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Music Class Soothes the Savage Teens

At a Ventura youth lockup, learning string instruments is a coveted pastime, leading to surprising success stories.

August 04, 2003|Karin Grennan | Special to The Times

Twice a week, the strum and screech of violins, violas and cellos emanate from the Frank A. Colston Youth Center in Ventura.

Behind chain-link fences and barbed wire, teenagers with rap sheets and gang tattoos are learning scales and simple tunes like "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in a strings class so popular that many waited weeks, even months, before a spot opened up.

"It takes your mind off everything that's going on," said Tiffany, 17, of Camarillo, identified only by her first name because of her age. "I come in a bad mood and I feel better ... It lasts for a long time."

The medium-security facility has offered the elective music class since November. Up to 11 youths are enrolled at any time. They are taught by volunteer instructors and use donated instruments to play everything from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

Colston is not the only juvenile institution in the country with a music program, but its focus -- classical music -- is unusual, said Gary Aston, principal of the county's Juvenile Court Schools.

Youths held at Colston desperately need to be successful at something, and music is a good outlet, Aston said. A few of the 14- to 18-year-old wards have committed serious felonies, such as assault and burglary, and all have problems with substance abuse, anger management or both.

Studies have shown that kids in lockup tend to be right-brain dominant and thus often excel in music, Aston said. And although a few Colston youths have gotten frustrated and left the class after a week or two, most have found it inspiring.

"Every time I learned a new note or a new song, it was like, 'Yeah!' " said Yvonne, a 17-year-old from Ventura who often thrusts her violin bow into the air in triumph.

Francie Barrett, a Colston language arts teacher who helped start the strings class, said she was happily surprised by the response. She said the lessons bring out a combination of confidence and innocence in the students.

"I think the instruments themselves are intriguing," Barrett said of what attracts the students. "Some of these kids who were pretty heavy gangbangers become very delicate when dealing with these instruments."

The music also piques their curiosity, she said.

"It's not something they would have chosen -- they think, 'Classical music is for old people' -- but after having exposure to it, they find they enjoy it."

Students who have taken the class for a couple of months quickly become mentors, showing newcomers how to hold a violin or move a bow across strings.

"I have kids in here who are from opposing gangs who are cooperating, learning music together and collaborating," Barrett said. "A lot of the walls they have created in their lives have come down in this environment."

Margarita Herrera-Riley, a Moorpark Symphony Orchestra cellist who helped Barrett start the Colston program last fall, refers to it as the Milagro Project, incorporating the Spanish word for miracle.

"I truly believe music is a miracle in these kids' lives," said the Simi Valley resident. "Some of these kids are really hard to reach, but I think music is a way."

Herrera-Riley said she hopes the teens continue playing after their release, giving themselves something to focus on to stay out of trouble.

The biggest success story so far has been Jonathan, 17.

The Santa Paula youth arrived at Colston in November after serving nine months at juvenile halls in Los Angeles and Ventura for selling drugs. A disruptive student uninterested in earning his high school diploma, he asked to join the strings class in December just to get out of his room.

Herrera-Riley handed Jonathan a viola, and from then on he didn't want to let go. He said he asked, and received, a two-week extension on his sentence so he could stay at Colston long enough to play in the class concert.

"There is nothing like playing music," Jonathan said. "I was proud to be part of something good."

He left Colston in early February with the viola he played in class, a gift from his dad. One of the Colston volunteer teachers started giving him private lessons for free, then for half price. He now meets with her twice a week.

Jonathan joined the Moorpark Chamber Ensemble and played at his church for a Good Friday service. He began teaching kids and adults at Inlakech Cultural Center in Oxnard and offered to start a similar free program at the Santa Paula Boys & Girls Club.

Now hoping to become a professional music teacher, Jonathan has been showing anyone interested how to play the viola.

When not playing music, he is working toward his high school diploma at Gateway Community School in Camarillo or at his job as a camp counselor.

"I'm having the best time of my life," Jonathan said. "I could go back to drugs or drinking, but it's not worth it. I've got too much to lose, my music and everything."

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