East L.A.’s Hidden Gem

by journojames on May 15, 2012

It’s a hidden gem.

From the outside there is nothing remarkable about the large building on Third Street. It’s easy to miss; it’s camouflaged in a dull beige-color and sits quietly across from the Metro Gold Line station.

The L.A. Music and Art School in East Los Angeles, Photo by JournoJames

But step inside the brick structure and it’s anything but dull. Bright paintings and drawings jump off the walls, dancers leap and spin in the studio, and music echoes up and down the halls. This is the Los Angeles Music and Art School (LAMusArt) and the place is alive.

Enthusiastic children and their gabbing parents typically shuffle from one lesson to another on weekday afternoons and weekends with great commotion. But on this particular Saturday in late March, the enthusiasm and the bustle are louder than usual. They’re eagerly anticipating and preparing for an upcoming concert in April.

Talented young musicians at LAMusArt will be part of the “Concierto de Primavera” event that will feature an eclectic mix of old and contemporary classics by Ellington, Johann Sebastian Bach and the late American Tejano pop star Selena, among other influential artists.

LAMusArt offers more than 50 recitals annually that showcase its student talent, but twice a year — once in the spring and once in the fall — it holds special concerts, such as this one, off-site at larger venues with a bit of glitz and glamour to present and promote the school.

Photo by JournoJames

Despite its enduring 67-year-long history, LAMusArt has never achieved great prominence in the city and continues to quietly fly under the radar to many in Los Angeles.

“People just don’t know that we’re here,” Dr. Rubin Gideon, the School’s musical director, said. “Recruitment is still a great challenge.”

Nestled away in East Los Angeles, the non-profit organization welcomes anyone with aspirations of exploring his or her artistic abilities, regardless of age, ethnicity, economic status or talent. It offers lessons in music, dance, drama and visual arts, such as crafting and painting.

Educator Pearle Irene Odell founded the Los Angeles Music and Art School in 1945. She started it after seeing a need to offer after-school arts programs to the underserved youth of East Los Angeles and the surrounding communities.

Odell was inspired by traditional 19th century settlement house music schools, whose mission was to provide open access to music lessons, regardless of age, talent, ethnicity or ability to pay.

She began providing music instruction in two small, Victorian-style homes on South Boyle Avenue in Boyle Heights with the School’s founding Music Director, Robert Webb.

By the late 1950s, the demand for the School’s programs began outgrowing her Victorian-style homes. Odell was able to find and acquire the present site in the mid-1960s with support of the community and friends of the School.

Dr. Rubin, who has been teaching at LAMusArt for the last 9 years, said that he strongly connected with Odell’s idea of embracing the community through music.

“I’m certainly trying to continue in that regard, but along with that, we’re trying to bring in a different level of achievement,” the tall 42-year-old bespectacled, classically trained pianist said. “So, yes, we want everyone to feel included, but we also want those who are here to strive for a very high level.”

LAMusArt's LAPCA Youth Orchestra, Photo by JournoJames

Dr. Rubin founded LAMusArt’s orchestra 4 years ago with about 10 young musicians. It has now grown to about 40 members and has come a long way in a short period of time. It has played in the Walt Disney Concert Hall and it has even performed for L.A. Philharmonic Director Gustavo Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl.

At the “Concierto de Primaverta” event, Dr. Rubin’s Youth Orchestra is scheduled to close the show.

“To be able to come to a school and study with someone like Dr. Rubin for less than $20 is amazing,” Executive Director of LAMusArt Isela Sotelo, a petite woman in fashionable business attire, said from her modest school office. “That doesn’t happen anywhere else. We’re really here for our community.”

Sotelo is a successful singer who had enjoyed a long career in entertainment before she decided to head the School.

Sessions at LAMusArt vary in cost and duration. Group music practices, such as the orchestra and choirs, are free. A 90-minute drawing class typically costs $14, and a music lesson costs $18. The School even runs a summer arts enrichment program that provides an 8-week multi-arts education curriculum for children between the ages of 7 and 14.

Individual music instruction for just about any kind of instrument is available to children and adults: from violins to drums. Lessons, from beginning to advanced levels, are held once a week, after school on the weekdays or on Saturday, and last for half an hour. LAMusArt even provides parents with affordable musical instruments to purchase or rent.

Most of the instruments the School uses have been donated from such organizations as the Young Musicians Foundation and the Los Angeles Philanthropic Committee for the Arts (LAPCA).

Tuition fees are kept affordable to meet the needs of the community, and partial and full scholarships are provided to students from low-income families who can’t afford the cost of lessons.

“Everyone who comes here is subsidized,” Sotelo said. “The revenue we receive from tuition only covers about 48 percent of our operating budget, so the rest we have to raise.”

The School serves around 600 students a month, and most of them — about 85 percent — have a Hispanic background.

Most of the children and parents find out about the School through word of mouth, according to Sotelo.

