This is the last rehearsal before the big winter concert, and like conductors everywhere this month, Abel Delgado is rallying his musicians.
"It's not together. It needs to sound like a machine," he tells the young violinists, clarinetists and other players seated around him. "Memorize your first five notes so you can look at me . . . give me a 10, not an eight."
But Delgado doesn't stop there. He is music director of the Harmony Project, a nonprofit group in Los Angeles that offers extensive classical musical training to 500 people ages 6 to 18 from disadvantaged families living in the area. That training is the entrance into a world of classical musicianship that many children from all backgrounds will never glimpse in an era of financially strained public school budgets.
Delgado, 27, a professional flutist and conductor who grew up in a lower-income immigrant family in Texas, transforms the rehearsal into a morning-long music lesson while still pushing the orchestra to polish its style.
"We're not doing any dynamics. Someone raise their hand and tell me what dynamics are," he calls out to the 60 members of the Harmony Project Orchestra, practicing at Los Angeles City College.
"Soft and loud," several hand-waving students blurt out, and the orchestra practices going from mezzo forte to forte and back again. The music swells and softens.
"What's the difference between major and minor?"
Music played in a major key normally sounds happy, the students said. Music in a minor key sounds sad.
Delgado then asks them to think of something sad as they play.
"Does it feel different?" Students nod their heads. "We're musicians, right? We're artists. We're supposed to feel and remember things," Delgado said. "That's what music is for, to make you feel things."
This is one of two orchestras and two choirs organized by the 6-year-old Harmony Project, which offers free music instruction in seven instruments and field trips to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl and other events. Some students get private lessons, and all participants receive instruments that they can keep as long as they are in the program.
The Harmony Project is also working with the Philharmonic to help establish a citywide youth orchestra initiative, said Executive Director Myka Miller.
The program is unusual because it commits to training students throughout childhood, as long as they meet economic-need criteria, Miller said. If students are receiving free or reduced-cost lunches at school, they technically qualify, Delgado said. Some of them are homeless or have families that have been in and out of shelters.
"This often gives them the anchor that they so need and deserve in their lives," said Delgado, who is also development director at USC Thornton School of Music.
One young clarinetist, Jorge Delgado, 17, who is not related to the conductor, said he currently lives at a Los Angeles shelter. A newcomer to the Harmony Project, he stays after rehearsal to painstakingly wipe his clarinet with a cloth.
"I chose to come here because I want to learn more and enter a band," said Delgado, who also plays drums and wants to learn piano. He already can pick out "Jingle Bells" on the piano. "I like listening to music. I like it a lot."
Another clarinetist, Elizabeth Burgos, 16, who attends North Hollywood High School, takes both group private lessons and practices two to three hours a day. When she heard the Philharmonic play, she thought, "I hope that I can play that way some day."