Bruce Correa, Angela Ortiz and Judith Gonzalez in front of their school mascot
Bruce Correa, Angela Ortiz and Judith Gonzalez in front of their school mascot
Catherine Womack

In Boyle Heights, Fifth Graders Are Writing Songs About Their Neighborhood

Like a lot of people, I’ve been suffering from a postelection hangover. I tried to make myself feel better. I had lunch with my sister. I walked my dog. I drank a beer. But I couldn’t shake the sick feeling that sat in my gut.

That is, until I walked into the auditorium at Sheridan Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights last Thursday. There, I’m glad to report, the kids are not only all right, they are happy, thriving and learning to make their voices heard with pride and respect.

For the past 12 weeks, two classes of Sheridan Street fifth graders have been working with a team of teaching artists from the Los Angeles Master Chorale as part of the organization’s Voices Within program. The program, which began in 2000, places a composer, a lyricist and a singer in two area elementary schools each semester. This fall, fifth graders from Sheridan Street and the Carlos Santana Arts Academy in North Hills, in collaboration with the teaching artists, have composed, rehearsed and will perform a total of 12 original songs.

Before the Sheridan Street kids arrived for rehearsal last Thursday, composer David O and director Amy Fogerson quietly prepared the auditorium, dragging a bruised-up old grand piano across the well-worn hardwood floor and straightening the risers.

“We have the opportunity to make the world a better place, so let’s do this,” David O said quietly to his colleague as the doors opened and the kids poured into the auditorium.

Within seconds, Fogerson had captured the rowdy group’s attention. The students were rapt, copying her every rhythmic snap and clap and following her lead through a series of stretches and vocal warmups. Once they were organized on the risers, David O struck a chord on the piano and the group launched into their first song with full voices and bright smiles.

Their sound made me smile. That sick feeling I’d been trying desperately to rid myself of for the previous 48 hours disappeared. I instantly quit worrying about America, because the America I saw in front of my eyes was vibrant, diverse and brimming with potential.

The songs the Sheridan Street fifth graders sang were written collaboratively in groups of 10 students. Each song tells the story of an important Boyle Heights landmark, such as Mariachi Plaza or the Evergreen Cemetery.

Ten-year-old Bruce Correa worked in the group that wrote “Here Comes the Train.”

“It’s about the Metro Gold Line,” he explained during a rehearsal break. “I wrote the part that goes ‘Here comes the train, train through the city, city’ and I also wrote the line ‘I don’t know these people, but I’ll get on and let it fly.’” 

Bruce’s classmates Angela Ortiz and Judith Gonzalez agreed that “Here Comes the Train” is the universal class favorite. “I think it’s because it has a jazzy beat and everyone likes to sing it,” Angela explained. “Also, the first time I heard the song, me and my friend, we got it stuck in our heads.”

“Here Comes the Train” is catchy, as is the pride and enthusiasm these kids emanate when they talk about the songs they wrote and the way they worked together in groups to compose them.

Bruce says that figuring out how to work together as a team was the hardest part of the process because “when you start, the team at the beginning is not always going well.” He says once his team got used to working together, it got better, and now he is excited to perform his piece for classmates, family and friends in a free community concert.

Angela agrees, and adds that the teamwork was her favorite part of the process. “It’s really fun because no one can judge your ideas and you can’t judge no one else, so it’s more, like, fair,” she explained. “We don’t say, ‘Oh, that’s not a good idea.’ We just add on to it to make it even better.”

It’s clear from chatting with the Voices Within students that the teaching artists they work with have drilled into them the importance of teamwork in a choir. They have also quite literally helped the students find their voices.

“What we have learned about our voice is that we are not supposed to be scared, we should sing what we can,” Judith explained. “And it’s not shouting, it comes from our stomach.”

Bruce agrees: “You should never talk people down from their ideas because that’s not what your voice is meant for. I think your voice is meant for greater things.”

I told Bruce, Angela and Judith that “Here Comes the Train” made me feel really happy when I heard it.

“I think everybody likes it because it’s a joyful song,” Judith agreed. “Because like you said, you were sad in the morning, but when you heard it, you were happy now.”

So if you’re feeling down this week, remember that there is an auditorium in Boyle Heights brimming with both real and metaphorical harmony, and the future is brighter than it sometimes seems.

Voices Within concerts are free and open to the public. Performances are Wed., Nov. 16, at 9:30 & 10:45 a.m. at the Carlos Santana Arts Academy in North Hills, and Thu., Nov. 17, at 9:30 & 11 a.m. at Sheridan Street Elementary School.

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