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Music School Humming Along at 87

Arts: The East L.A. academy has been teaching children since 1914. Even now, a 30-minute private session is $8.50.

May 09, 2001|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The melodies that fill this Boyle Heights Victorian house can't be heard from the noisy street, where the traffic's roar dominates.

But across its gate, past rose gardens and up some wooden steps, inside the gingerbready structure, music reigns.

In the parlor just inside the door, 8-year-old violinist Jeremy Jarak dives into a Bach minuet.

Teacher Mickey Fruchter halts the tune.

"What does andantino mean?" he asks.

"Slow," shoots back Jeremy, who's sporting a loose T-shirt, sweatpants and sandals.

"Did you play slow?"

"Nope."

"You started swinging like a country and western song," says Fruchter, 62, a playful teacher to whom children swarm. "Let's take it more slowly and more evenly." Jeremy takes up his bow and prepares to try again.

Scenes like this have been repeated for generations at the Neighborhood Music Settlement School which, in one form or another, has operated just east of downtown Los Angeles for 87 years. It offers affordable music lessons to Los Angeles' needy children and, even today, $8.50 gets a child a half-hour private lesson--the cheapest in town, the staff says.

Its mission statement says the school is "for the purpose of giving music instruction to those who sincerely desire to study music, but are limited economically."

The school was started by a socially conscious woman named Pearle Irene Odell, who eventually would come to be known as the Eastside "Music Lady." To others, she was simply Miss Pearle. Quiet and with snow-white hair always tucked in a bun, she never turned away a student, regardless of whether the child could pay.

Odell was born in 1883 in South Dakota. As a young woman, she studied social work in New York City and, at the turn of the last century, worked at settlements, institutions where social workers taught immigrants English and other skills to help them assimilate.

She worked at the Philadelphia Settlement School before she arrived in Los Angeles to teach at the music settlement founded--appropriately--on Mozart Street in 1914.

Los Angeles was then a growing town, with Russians and Jews among the immigrants settling in Boyle Heights. Odell eventually moved her growing music program to two adjacent Victorian houses on South Boyle Avenue just south of 4th Street. In 1936, the music settlement was incorporated as a nonprofit.

But in 1947, Odell's music program split in two. The Neighborhood Music School moved a block up Boyle into the Victorian house that is its current location. Odell stayed in the two Victorian homes running what would become the Los Angeles Music and Art School.

At least one reason for the split was that the board of the Neighborhood Music School wanted only members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to teach the children, while Odell wanted more freedom to choose, said Robert Kursinski, the Neighborhood Music Settlement's current president.

Odell, who for decades had promoted classical music lessons to counteract juvenile delinquency, had never-ending ambitions.

In 1963, on her 80th birthday, she broke ground on a building on 3rd Street near Indiana Street to house her Los Angeles Music and Art School, which students and teachers call LAMAS.

She died within a year of the groundbreaking, so she didn't see the 1967 opening of the modern building that remains the home of the school.

Her vision lingers today at both schools she founded.

"It's funny because the need still exists," says Isela Sotelo, the director of LAMAS, which provides affordable lessons to hundreds of students. Last month, the organization received a $135,000 federal grant to provide arts instruction at nearby Estrada Courts public housing development.

At the Neighborhood Music School, the younger children and teenagers begin trickling in at 2:30 p.m., into the dozen rooms downstairs and upstairs. The old house with wood floors comes alive with sounds of clinking pianos, crying violins, classical guitars and voices attempting opera. About 250 students study there Tuesday through Saturday.

There are three scheduled recitals a year and occasional "Show Time" sessions whenever Adelaide Doyle, the school's administrator for 27 years, calls one. Performing "makes me feel sophisticated," says Alex Santana, 12, a piano student from Silver Lake who also plays during parties for friends and family.

The school aims to teach appreciation of classical music and develop skills such as patience and persistence, says Doyle, 73. "We try to let them know that there is more in the world than rock 'n' roll," she says.

The patience and persistence lessons suit Dominique Butler, a 9-year-old piano student from El Sereno, just fine. But still, says the giggly girl frolicking in the lush, grassy yard after a lesson: "I want to be a rock star."

Dominique's sister Emily, 6, and their mother, Lydia, also take lessons--though Lydia Butler, a nurse, has quit temporarily because she can't afford all three weekly lessons right now.

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