41 Years of Lessons in East L.A. : Music, Dance, Art Provide Steps to High Self-Esteem

Times Staff Writer

The music lessons at the Los Angeles Music and Art School cost 50 cents--50 cents more than Pete Quesada had in the 1940s when he was growing up in East Los Angeles. But Pearl O’dell, who founded the school in a sprawling house on 4th Street, devised a way for Quesada to pay for his violin lessons.

“She was a proper New Englander,” recalled Quesada, 50. “One day she told me: ‘Petah, you can cut the lawn.’ The lawn was big, and I resented it. But I later came to realize that my lessons weren’t charity. I earned them.”

Now conductor of La Sinfonica del Barrio, a 60-piece symphony orchestra based in East Los Angeles, Quesada added: “Had it not been for the school, I don’t think I’d be in music.”

Thousands of the school’s former students can say “Amen” to that. Whether they sing, dance or play an instrument in an organized group or simply for their own pleasure, they were introduced to music at the 41-year-old school now located at 3630 East 3rd St.


Supported entirely by private donations, the school offers individual instruction for children and adults in music and voice and small classes in dance and painting. Classes in music theory and poetry for children are offered free on Saturdays.

From its inception, the school has provided instruction in painting, music and dance as a way of giving students confidence and a sense of achievement as well as a life-long avocation. O’dell, a former social worker, had worked at a similar school in a Philadelphia settlement house and decided to establish one in East Los Angeles after moving here.

“A large number of our children are elementary school age,” said the school’s director, Julian Nava, a former Los Angeles School Board president and U.S. ambassador to Mexico during the Carter Administration. “We are convinced that we catch them at a pre-delinquency stage in their lives, and we make them feel good about themselves. They start to acquire internal discipline, an ability to concentrate, a joy of achievement.

“That probably explains why, when later they encounter negative influences, they’ve got something to hold onto--their violin, their voice, their piano, their painting. Often that is what makes the difference.”


Relatively few of the school’s 700 students have the potential to become professional performers, Nava said, but those who do credit the school with nurturing that potential.

Cecilia Revilla, 18, has been studying piano at the school since she was 6. This fall, she will enter USC’s School of Performing Arts this fall on a scholarship.

“My parents wanted me to be able to play as a hobby,” she said. “Now I think I will make it a profession.”

‘She Is Really Dedicated’


Another piano student, Marojorie Nazareth, 14, left for Ann Arbor, Mich., recently to compete in the Young Keyboard Artists Assn.'s international competition.

“I couldn’t have gone this far without my teacher, Mrs. Blanca Alameda,” she said. “She is really dedicated, really cares, and she is interested in me as a person. You need somebody to push you.”

On a recent weekday, students began showing up for lessons after the public school day had ended. Erg Chang, 12, of Montebello worked with piano teacher Jack Miller in a studio just off the lobby whose walls are decorated with paintings done by even younger students. The lobby of the attractive modern building opens onto an airy Spanish style courtyard.

Upstairs, Reuben Jaramillo taught an art class in which Byron Valencia, 8, indulged his passion for drawing animals--"especially tigers because they’re big and strong.”


About half the students, some of whom come from outside East Los Angeles, are Latino, and 25% are Asian and 25% are black and Anglo, Nava said. An essential part of the founder’s original concept, Nava said, “was that everyone, of all ages, should develop their aesthetic or artistic capabilities.”

Looking for Grants

Enabling students to do that is making Nava, a retired history professor at California State University, Northridge, learn new skills. Prominently displayed on a bookcase behind his desk are thick volumes with titles such as “The Art of Winning Foundation Grants.”

Tuition ranges from $10 a month for children to $30 for adults, and the school had to raise $77,000 to cover the difference between operating costs and tuition income last year, Nava said.


As Nava reaches out to corporations and foundations for funds, he also tries to find ways to increase the school’s involvement with the surrounding community. Quesada’s Sinfonica has already begun practicing at the school. In addition, Nava is trying to attract a group that has developed operas for children, a literacy program sponsored by the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, a puppet theater and a classical Spanish ballet group.

The Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion sponsored an art contest for public school students and awarded scholarships to the school last month for the 92 winners whose paintings were selected from more than 1,000 entries.

Nava said he will take those winning paintings to Mexico City, where the Mexican master Rufino Tamayo has agreed to identify those showing talent so the school can designate “Tamayo Painters of the Future” for special instruction.

Nava’s route to the school began when he returned from his ambassadorial post “kind of burned out on public life. The embassy experience was so intensely public, high-pressure and dangerous.”


Two years ago, while teaching part-time at the university and working as a consultant to American firms doing business in Mexico, Nava received a call from former California Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, who told him the school needed someone like him.

“If public schools could be staffed to give this kind of individual attention, you’d have the same results you have in a Beverly Hills or a San Marino,” he said. “It’s that simple. No great mystery.”