Carmen Hoveyda and her husband, however, found LAMusArt by using the Internet about a year ago. They were looking to provide singing lessons for their 8-year-old daughter Analise, who has been singing since she was 3 years old.

“My husband was doing some research and he found that Allison Iraheta went to the School, so we thought it’d be good,” Hoveyda said. “And the cost isn’t even that much, so we signed her up right away.”

Sotelo said that Iraheta, an alumna who made it into the Top 4 of “American Idol” on season 8, had become a big recruiting factor for the School.

Singer Analise Hoveyda, Photo by JournoJames

“It’s really fun here,” Analise Hoveyada said during the middle of a busy day of vocal and piano classes. She was preparing a solo performance for the upcoming spring concert. If she was nervous about it, she didn’t show it.

“I didn’t want to take lessons at first,” she said, wearing a bright purple blouse and a tiara headband in her hair. “But then when I went to school and I really liked it. I really like my teachers.”

“We hear that all the time,” Sotelo said. “The kids and their parents really have a lot of respect for our teachers.”

LAMusArt currently has 28 part-time instructors who are all graduates of universities or conservatories. Sotelo admitted that it was tough to find teachers when she first took on the job 15 years ago. But after recruiting efforts into the surrounding communities, and by promoting the school through their website, Sotelo said that instructors were now reaching out to her, and some of them were even former LAMusArt students.

“My mom used to bring me here,” said Yami Duarte, a baby-faced 29-year-old public artist and teacher at LAMusArt. “Yeah, it was cool.”

In the middle of a lesson on a recent Saturday afternoon, she looked around her busy art studio classroom. It was filled with children’s pictures and crafts hung on the walls and her young students painting at their desks.

Art teacher Duarte with her students, Photo by JournoJames

“I remember being in this same desk, right here,” Duarte says walking over and acknowledging a small table. “I sat here.”

“It’s kind of incredible how much you remember when you’re a little kid,” she said. “And now I’ve got these little ones. And, I’m like, ‘Oh, these kids are going to remember all this.’”

Most of Duarte’s friends also took classes at LAMusArt, and they consider the experience an important right of passage and a birthing ground for local artists.

Duarte’s primary goal in class is to teach her 6, 7 and 8-year-old students the fundamentals, such as composition and knowing the color wheel, but she said it was also about teaching them to recognize and strive for quality.

“Quality can be found everywhere, in art, math or science,” Duarte said. “No matter if it’s art or math, we’re all teaching and touching upon the same thing, and that’s quality. It blows my mind that L.A. Unified is considering cutting the arts program. Maybe this is happening because they feel that art isn’t that important, but I’d like to tell parents that this is a really unique and important time for kids to discover themselves.”

Discussions and debates about just how critical arts education is to child and adolescent developments have been well documented.

Many studies have shown that arts education can help academic achievement, creative thinking development, social and emotional development, community involvement, and the development of collaboration skills.

The Arts Education Partnership (AEP) published reports in its 2005 Critical Evidence study revealing a correlation between arts education and SAT scores: the more art classes, the higher the SAT scores.

Photo by JournoJames

Other researchers, however, such as Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland, who are dubious of claims like these, published a 2000 Harvard Project Zero study in “Translations,” concluding that arts classes did not improve students’ overall core academic performances.

These discussions will continue amongst experts and researchers, but there is no debate at LAMusArt.

Dr. Rubin is a firm believer that playing music helps people use their minds in more creative ways. In his office, he pointed to a poster. It displays Albert Einstein and his famous E=mc2 formula above a large quote that reads: “It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.”

“That says it all,” Dr. Rubin said.

For Executive Director Sotelo, she sees the strong bond between arts education and academic achievement demonstrated every day at her school.

“I’ve seen these kids who’ve been with me for 10 years,” she said. “I’ve seen them grow. They might struggle, but they learn and persevere and go off to colleges and universities. I had a girl who was with us for 8 years and she just received a scholarship to Occidental College to further pursue her education.”

It’s a precarious time for arts education in Los Angeles. It’s slowly but surely disappearing in public schools due to severe budgetary cutbacks.

If the trend continues, it could mean LAMusArt’s classes would be in greater demand, boosting the School’s visibility, not only in East L.A., but also in all of Los Angeles.

Over the past 3 years, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest school system in the country, has cut 70 percent of its art education programs. That figure has a good chance of rising.

The school system is now facing a budget deficit that has ballooned to $557 million, according to the L.A. Times. This enormous shortfall that continues to grow leaves the district in an impossible situation. It faces the likelihood of issuing additional layoffs and cutting more of its most successful programs.

The LAUSD handed out 11,700 preliminary layoff notices on March 15. That’s more than half of the state’s total and 9,000 of the layoff notices were to teachers.

Almost every academic curriculum has been affected in some way or another, but L.A. Unified’s arts program has been particularly hit hard. There were roughly 340 full-time employed elementary arts teachers in 2008 according to the L.A. Times. This year, that number has shrunk down to 240, according to Robin Lithgow, head of the LAUSD Arts Education Branch.

