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Piano Is His Forte

July 31, 1998|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here at the Red Shield Youth and Community Center, the music of Bach has become as familiar as the slap of basketballs against the gymnasium floor, the patter of children or the sirens that scream through Pico-Union near downtown Los Angeles.

In late afternoons, music flows from a piano down the hallway, and sometimes Laura Perales hears it as she performs her duties as a supervisor at the center. She listens to her son, Abel Perales, play, and although she has no ear for classical music, others have told her that he is very good, even exceptional.

It is April, and in two months, he will audition for a Young Musicians Foundation scholarship, competing against pianists who learned about Beethoven about the same time they learned about Santa Claus. Abel, 18, has followed a different path.

Unable to afford lessons and with no piano at home, he taught himself to play at the center. Each day after school for the last two years, he has walked here from a bus stop 10 blocks away to practice for five or 10 minutes between classes when the room is not in use. Sometimes he gets up to half an hour.

He also works as a volunteer at the center teaching children and adults in the neighborhood how to use computers. At 9:30 p.m., when his mother gets off work, they go home to Cypress Park, near Dodger Stadium.

Except for the weekends he goes to his father's house, this is the only access he has to a piano. But classical music is with him always, ever since the day two years ago when he chanced upon it.

He was skipping around radio stations in his father's car in search of music that was fast and loud. Mostly loud. Scanning stations for heavy metal--Metallica, Anthrax, Cannibal Corpse--he came upon Beethoven.

The music gave him pause. He listened carefully and was intrigued by its complexity. When he arrived home, he dug out a toy keyboard given to him as a gift when he was a child and began searching for notes from memory, similar to the way he taught himself to play the electric guitar.

He studied a book about music, then one on how to teach himself to play the piano. He began cruising unfamiliar aisles at the music store, where he came upon Bach, Mozart, Chopin. He would listen and store bits and pieces of music in his memory, then bring them here to the center where he would try to play them.

Earlier in the year, Lynne Shook, whose daughter studies ballet at the center, heard Abel practicing.

"How long have you been playing?" she asked.

"About two years," he said.

That his abilities were at such an advanced level after only two years surprised Shook. That he had never had lessons surprised her even more. She listened in amazement, and already the wheels were turning in her head.

"It was like seeing a miracle," she says.

She approached a donor of the City of Angels Ballet and told her about Abel. The donor agreed to provide him with $1,000 worth of lessons, but when Shook started calling around to instructors, no one was willing to come to the perilous Pico-Union area to meet Abel.

Finally, she called USC and was referred to John Blacklow, who recently had received his doctorate in piano at the School of Music.

*

Blacklow agreed to meet with Abel and telephoned him to make arrangements. A graduate of Harvard, Juilliard School of Music (where he also taught for three years) and USC, Blacklow first sat at the keyboard as a toddler. By the time he was 11, he was playing Rachmaninoff.

He knows what--and how long--it takes to become an accomplished musician, so when told that Abel had been playing only for two years and had never taken lessons, he was skeptical.

As they spoke on the telephone in January, Blacklow explained to Abel that he would like to meet before leaving for Europe to perform.

"Have you ever been to Germany?" Abel asked. Blacklow said he had, and Abel began speaking to him in German.

"I studied [German] for two years in college, but he had me confused," Blacklow says. "I couldn't keep up with him. I asked if anyone in his family spoke German, and he said no. I asked if he had studied it in school, and he said no, he had learned it from a book. That made me very curious. As a pianist, it's important to have the kind of ear that allows you to speak languages well and to understand nuance and tones and accents. I think then I realized this was somebody quite extraordinary."

*

When they met, Blacklow asked Abel to play scales, then excerpts of pieces he had been practicing.

"He sort of found his own way around the piano," Blacklow says. "He invented his own ways. It was an unpolished level, but almost professional in a way. He played things from the 'Emperor' Concerto by Beethoven, which is a notoriously difficult piano piece."

They began meeting once a week, and Blacklow was stunned by how quickly Abel progressed. In a Feb. 25 letter to Mario Nugara, artistic director and founder of the City of Angels Ballet, Blacklow wrote:

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