's Association, said she's very happy with the progress at the music repair shop. But some teachers still need coaxing to send items in for repair. 

"I know there are still teachers that are a little afraid to send things just because they know what happened in the past," she said. 

At Hamilton High School Academy of Music, Music Director Marlene Zuccaro has launched an online fundraiser to replace the instruments that are beyond repair. Zuccaro said many of the instruments are decades old.

"To me it's almost criminal," said Jim Foschia, who heads Instrumental Jazz Studies at the school. He said he's dealing with a plethora of problems: leaky saxophones, dented trombone slides, trumpets with incomplete valving, pianos with missing strings, clarinet pads that are falling apart.

"I set them up for failure by giving them instruments that they can't play," Foschia said.

The magnet school is hoping to raise $20,000 to purchase new instruments. 

At Venice High School Wendy Sarnoff — or Wendy Kornbeck as many people know her before she was recently married — said the time she spends fixing broken instruments hurts everything else. 

"It takes away from lesson planning, and structure and what am I going to teach the next day because we're constantly in this state of triage," she said. Sarnoff, who does send instruments to repair shop — said she's also taught students how to repair instruments to help keep up with demand. With about 200 students in the school's music program, she estimates just four or five own their own instruments. 

Officials at the music repair shop say they're in the process of filling two open music repair technician positions, that they expect to fill soon. That will get them to 12 repair shop staffers — less than half of what the shop used to have. The shop receives about 330 instruments a month that need repairs.

As for new instrument purchases, the shop doesn't handle that, according to Douglas. That's up to individual schools to purchase, he said. 

"There is more work to be done, we certainly are always looking to improve what we do," Douglas said.

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