Pulling strings to make the dream of an orchestra a reality

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The moment was magical.

Jose Bonilla was pleading with a gathering of state legislators and arts education advocates in November. His fourth grade son had fallen in love with the violin and has joined with other students at Huntington Park Elementary School to form an orchestra. But the school had no instruments and the LA Unified School District said it couldn’t provide them.

"Don’t cut the wings to our childrens [sic]," Bonilla said, after apologizing for his poor English. "They only ask for the tools." 

Right then and there, Rory Pullens, the head of arts education for the district, sprang to his feet from the audience and said he’d approved instruments for the school that very morning. Shouts and applause sounded across the room.

"The principal was an advocate, the teacher was an advocate," Pullens shouted. "And while we did not have the instruments in stock, we made a way and so the instruments will be there next week."

The story of how Huntington Park Elementary launched an orchestra shows how a school can band together to overcome the limitations of the system.


A year before the hearing, students at Huntington Park were bitten by the orchestra bug after the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra brought a small ensemble to the school through their Meet the Music program. Some students went to a concert at the Colburn School downtown. 

René Rowland, who teaches vocal music and recorders at Huntington Park Elementary, said the idea of playing instruments caught fire after this.

"Students came to me and said: 'Ms. Rowland, Can you help us find a violin teacher? We want to play!’ " Rowland said.

Many families at the school are too poor to pay for lessons. Rowland helped about 15 students get free lessons through an organization called the Young Musicians Foundation, which holds classes in downtown Los Angeles – a long trek from the school. 

"We had parents who were driving 10 miles round trip or more and renting instruments, going to get music instruction for their kids," said principal Antonio Amparan. "So we saw the demand."

He wanted to start an orchestra at the school to make it easier on the parents. Rowland agreed to lead it. The school site council voted to use the discretionary budget to pay the district for an extra day of music instruction.

Everything was in place – except the instruments. 


"Every time I want to start an elementary music program, I right away think $60,000," said Steven McCarthy, L.A. Unified's K-12 arts coordinator. Because orchestras are so expensive, he said the school district can’t afford instruments for every school that wants them.

Right now about a third of elementary schools in the district have an orchestra - about 183 of them. Each is provided enough instruments for 60 students, though McCarthy said he hopes to bump that up to 72 next year.

More than a dozen schools are currently on a wait list for an orchestra program.

"It’s hurtful to me and to the music teachers who are passionate when you’ve got a limited number of instruments and you’ve got more than that who want to be part of it," McCarthy said. "We don’t like saying no."


This school decided to go outside of the normal process. Rowland started scrounging for instruments.

"I put ads on Craiglist," she said. Someone donated a clarinet and a flute.

And Amparan kept bugging district headquarters.

Eventually, a nearby middle school agreed to loan Huntington Park instruments it wasn’t using. (Middle schools and high schools own their instruments, while elementary school orchestras loan instruments from the central shop.)

Between the loaners and donations, Rowland got enough violins, clarinets, flutes, cellos and cornets for 30 students.

When she held auditions, more than 100 kids tried out. She tested them on sight-reading, rhythm, and recorder skills.

"I’d like to choose you all," she told a group of kids at a recent audition session. "But there’s just not enough instruments and there’s also not enough hours in the day."

The 30 fourth and fifth graders who are chosen will start rehearsals after winter break. 

"It’s really sweet that you get to play different songs and that you get to learn different tempos and you get to play different instruments," said fourth grader Linda Ortega, who has been taking violin lessons after school.

Luis Bonilla, left, with his parents, little brother, and music teacher René Rowland.
Luis Bonilla, left, with his parents, little brother, and music teacher René Rowland. Priska Neely

Bonilla is thrilled to see the orchestra come together.

But in a heart-breaking twist, his son won’t get to take part. Bonilla got a better job in Sacramento, so he's moving his family there in a couple weeks.

But he still took off work to plead with legislators not to cut the children's wings. 

"I think he's a really special guy," Rowland said. Even though he was leaving "he still stuck up for us."

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