How a Los Angeles after-school music program is transforming the lives of children


Written by: Jessica Gelt

An El Sistema-type program in Los Angeles is producing wonderful results in a very disadvantaged neighbourhood.

It is one of the most densely populated areas west of the Mississippi. The poverty rate is over 35%, and more than a quarter of all households earns less than $15,000 per year. At least 30 gangs roam the streets, recruiting children as young as 9. The high school graduation rate is around 50%.

That’s the state of affairs in Westlake, Pico Union and Koreatown, according to the organization Heart of Los Angeles. The group reaches more than 2,000 kids in those neighborhoods every year through after-school arts and athletics programs, but its crowning achievement is its partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic: Youth Orchestra Los Angeles at Heart of Los Angeles, or YOLA at HOLA.

Says Tony Brown, Executive Director of YOLA: “The orchestra becomes a metaphor for community. It becomes a safe place to develop and be heard—to have a voice and to find a voice.”

Jackie DesRosier conducts a YOLA at HOLA youth orchestra spring concert

YOLA at HOLA provides intensive orchestral instruction, including classes on music creativity, singing and ensemble rehearsals, to 250 students in 1st through 12th grades. Classes take place daily. An hour of academic tutoring is thrown in each afternoon for good measure. All of these budding musicians will have the opportunity to play at Walt Disney Concert Hall and to audition for the YOLA group that tours.

“This program is using music for social change. It’s not that it’s trying to create the next Gustavo Dudamel or first-chair violinist, but it is trying to give voice to a community and kids in that community,” said Tony Brown. “It’s trying to empower those kids to reach their potential and to expand their horizon.”

There is a long waiting list to get into the HOLA programs. The statistics coming out of the HOLA’s academic enrichment, visual arts and music programs speak to why demand is so high.

Of the 63 students in those programs who were high school seniors in 2015, 100% of them graduated, and 97% went on to college.

Brown and his staff are aggressive in preventing kids from falling between the cracks. They sometimes attend parent-teacher conferences to find out what support a child needs, and when a student disappears from their programs, a staff member might make a house call to help bring that student back.

Brown recalled a home visit where he found a boy living in conditions that were all too familiar for kids in the program.

“I open the door and to my left is a bed by the kitchenette where grandma sleeps, to my right is a couch where two kids sleep, and in the one bedroom there is mom and dad and two other little girls,” he said. “These are the kids we serve. The orchestra becomes a metaphor for community. It becomes a safe place to develop and be heard — to have a voice and to find a voice.”

Brown likes to tell the success story of a boy named Raymond who came through the program as a troubled middle-school student. His grandmother brought him to YOLA at HOLA because he was failing in school and in danger of joining a gang.

“This young man started playing the clarinet, and he played the heck out of it. Next thing you know he’s earned his way to playing in London with YOLA at HOLA and Dudamel,” Brown said, referring to the youth orchestra’s 2013 trip overseas. Raymond is now attending UC Santa Cruz, Brown said.

The total budget for the youth orchestra is $700,000; more than $360,000 of that amount is funded by the L.A. Phil. Most of the money goes to paying for two full-time staff members and about 15 other employees.

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