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Southern California's cultural institutes pitch in on arts education

The L.A. Philharmonic and Pacific Symphony are among the cultural groups helping supplement beleaguered school districts.

August 16, 2013|By Marcia Adair
  • Fourth- and fifth-grade students from Mt. Washington Elementary School participate in one of the sessions during the Los Angeles Master Chorale's 10-week Voices Within in-school residency program during which students learn to write the music and lyrics to create original songs, which they premiere in a free performance at the school.
Fourth- and fifth-grade students from Mt. Washington Elementary School… (LA Master Chorale )

The first day of school, one of America's great communal experiences. Pencils are sharpened, backpacks bought and outfits laid out, found to be totally lame, OMG, and laid out again. But what today's kids in Los Angeles public schools will experience on Days 2 through 180 is significantly different from what their parents enjoyed when it comes to music, art, drama and field trips.

For a variety of reasons, funds available to school boards for education in California have been devastated over the last 20 years, to levels some in the industry call the worst in U.S. history. Los Angeles Unified School District alone has reported a decrease of 50% for its arts program since 2007-08. To give kids as broad an education as possible under the circumstances, schools have reached out to area cultural institutions to help bridge the gap.

School arts program: An Aug. 18 article about arts education in schools said that the Los Angeles Master Chorale taught songwriting to 30,000 local fifth-graders. That is actually the total number of children and adults that engage with all of the chorale's concerts, outreach programs and special events every year. The correct number of fifth-graders in the songwriting program is 350. —

Southern California is home to more than 11,000 arts venues, including many well-respected museums, theaters, orchestras, dance and opera companies happy to be involved in education projects. The industry standard for arts organizations is to earmark between 3% and 10% of an annual budget for programs both on-site and in schools.

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Because of the sheer number of participating organizations and the complexity with which these activities are administered, it's difficult to come up with the total spent across all disciplines. But consider music programs for elementary schoolchildren: Some of Southern California's big players (Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Music Center) together account for an investment of more than $13 million each year for programs that send teaching artists to schools, arrange for kids to hear the pros in their home venues and work with teachers to develop cross-curriculum music learning.

"In years past we could supplement [school programs] with inspiration and be the icing on the cake," said Pamela Blaine, the vice president of education and community engagement with the Pacific Symphony, who has been involved with education programs for 25 years.

"These days education programs ... are also critical to our own survival. We used to choose the content and say this is what's good for you and do you want to come and hear the concerts. Now it's a two-way street. We adjusted everything to make sure we support the curriculum teachers are delivering."

The L.A. Phil is making inroads with its 6-year-old Youth Orchestra L.A., modeled on Venezuela's musical program El Sistema, which produced conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

The orchestra's stated mission is that it views education programs as part of its obligation as a community member. The L.A. Phil has been doing residencies at schools since 2000. Now 16 schools are involved in YOLA neighborhood projects and the YOLA orchestra draws from 200 schools in East Rampart, South L.A. and, soon, East L.A.

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The Los Angeles Master Chorale has a program that sends teaching artists all over L.A. County each year to teach 30,000 fifth-graders how to write and perform songs. In Orange County, the Pacific Symphony works with 16,000 schoolchildren annually in a program that has an orchestra member visit a school five times over the year as preparation for a trip to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall to hear the whole orchestra.

At L.A. Opera Stacy Brightman oversees 25 education programs and works with "literally a couple hundred community partners" in her capacity as director of community and education programs.

"We want kids to know that it's their opera house," she said. "They make the best audiences. The story, the songs, the magic and all the crazy things that happen. Kids laugh louder, they gasp louder. Opera makes total sense to them."

It is this kind of engagement that music educators hope will help teachers and school boards see the value in building up their music programs.

Mark Slavkin is vice president of education at the Music Center, one of the largest providers of music education in the L.A. area. A good part of his workday is spent talking to school board trustees, teachers and other people in charge of making budget decisions for schools.

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"Ultimately they get it," he said. "They want the kids to be well rounded. They know the benefits of the arts, so we don't have a lot of time having that argument with people. It's just been about the nuts and bolts of finding funding."

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