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Students welcome band aid

A Compton school group that marched to its own imaginary drum gets a gift of 42 new instruments. No percussion yet, though.

March 02, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Professor Harold Hill had a name for it: "the think system." As a way of teaching music, it had its drawbacks, but anyone who's seen "The Music Man" knows that it worked out in the end.

That's what Charles Barnes must have been thinking Thursday morning as he taught his regular marching band class at Roosevelt Middle School in Compton.

"Jaime, you feel like tapping on the desk a little bit, you and Jonathan?" he asked his drummers. "Flute players, can you hold your flutes like this, pretend you're holding them?" He raised his hands in the flute position. The flute players raised their flute-less hands too. "Trumpets? Let's see the trumpet-player hands."

And so it went, until he had an entire marching band marching in place, imaginary instruments in everyone's hands, heads occasionally straying to glance at the growing number of strange men and women in pinstripe suits gathering outside the band room window.

What was going on?

The answer came a few minutes later, when Principal Rubin Glover-White took over the class from Barnes. Her smile at that moment could have lighted all of Compton.

"Now, boys and girls, you remember that I always said to you, if I could give you the world, I would?" she began. "I can't give you the world. But" -- and now the smile grew even bigger -- "I'm almost giving you the world."

Moments later, the pinstripe suits, belonging to Smith Barney bankers, began to march into the band room. Each carried a brand new instrument, 42 in all, tucked into a brand new case. And the children stared, quietly at first, until the strangers began to hand them the instruments. And then bedlam erupted.

"I feel great!" said 12-year-old Devante Lyons, a seventh-grader who had wanted to learn to play the saxophone like his uncle and now found a shiny brass tenor sax in his hands. He gave it a blow. It sounded like a New York taxi. A big kid with sandpaper hair and round cheeks, Devante beamed.

"It's a good moment," he said, sounding older than his years. "It's made my day much better."

Watching over all of this was Felice Mancini, daughter of the late composer Henry Mancini. She is executive director of the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, a Sherman Oaks-based organization that donates musical instruments to schools across the country. Created a decade ago by Michael Kamen, who wrote the score for the film "Mr. Holland's Opus," about an inspirational music teacher, the organization has given instruments to 800 schools, Roosevelt being the most recent.

"Compton has been on our radar screen for a while," Mancini said, "because we knew there was a huge need here. The Compton community is very, very supportive of getting music back into its schools, because it's a way of keeping the kids in a safe environment.... It's a great alternative for what they find on the streets."

The money for the instruments donated to Roosevelt -- $56,000 -- came from Citi Smith Barney, whose regional director, Jerry Eberhardt, presided over Thursday's surprise delivery.

The donation comes at a time when advocates for music education are decrying what they see as a climate of hostility to the arts in school, where the priority is raising test scores -- not, they say, raising well-rounded children.

A study released Thursday concluded that the vast majority of California schools are failing to meet the state's standards for teaching the arts and that access to arts education varies widely by district.

The statewide survey of 1,800 randomly selected schools, commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, found that nearly 90% of California schools fail to offer standards-based courses in all four of the arts disciplines mandated by state law: music, visual arts, theater and dance.

Glover-White, the Roosevelt principal, said that when she arrived at the school last fall, she discovered that there was no regular instrumental music class -- just an after-school class taught by Barnes with a handful of assorted instruments. Some might say that was the least of the school's problems, considering that its Academic Performance Index scores had plunged 20 points the year before, but Glover-White believed strongly that music would make her students better, and happier, learners.

Barnes had been begging for instruments since he arrived at the school four years ago. At first, he put together a marching band with the only instruments available -- clarinets and violins.

"I'd never heard of a band marching with violins," he said, "but the children were excited and wanted to do it."

By this winter, he had about 20 usable instruments, some donated by his church, and the school won first place among middle schools in the Compton Christmas Parade.

Glover-White knew she had to do more. So this semester, she offered marching band as a regular class. There was space for 82 children and instruments for 20. More than 100 students signed up.

"Mostly, we imagined playing," Barnes said, describing the classes he has held since January. "Sometimes, I would put a record or a CD on. Sometimes, I would bring in one of my instruments and play."

Even with the donated instruments, for now only about 60 of the 82 children will get to play. Still, Barnes said, "It will make a very big difference. We're talking triple the size. Now we're talking about marching a 60-piece band.... So we're growing."

Based on the school's requests, the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation donated 10 clarinets, nine trombones, eight tenor and eight alto saxophones, six trumpets and one sousaphone.

Conspicuously missing are those drums that Jaime and Jonathan need, but school board member Satra Zurita said those should be coming soon. She has been leaning on the school district's vendors to open their wallets, she said.

"Drums," she promised Barnes, "are coming soon."

*

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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