There are a variety of instruments to learn including piano, violin, viola voice, bass, flute, guitar, and keyboards. / Credit: Daniel Vidal
Vanessa Martínez, a student at the Neighborhood Music School, plays the violin./ Credit: Daniel Vidal

There is a Victorian house on Boyle Avenue where music is always playing. The sound of a piano fills the house as you walk through the noisy wooden front door. There is a piano in almost every room, including the kitchen. Students run through the back door to sign in and start their lessons, while parents sit patiently in the parlor.

The Neighborhood Music School, founded in 1914 by Pearle Irene Odell, started, appropriately, on Mozart Street. In 1947, the school moved to its current location. The non-profit school has always focused on classical training. Its fees are modest -$16 a half hour for a private lesson. It relies on professional musicians to offer lessons at reduced rates to young people who couldn’t afford it otherwise.

Although it’s called the Neighborhood Music School, it has fallen short when it comes to serving students from Boyle Heights. And it serves far fewer students than its capacity. One reason may be that until recently, the Neighborhood Music School had spent little on community outreach. According to its 2010 tax records, the school spent only $177 on promotion the prior year.

Now, the school’s new leadership hopes that a recruitment plan and new lessons in popular genres will help attract more young musicians from the immediate community.

When Wendy Kikkert, the school’s administrator, started her job in April, she found that only 22 percent of students were from Boyle Heights. Most come from Montebello, South Pasadena, Alhambra and Highland Park.

The non-profit has gone through several executive directors and board presidents in the past 10 years. Serge Kasimoff, vice president of the board of directors, says today, “Our focus is on getting our own act together.”

To improve enrollment from the Boyle Heights community, Kikkert actively promoted the school’s summer program this year, targeting schools, youth clubs and libraries. The summer program, she says, is a way for beginners to try out music at a promotional price, as well as a way to introduce the community to the music school.

Kikkert says the extra effort paid off. Of the 140 students who enrolled last summer, 91 were new to the school and from Boyle Heights. Last year, there were only 60 summer students.

The successful summer program has also led to more students during this school year. This fall, 159 private students enrolled, whereas last year there were 133. Seventeen of this fall’s students first came to the school during the summer program.

There are a variety of instruments to learn including piano, violin, viola voice, bass, flute, guitar, and keyboards. / Credit: Daniel Vidal

For the first time in years, the school also is putting in place a five-year-plan, which focuses on community outreach. The school will offer group classes and scholarships to those in need “to help increase the numbers of students at the school that are from the immediate community,” says Kikkert.

In addition, the school plans to offer different kinds of music classes to add to its appeal in Boyle Heights. For example, Kikkert has looked into hiring a teacher to teach Jarocho, a traditional folk music from Veracruz, Mexico. And one teacher is already teaching rock songs like “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix, along with Beethoven.

“The teachers are a big reason the students continue to come back and stay,” said Bernard Leon, the office manager, who has studied at the school since he was 4.

As for the school’s music teachers, most are professional musicians with careers as educators, composers or performers. Sarah Fuller began teaching at the Neighborhood Music School during this year’s summer program. She hopes to give the students “discipline and a positive outlet” and a “focus on something they really like.”

Seventy-two-year-old Mickey Fruchter has been teaching at the Neighborhood Music School for almost 50 years. He says, “It’s rewarding to see your students grow musically and to pass on that passion.”

Twelve-year-old Celina Hishioka has inherited that passion. She has played piano and violin at the school since she was seven. She often stays up past midnight to finish her homework after playing, says Hishioka, who hopes to major in music in college.

The grand piano in the parlor at the Neighborhood Music School. / Credit: Daniel Vidal

Some parents want their children to follow their musical paths. Seven-year-old Yamileth Martinez rests her chin on her small violin and wears a wide smile while learning a song. Her father is a mariachi.

While the majority of the students at the Neighborhood Music School are young, adults also take classes. Forty seven-year-old Marvin Santizo, a truck driver, travels 70 miles from Central California and always manages to make his 7 p.m. lesson each Friday.

Santizo began attending the music school when his son began to learn the violin. Instead of waiting for his son in the parlor, Santizo decided to take lessons as well. He’s been playing the violin for seven years. “I do everything possible to keep up, as I enjoy playing so much,” he says.

There are a variety of instruments to learn at the Neighborhood Music School, including piano, violin, viola voice, bass, flute, guitar, and keyboards. Private lessons are billed by the half hour, and group and ensemble classes are billed monthly.

With more music programs being cut from public schools, Leon says the Neighborhood Music School wants to help fill the void. Fruchter simply hopes to share his love of music with the students: “I can’t imagine life without music.”

The Neighborhood Music School will host their Holiday Music Recital on Saturday, December 17, 2011 with shows at 5 p.m, 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Applications for new scholarship students are available and due no later than January 7, 2012, by 4 p.m.
For more information, call (323) 268-0762 or visit their website

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Melissa Martínez

A former reporter at Boyle Heights Beat and a 2014 graduate of Roosevelt High School, Melissa Martínez was the first in her family to attend college. She graduated in the Spring from Loyola Marymount...

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