“At the top of LAUSD, all they’re really concerned about is with test scores. That’s the reality,” Lithgow said. “If they don’t see the arts contributing to test scores then the arts are irrelevant.”

Earlier this year, L.A. Unified went as far as proposing complete elimination of its elementary school arts education program.

According to the education advocacy organization Arts For L.A., under this draconian plan, cutting the 133-year-old elementary music program would result in the loss of instruction to 180,000 students, and eliminating the 13-year-old elementary theatre, visual and dance programs would mean that more than 72,000 students would lose instruction.

Lithgow has plans for a more hopeful outcome.

“If we get the necessary funding, our intent is to get at least a minimum of three art forms on every campus, every year in elementary education,” Lithgow said. “That’s if we get the funding.”

Local education advocates believe there is already a district-wide inequality of access to arts education. If these programs were eliminated, the responsibility for arts instruction, considered core curriculum by the state and federal governments, would fall entirely on classroom teachers, and programs would be solely dependent on individual school’s discretionary funds.

In some schools, private money is now used to bring in arts instruction, but schools in lower income communities don’t have the same access to private funds as wealthier communities. This means that richer neighborhoods are able to subsidize arts instruction while lower-income neighborhoods are going without those same programs.

Art teacher Altamirano on Saturday afternoon, Photo by JournoJames

“Public schools don’t provide enough art in their curriculum,” Erick Altamirano, a teacher at John Adams Middle School said.

Altamirano teaches for the LAUSD during the week, but on Saturdays, for the past 6 years, he’s offered painting and sketching classes at LAMusArt.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Altamirano walked around his cluttered classroom studio and checked on the progress of his six students, all teenagers who are currently in middle or high schools. He was giving each young artist individual guidance and instruction, a luxury he doesn’t have at John Adams.

At the end of a large center table a talented teenaged girl was hard at work painting a detailed portrait of Benjamin Franklin, while at the other end, another teenaged student was putting the finishing touches on a piece of comic book art with vibrant colors and wild action.

“In public school we only have one class with 35 kids. You have to conduct one lesson and attempt to fulfill everyone’s needs. It’s hard,” the soft-spoken 32-year-old art teacher said. “But here we have different levels of artists and they progress at their own pace. It’s a whole different dynamic.”

Educational achievement is generally measured through math and language scores, not drawing proficiency or music skills, as Robin Lithgow indicated. At LAMusArt, success is gauged by looking at each individual student’s progress.

Executive Director Isela Sotelo and Board of Trustees President Efrain Garza Fuentes, Photo by JournoJames

“Every time we have performances, I see success,” Sotelo said. “I’ve seen talented kids who don’t want to go on stage at the last minute. They don’t think they can do it. But with encouragement, they do. And then they walk off stage and you can see just how good they feel. They followed through and they did it. I think that’s a memory that stays with them for a lifetime.”

Some new memories were created at the “Concierto de Primavera” event that so many of the LAMusArt students had anxiously prepared for. The show took place on a Sunday afternoon in April.

The plush 300-seat recital hall at the East Los Angeles Community College in Monterey Park was filled close to capacity.

A quick check of the audience revealed a captivated group mainly made up of Latino men and women. They tapped their feet and bobbed their heads to the catchy melody coming from the unadorned stage that featured a choir of 30 singers.

“It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing,” the choral ensemble joyously sang.

The singers filled the hall with sweet harmonious voices, impeccably dressed in their best dark suits and skirts.

The choir sings Ellington at the spring concert, Photo by JournoJames

Ellington would’ve been proud to know that his now classic little jazz ditty from 1931 still had the magical swing, even when it was sung by a choral ensemble, made up entirely of children and young adults from the age of 8 to 21.

Later in the program, Analise Hoveyada, the precocious 8-year-old, almost stole the show. She performed as if she were on “American Idol,” covering Selena’s signature Tejano pop song “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” with frolic and playful winks to the audience. If she was nervous, she didn’t show it.

After Dr. Rubin’s Youth Orchestra closed the concert with three impressive performances that included Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto #3,” the auditorium erupted with wild cheers and applause.

The show was a success on stage, but whether or not it truly helped promote the school is tougher to determine. That will be answered in the coming days and weeks if and when there’s an increase in enrollment, donations or curious inquiries.

For now, Sotelo will concentrate on the School’s major capital campaign. She’s hoping to raise enough money for a planned expansion of the current building.

“Our orchestra rehearses in a small ballet room,” Sotelo said. “And we just don’t have the room to do the kinds of programming that we would like in terms of performances that are free and open to the community.”

The School has raised $2 million of the $5.5 million needed for the building extension. She said their fundraising would depend a lot on how well the unstable economy can recover.

Sotelo is confident that the project will eventually meet its goal and that the School will continue to serve the community in bigger and better ways in the future.

“We already have a fabulous legacy. We’ve been in existence for 67 years and I want to see this be around for another 100,” Sotelo said. “This is a gem here and I want it to be known as the premier artist institution in East Los Angeles.”

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