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Spotlight Mentors Step Up the Tempo


For the winners and runners-up of the Music Center Spotlight Awards, now in its eighth year of honoring talented Southern California high school-age performers, receiving checks and a career launch would probably be reward enough.

But four years ago, Rick Wilson, a member of the Music Center support group the Fraternity of Friends, decided to go the effort one better. He created and chairs the Fraternity Mentor Program, recruiting fellow members to get to know each year's 12 finalists on a personal rather than performing basis.

"There are people who just give money to things, and then there are people who connect in a personal way," says Wilson, 56, who owns an East Los Angeles-based wholesale packaging company that furnishes gift wrap, bags and boxes to retail stores and restaurants. "I wanted to broaden the base of the program beyond financial support."

The two finalists in each awards category--classical instrumental music, jazz instrumental music, classical vocal music, musical theater vocal music, ballet and jazz/modern dance--each have two mentors. They are paired up four to six weeks before the final competition, a gala ceremony that this year was held April 23 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Mentors attend their students' semifinal competition and join them for a luncheon at a downtown Los Angeles restaurant.

"Some of the mentors have done something as simple as helping people learn how to shake hands," says Wilson, demonstrating the lifeless grip one student presented before his mentor provided some polishing. "It makes a difference in meeting someone, because you get an immediate impression."

Others have bought tuxedos or formal dresses for the finals for students who could not afford them. And on the big night, when the finalists vie against each other, the mentors are there for support and encouragement--win or lose. "One of the mentors, Thomas Safran, said that this time, he was going to teach the kids how to come in second, how to accept defeat," Wilson says. "We can help them understand what a competition is and how to lose in a gracious manner."

One who appreciates the mentors' efforts is Heather McCaleb, 18, of Yorba Linda, who won last year's Spotlight classical ballet division and is now a trainee with the Milwaukee Ballet. "They provided a real support team," she says. "It was nice to know you had a couple of more people rooting for you."

The personal interaction does not cease with the awards ceremony. Mentors have taken their charges to Music Center concerts and opera performances, hired them to perform in their homes for parties and arranged for them to attend recording sessions.

Jazz pianist Linda Martinez, 20, of Whittier, winner four years ago of the jazz instrumental category and now a USC junior, cites another dividend. "My mentor, attorney Lee Phillips, gave me insight that helped me become more industry-wise," she says. "He gave me advice on everything from record deals to how to handle certain situations. He encouraged me to stay in school, and I'm glad I followed that advice."

The mentors' influence is perhaps most deeply felt when it comes to furthering education and training. Mentors have provided scholarship funds to enable students to enroll in such renowned schools as Juilliard and the Curtis Institute. They have been particularly active in facilitating attendance at the prestigious Aspen Music Festival, a comprehensive summer training program.

With mentor Terry Turkat's wife, Roberta, a member of the festival's national advisory board, Turkat created a scholarship fund specifically for Spotlight students. Another mentor, real estate developer Arnold Porath, was so inspired by their efforts that he annually donates a generous sum as well. And writer-producer-director Allan Burns, also a mentor, paid for one young man's air fare to the Aspen Music Festival.

"I feel good about the mentor program, because we're able to do something for these young people," says Porath, who has also opened his Aspen home to Spotlight students. "There's a mutual respect. They're with adults who are not their parents, who are taking an interest in their progress in a caring way."

Says W. Harold Laster, dean of the Aspen Music Festival and School, "The mentors need to be congratulated for their wonderful outreach, which is unique in philanthropy. We do have programs in other schools that sponsor an Aspen scholarship, but not to this extent.

"The festival opens up new worlds," Laster adds. "One gentleman told me that one student he was mentoring was bashful and reserved. When the student came back from Aspen, he said, 'My gosh, the kid just blossomed, opened up. He couldn't stop talking. It's a good feeling to know that the little I'd done changed the kid's life.' "

The mentors do benefit from their participation, Wilson concurs. As for the young performers, he says, "This program has proven to me the whole idea that one person makes a difference."

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