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MUSIC : Group Plays Instrumental Role at Schools


Alvin Mills is careful not to use the word "classical" when talking about the music he's presenting to schoolchildren.

"I don't want to scare them, so I just call it 'good' music," said the conductor, whose Brentwood/Westwood Symphony is winding up a monthlong tour of seven Los Angeles public elementary schools.

The schedule has taken the 25-member professional orchestra to South-Central Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights and Bel-Air.

On Monday, the orchestra will perform at the Vine Street School in Hollywood.

"It's been a beautiful experience, much better than I'd imagined," said Mills. "We were concerned initially, but it's been the same all over: The children are so attentive and well behaved, so happy to have us."

Sometimes, the experience turns into a happy recognition: Recently, a young boy told Mills that he knew Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" as the music from his favorite movie, "Fievel Goes West."

"I talk to the children and encourage them," said Mills, who tailors each program for the occasion. "When we do the Mexican hat dance, they watch and see what I do, then they clap. I want that participation. I want to go straight to their hearts. By June 15th, we will have seen 4,000 students, so we've touched a lot of lives."

With his wife, Grusha, Mills has created musical rounds for the children to sing.

"A concert is wonderful, but I want them to be part of a musical situation," he said.

Although a core group of professionals was used for the school tour, the orchestra also has about 60 non-professional musicians, said Mills, who co-founded the group and has been its musical director for 42 years. "We are a community orchestra and proud of being that," he said.

Professional musicians also are brought in for a series of public concerts, which begins in October.

The school tour was funded by a grant from the city's Cultural Affairs Department, a first for the orchestra.

"In the past, whenever we played at schools, it was sponsored by the schools themselves," Mills said. "In this case, the monies were set aside by the city and disbursed to schools where the need was greatest."

One of the schools chosen was the Bellagio Road Newcomer School in Bel-Air, which in 1989 was reorganized by the Los Angeles Unified School District to serve fourth- to eighth-grade immigrants in their first year of school in the United States.

The 450 students, who are bused in from all over the city, receive bilingual instruction in language skills, math, history and the arts.

Two weeks ago, as they shyly filed into the school auditorium--which is ringed with bright flags from each of their native countries--many of them were about to hear a concert for the first time.

"The children were just spellbound," Principal Julie Thompson reported the day after the orchestra's visit. "At one point, I was at the front of the auditorium and I was going to go to the back, but I just stood there looking at their beautiful faces--watching them watch the music."

For more information about the Brentwood/Westwood Symphony, call (310) 394-8528.

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