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Layoffs claim L.A. band teacher who turned novices into champions

Ray Vizcarra resurrected Fairfax High's band, teaching students to play instruments from scratch. They soon won all-city competitions. But L.A. Unified had to cut jobs, and he lacked seniority.

October 09, 2012|By Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • At his new job in Beverly Hills, Ray Vizcarra shows students how to play a stringed instrument. He was one of thousands of teachers to receive a layoff notice this summer from the cash-strapped L.A. Unified School District.
At his new job in Beverly Hills, Ray Vizcarra shows students how to play a… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Most of the high school band members had never touched an instrument. Most had never marched; most couldn't read music.

But in the fall of 2006, Ray Vizcarra resurrected the Fairfax Marching Lions. Wearing red T-shirts, the band belted out the national anthem and school song at the first home football game of the season.

The band program at Fairfax High School had been defunct for two decades. But Vizcarra, the new, young band and orchestra director, had gone from classroom to classroom, recruiting students to revive it.

In five years, the band won more trophies than Vizcarra can keep track of. Fifteen months after the band's formation, the Marching Lions won their first of two Los Angeles Unified School District band and drill championships. The L.A. City Council honored Vizcarra in 2011 for his accomplishments.

But now Vizcarra is gone, and for the first two months of this semester, the band has been silent.

Vizcarra, 34, with only a few years of teaching experience, was one of thousands of L.A. Unified teachers to receive a layoff notice this summer as a result of a budget crisis in the cash-strapped school district. Vizcarra had gotten such notices before — layoffs are based on seniority — but his job was always restored just before the semester began.

Receiving the layoff letters, he said, had become a dreaded ritual.

"To me, that was my lifetime job," he said. "I was going to retire from Fairfax. I was really devastated."

Collecting unemployment and unsure whether he would be able to return to Fairfax, Vizcarra accepted a job as the orchestra and band director at Hawthorne School, a K-8 in the Beverly Hills Unified School District. He was told he wouldn't have to worry about layoff notices there, he said.

Just after signing his contract in Beverly Hills, Vizcarra was asked to come back to Fairfax, but the school couldn't guarantee he wouldn't be laid off again, he said. He chose to stick with Beverly Hills and its job security.

"Getting the notices makes people feel like we don't care for them," L.A. school board member Steve Zimmer said. "It makes people feel like they're expendable. It's a very cold and ugly and economic thing."

Fairfax recently hired a replacement band director, according to Zimmer's staff. However, the director has not yet begun teaching, and the band has not played at any of the fall football games so far.

Zimmer has received calls from parents, upset that the students began the year without a band teacher and were not performing.

Vizcarra's effect on his students was immeasurable, Zimmer said.

"How do you quantify losing magic?" he said. "How do you quantify taking away the reason a group of kids comes to school? It's only very rarely that you walk into an auditorium and you feel the kind of energy that you felt when Ray Vizcarra would conduct his orchestra or band."

Fairfax's years without a band were obvious when Vizcarra began there. The decades-old uniforms were unusable. His classroom was marked with graffiti, and it had so few chairs that the students had to stand during practice.

Pedro Rodriguez, 23, was in Vizcarra's first band. He was a sophomore when he joined, and he had never played the trumpet. But Vizcarra encouraged him and gave him a solo in 2007, when the band won its first all-city championship.

In the first few years, the band members wore old uniforms from Cerritos High School, bought for $10 apiece. They didn't quite match the Fairfax school colors, and they had "CHS" embroidered on the collar.

The students were happy to have uniforms and happy to have a band, said Rodriguez, who went on to study music in college and now works as a freelance trumpet player and music clinician.

"There was life there," he said. "There were smiles, there was laughter, there were tears."

Although glad to have put a band together in his first year at the school, Vizcarra did not want to settle. He pushed his students, taking the group of new musicians to competitions. They soon were winning so many competitions that trophies filled their classroom's shelves and spilled onto the floor.

"There was just something magical with my students at Fairfax," he said. "I would be in tears by the end of their performances."

Last month, Vizcarra's former band students threw him a birthday party. They presented him with a scrapbook and photo album depicting silly moments and performances.

"To the best music teacher we have ever had," they wrote on the scrapbook's first page. "You are such an amazing person. An awesome friend. A father to us most. Thanks for everything you did for us."

The Fairfax band's absence has been strongly felt this fall. The school's football team is playing on a newly built field, which held its first game this season without music.

In the stands during a recent game, Chantell Daniels, 20, watched cheerleaders dance after a Fairfax touchdown. Daniels, who graduated from Fairfax in 2010, had been a cheerleader in high school and shook her head as the squad performed, missing the sounds she remembered.

"Dancing to the band was my favorite thing to do as a cheerleader," she said. "The first thing I said when I got to the stadium tonight was, 'Where's the band?' "

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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