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L.A. Opera, other music companies play to youth

The Pacific Symphony, L.A. Phil and many others hook children on the musical world by using a hands-on approach.

January 03, 2010|By Karen Wada >>>
  • L.A. Opera's "The Marriage of Figueroa" reels in fourth-graders from Eagle Rock's Rockdale Elementary School with a blend of whimsy and history. It's part of the company's outreach program to help youngsters learn to love classical music.
L.A. Opera's "The Marriage of Figueroa" reels in fourth-graders… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

As the crew checks the lighting and the lead singers relax in the wings, Los Angeles Opera director Eli Villanueva zeros in on a weak spot he noticed during the just-completed rehearsal.
"You girls are looking good," he says as he joins a cluster of chorus members.
They beam at him.
"But in that last scene we need a little more attitude."
They stare blankly.
Villanueva tries a different approach. "You know when you're in line for tetherball and someone cuts in front of you? How do you feel?"
Faces darken and shoulders tighten menacingly.
"That's it!" Villanueva cries. "That's what we want."
Clearly, this is a director who knows how to motivate his cast -- in this case, fourth-graders at Rockdale Elementary School in Eagle Rock. Villanueva and his colleagues are helping students put on "The Marriage of Figueroa," a whimsical blend of Mozart and California history, as part of an L.A. Opera program designed to teach the basics of opera and performance in a language children understand.
"You can't describe art to someone. You have to let them experience it," says Stacy Brightman, the company's director of education and community programs. "If I can get a kid singing alongside a professional opera singer, feeling that joy of singing a story, I know I've got that kid for life."

For many orchestral and choral organizations, youth outreach no longer means traditional (read: boring) concerts in which a conductor lectures the crowd then plunges into a selection of chestnuts. "That may have been enough when we had a culture in which music education was more deeply woven into the fabric of schools and families," says Pamela Blaine, vice president of education and community programs for the Pacific Symphony in Orange County. "But now we have to do more."

Today, programs are interactive and interdisciplinary. "Children learn by doing and they learn in different ways -- visual, musical, emotional and physical," says Jessica Balboni, director of the Orchestra Leadership Academy of the League of American Orchestras. "They also learn best through relationships." In the last decade, she says, " the idea of a one-off show with one contact point" has been replaced by "civic engagement -- where we establish sustainable relationships with children, schools and community."

Arts groups, for instance, have struggled for years to fill gaps caused by classroom budget cuts. "We've evolved," Balboni says. "Now, we're working with the schools to bring added value and we're trying to help students grow in other areas too. It's all about being more creative and relevant."

Young people's concerts still exist, but they often are conceived as multifaceted theatrical events. Companies use open rehearsals and mentorships to erase barriers between artists and audiences in the belief that kids respond to experiences and role models they can relate to.

Which brings us to Gustavo Dudamel. The new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is 28, charismatic and a product of El Sistema, the Venezuelan youth orchestra-social movement that has transformed hundreds of thousands of lives and inspired a wave of similar ventures by the Philharmonic and other orchestras. Helping children is one of Dudamel's priorities -- a point made clear with his family-friendly debut concert in October.

Balboni says the maestro is giving a big boost to an already robust outreach community made up of large and small companies from Claremont to Long Beach. "L.A. is quite progressive and sophisticated in how it engages kids," says Balboni, who worked for the Philharmonic before she joined the league in 2007. "Gustavo Dudamel is building on a good foundation of cultural organizations with a strong track record."

Here's a look at how four of those organizations, including the Philharmonic, innovate, engage, sustain and in other ways exemplify leading trends in music education.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

The Philharmonic has long been known for its commitment to kids. The Phil spends $4.5 million a year on education, including school and youth orchestra partnerships, high school composer fellowships, Hollywood Bowl summer sessions for the 9-and-under set, family and student concerts and the El Sistema-inspired initiative Youth Orchestra LA.

"Gustavo's arrival provides extra opportunities to raise visibility and extend our reach beyond our previous scope," says Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn.

Balboni agrees: "In the arts education field we say, 'Oh my God,' when we see the opportunity at the Phil for music education to be integrated at the highest level because of Gustavo Dudamel and the resources they have."

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