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Teaching Lessons in Music--and Life


One afternoon a few months ago, two boys at Joseph Le Conte Middle School in Hollywood were having an after-school music lesson with double bass player Richard Simon. Standing outside the window of the small, stuffy practice cubicle were several fellow students, passing a beer can back and forth. The two boys looked at each other. "Let's close the window," one said. They did, and resumed their lesson.

There's no mistaking the satisfaction in jazz saxophonist Buddy Collette's voice as he relates this story, and no wonder: It's a sure sign, after all, that his efforts to offer impressionable youngsters an alternative to gangs, drugs, alcohol and other bad influences are paying off.

Since last April, the renowned performer has headed an after-school program at Le Conte designed to teach such "at-risk" students the joys of music, recruiting 15 other professional musicians to donate their time and expertise as well. He did so at the behest of Los Angeles Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who informed him that because of budget cuts the music room had been locked, its instruments gathering dust, for 10 years.

Every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, musicians and students come together in Room 50 for two hours of private or semi-private lessons on flute, trumpet, guitar, saxophone, cello, bass, piano, drums and other instruments, instruction on music theory and tales of musical life. On Mondays the teachers also join ranks for an informal concert.

On one recent Wednesday, a dozen or so boys and girls were there. In one cubicle, Simon supervised as Jose Castro, 11, successfully played the first measures of the Flintstones' theme song on the cello. In another, trumpeter Russ Mullen took his trio of charges through "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and taught them the instrument's seven valve combinations.

Out on the floor, guitarist Ron Hershewe showed a student how to softly press his fingers to produce a clear sound. Later, Hershewe, Simon and pianist Marty Harris toe-tapped their way through an impromptu jam session.

Collette spent close to an hour with April Wertz, 13, helping her learn the intricacies of the flute. They played scales and worked on fingering and hand positions, then turned to proper breathing. "Take a breath first and then take air after four notes," he told her, watching intently as she carefully played a C-major scale. "Very even, take your time. . . . There you go! Don't go too slowly. Move."

Although some of the students want to become professional musicians, career preparation is far from the program's primary goal, said Collette, 74. "When it's just you and the instrument, you learn to solve problems. They'll have confidence about doing things. One girl's family is like chaos--she told me that her mother and father quit things, and that she's the only one in her family who isn't going to quit, that she's really going to learn to play."

When the program began, he added, "Some of the kids were like wild animals, running through here. They wouldn't listen, wouldn't sit down. We teachers sat them down and gave them rules. Later on, as we played and did the music, and let them know that we weren't the police--that 'We aren't going to make you play, you have to want it yourself'--they settled down. Some of the parents have come by and said, 'What are you doing? It's working.' "

Learning to master the concepts of timing and rhythm helps instill a sense of balance and self-discipline, said Collette, who has also taught at various local colleges. And having the adults as caring role models, as well as seeing the teachers interact with each other, provides valuable life lessons.

"We hug each other, tease each other, we're in love with each other," said Collette, who grew up in Watts and played a significant role in the integration of the Professional Musicians Local 47 union in Hollywood. "The kids are buying that."

Indeed, said saxophone student Christopher Perez, 12, at the close of the Wednesday session, "The best thing I've learned here is to respect each other." Christopher has resisted peer pressure to join a gang, coming instead to the music program because, he said, "You waste your time when you're in a gang and you go to jail."

The endeavor has been so successful that last July the school hired a music teacher for its regular curriculum, said Principal Gloria Mercado. In the after-school program, she added, "Kids learn discipline, and that carries on to the regular school. We had a dynamite piano player who was a problem--he was being referred to the dean day in and day out.

"But he's hooked into the after-school program, in awe of all these musicians, and trying to learn other instruments. All of a sudden, he's not being referred. He's finally found something to give him some meaning."

* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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