String theory

What can a kid with a violin achieve? Maybe a lot, according to new program

Suzuki whiz: Zitlaly FAYM musician Esparza Mejia (left) works on violin with her mother, Maria.
Photo: Arturo Ochoa

Kindergartners rip into "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" inside the gym of the East Las Vegas Community Center. Their parents sit behind them, approaching only to correct posturing, bowing or fingering problems.

There are five variations of this to learn. What students don't pick up in these Tuesday classes, they'll go over in their private lessons. They are 5 and 6 years old — not prodigies or young masters but participants in an inner-city violin program that seeks to level the academic playing field for children in urban environments, many of whom are Spanish-speaking.

Get violins in their hands, training in their minds. This could give them an advantage in school. They might be less likely to drop out, perhaps even go to college.

Guadalupe bows at the end of the performance, then Jesus kicks out a solo. We applaud.

This is what Hal Weller, founding conductor of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, had mapped out with Arturo Ochoa when Weller established FAYM — Foundation to Assist Young Musicians — in 2007. They are well aware of the promising statistics equating music programs with high academic test scores.

Parents pay a $5 monthly tuition and attend each lesson (use of the violins is free). Students wear monogrammed FAYM pullovers and stand on construction paper that outlines their feet. They're so sweet and work hard at their song. It's difficult to imagine them veering down an unlawful path, but Ochoa wants to be cautious, wants to keep them involved in something other than gangs, he says.

His parents felt the same about him when they packed up the family to leave Los Angeles crime for a Tucson barrio.

Though he excelled in school, became an honor student and planned to pursue medicine, he let someone thwart his dreams in high school, when he approached his guidance counselor for advice on preparing for college. After flipping through Ochoa's academic information, his counselor closed the file and told him: "You should be a car mechanic."

The conclusion was common, Ochoa says. After all, that's what was expected of the students in the barrio.

Ashamed, he left the office and walked off campus for good, eventually winding up as a truck driver in a copper mine. Not the life he wanted. He got his GED, graduated from the University of Arizona and moved to Las Vegas to teach. Six years later he was school principal.

Believing music to be a way to reach children early and direct them on the proper path, he used federal funds to start a Suzuki program at Sunrise Acres Elementary. "We have an obligation to those children," he says. "These kids grow up and do things well beneath their ability."

When Ochoa retired in 2006, the music program stopped and the violins were put into storage. But before that, his students performed with the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

Weller remembered. He found Ochoa, partnered FAYM with the Clark County School-Community Partnership Program, which pairs community organizations and businesses with school resources, and got the instruments out of storage.

Ochoa coordinates the program taught by Antonio Dias with the assistance of Philharmonic cellist Andrew Travers. Weller and Ochoa are there every week.

"It gives the kids something to focus on and concentrate on," says Weller, who often talks about El Systema, a music program in Venezuela, which now has 40,000 kids and helped launch the career of Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel. "In sixth grade, they'll be the leaders, they'll be the example."

Bertha Sanchez, mother of one of the students, says she enrolled her 6-year-old son Jesus in the program to help him with his future, his intellectual development. Since coming to violin classes, she says, his grades have gone up. He's more calm and focused: "Before, I received complaints from school that he was talking too much and didn't understand," she says. "Not anymore." Jesus started in September. He practices up to 30 minutes a day. Her youngest son, Jesse, will likely play next year.

With 20 minutes left in Tuesday's class, the students move onto their other song, "Los Pollitos," a Spanish-language children's song about chicks under the care of their mother hen.

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