When a 14-Year-Old in South Central Wants to Learn the Cello

Gustavo Dudamel with the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles in October 2012
Gustavo Dudamel with the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles in October 2012
laphil.com/education/yola press photos

When her son Jacob was barely a year old, Teresa Esquivel noticed that music powerfully affected his demeanor. Certain tunes would even make him cry. In particular, if Pokémon was on, Jigglypuff's leitmotif would reduce him to wails, even if Jacob hadn't been previously focused on the TV.

Jacob's parents live in South Central L.A. — Teresa works at the DMV, husband Peter at a motorcycle shop. Now that the shop is more established, things are better, but when the family was just starting out, Peter Esquivel says private lessons for his music-obsessed son would have been out of reach.

Until, that is, the family discovered Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. The organization provides free music instruction to kids in underserved areas of the city, with the motto "Social Change Through Music."

That phrase at first might sound grandiose, even starry-eyed. But a closer examination of the program's methods makes its lofty goals look less like dreamy idealism and more like achievable reality.

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Over the last half-century, cut after cut to arts funding has left music education optional instead of the integral component it once was. That has created a cultural divide, with music education increasingly the province of families that can afford to supplement public education with private instruction. The result is a sort of musical version of social Darwinism in which money, not musicality, determines whose gifts flourish.

But here's the rub: Music instruction isn't just about music. Though the "Mozart effect," the idea that playing classical music to babies makes them smarter, has been disproven as myth, a far more reliable body of evidence indicates that kids who get music lessons experience a spillover effect that aids achievement in other disciplines, such as reading and math. Music instruction doesn't just create musicians; it creates thinkers.

Now 14, Jacob sits near the conductor in the first cello chair, his hair like a gleaming black bowl perched atop his head, his expression calm, disaffected almost, in the way common to teenage boys. But he brightens at every one of the conductor's jokes, several of which a musical outsider wouldn't get. After five years in the program, he has become an accomplished cellist, as well as a budding composer and an aspiring conductor. He's also just returned from a trip to London, where he and a select group of YOLA kids traveled with the L.A. Philharmonic to perform.

The founding of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles is linked to L.A. Phil conductor Gustavo Dudamel's arrival here. When representatives from the L.A. Phil first traveled to South America to court the superstar conductor, they had an opportunity to see El Sistema, Venezuela's scrappy, DIY music-education program, in action.

They vowed that even if they couldn't succeed in bringing the Dude to Los Angeles, they would bring over a version of the program that had spawned him. Ultimately, they succeeded in doing both: The L.A. Phil–sponsored Youth Orchestra now offers free music education to kids at three centers in underserved areas of L.A.

It's also an education in life. Like many of the kids on the trip to London, it was Jacob's first time flying in an airplane and his first international travel. (When the group was first told that it would be traveling to England, one kid asked, "What language do they speak there?")

The Youth Orchestra is demanding: Students and parents sign a contract committing to a yearlong schedule of daily after-school rehearsals. But the program's goal is not to churn out professional musicians, conductor Bruce Kiesling says, but rather to teach social skills, leadership and the value of hard work.

"Access, Excellence, Community," Kiesling explains, are the program's three keywords: access for those who might not otherwise have it, excellence that comes only though consistent effort and the sense of community that comes from commitment to a group.

"We hope that they get a sense that music can take them places, but also we want them to learn that working hard at anything can take them places," he says.

Jacob had never been on an airplane a month ago, but he's already fantasizing about his next trip. He'd like to go to Russia, home of his favorite composers, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. But really, he'd go "anywhere, everywhere."

Back at rehearsal, held at the EXPO Center, home of the swim stadium built for the 1932 Summer Olympics, the teen musicians sit in a spacious room. They wear hoodies, T-shirts, sneakers; their posture is slouchy and relaxed. But when Kiesling calls everyone's attention, they straighten, eyes on the conductor and instruments at the ready.

"We need this to be forte. ... We need this to be meaty and beautiful and ... UHM! Don't be afraid to be musical!" he urges. To demonstrate, he sings a few notes operatically, comically, and a titter goes through the group. Then they launch into the bombastic first notes of the prelude from Carmen, and the combined efforts of these students, playing together as one, transforms the moment from mundane to magical.

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