Here at the Red Shield Youth and Community Center, the music of Bach has become as familiar as the slap of basketballs against the gymnasium floor, the patter of children or the sirens that scream through Pico-Union near downtown Los Angeles.
In late afternoons, music flows from a piano down the hallway, and sometimes Laura Perales hears it as she performs her duties as a supervisor at the center. She listens to her son, Abel Perales, play, and although she has no ear for classical music, others have told her that he is very good, even exceptional.
It is April, and in two months, he will audition for a Young Musicians Foundation scholarship, competing against pianists who learned about Beethoven about the same time they learned about Santa Claus. Abel, 18, has followed a different path.
Unable to afford lessons and with no piano at home, he taught himself to play at the center. Each day after school for the last two years, he has walked here from a bus stop 10 blocks away to practice for five or 10 minutes between classes when the room is not in use. Sometimes he gets up to half an hour.
He also works as a volunteer at the center teaching children and adults in the neighborhood how to use computers. At 9:30 p.m., when his mother gets off work, they go home to Cypress Park, near Dodger Stadium.
Except for the weekends he goes to his father’s house, this is the only access he has to a piano. But classical music is with him always, ever since the day two years ago when he chanced upon it.
He was skipping around radio stations in his father’s car in search of music that was fast and loud. Mostly loud. Scanning stations for heavy metal--Metallica, Anthrax, Cannibal Corpse--he came upon Beethoven.
The music gave him pause. He listened carefully and was intrigued by its complexity. When he arrived home, he dug out a toy keyboard given to him as a gift when he was a child and began searching for notes from memory, similar to the way he taught himself to play the electric guitar.
He studied a book about music, then one on how to teach himself to play the piano. He began cruising unfamiliar aisles at the music store, where he came upon Bach, Mozart, Chopin. He would listen and store bits and pieces of music in his memory, then bring them here to the center where he would try to play them.
Earlier in the year, Lynne Shook, whose daughter studies ballet at the center, heard Abel practicing.
“How long have you been playing?” she asked.
“About two years,” he said.
That his abilities were at such an advanced level after only two years surprised Shook. That he had never had lessons surprised her even more. She listened in amazement, and already the wheels were turning in her head.
“It was like seeing a miracle,” she says.
She approached a donor of the City of Angels Ballet and told her about Abel. The donor agreed to provide him with $1,000 worth of lessons, but when Shook started calling around to instructors, no one was willing to come to the perilous Pico-Union area to meet Abel.
Finally, she called USC and was referred to John Blacklow, who recently had received his doctorate in piano at the School of Music.
Blacklow agreed to meet with Abel and telephoned him to make arrangements. A graduate of Harvard, Juilliard School of Music (where he also taught for three years) and USC, Blacklow first sat at the keyboard as a toddler. By the time he was 11, he was playing Rachmaninoff.
He knows what--and how long--it takes to become an accomplished musician, so when told that Abel had been playing only for two years and had never taken lessons, he was skeptical.
As they spoke on the telephone in January, Blacklow explained to Abel that he would like to meet before leaving for Europe to perform.
“Have you ever been to Germany?” Abel asked. Blacklow said he had, and Abel began speaking to him in German.
“I studied [German] for two years in college, but he had me confused,” Blacklow says. “I couldn’t keep up with him. I asked if anyone in his family spoke German, and he said no. I asked if he had studied it in school, and he said no, he had learned it from a book. That made me very curious. As a pianist, it’s important to have the kind of ear that allows you to speak languages well and to understand nuance and tones and accents. I think then I realized this was somebody quite extraordinary.”
When they met, Blacklow asked Abel to play scales, then excerpts of pieces he had been practicing.
“He sort of found his own way around the piano,” Blacklow says. “He invented his own ways. It was an unpolished level, but almost professional in a way. He played things from the ‘Emperor’ Concerto by Beethoven, which is a notoriously difficult piano piece.”
They began meeting once a week, and Blacklow was stunned by how quickly Abel progressed. In a Feb. 25 letter to Mario Nugara, artistic director and founder of the City of Angels Ballet, Blacklow wrote:
“I taught piano skills courses at the Juilliard School in New York in a three-year sequence, and by himself, Abel has already acquired many of the skills that were part of the third year in the Juilliard curriculum.”
Blacklow and Abel became an unlikely team. Abel was born in Mexico, is a D student with no formal musical background. His mother by age 11 was cleaning her teacher’s house to help support her family in Mexico. She quit school after sixth grade to work full time, gave birth to Abel when she was 15 and moved to the United States a year later. Mother of three, she now works two jobs, one at the center, the other at the 10th Street School, where she is a special education trainee.
Blacklow, 31, was born in Boston and has been groomed for music since he was a toddler. He has performed all over the world. His mother has a degree in English and has played piano professionally. His father is a microbiology professor at the University of Massachusetts.
Their disparate worlds meet at the piano.
In late April, both are preparing for competitions. Blacklow will accompany a violinist in the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, held every four years. Abel is preparing for the scholarship competition.
But with the competition less than two months away, he is nowhere near ready. Blacklow is hesitant to enter him, as he prefers his students to be well prepared.
He says, however, that Abel is a unique case. He learns faster than other students, and it’s difficult to anticipate what he is capable of doing in a month and a half. Plus, a scholarship might be Abel’s only chance to continue lessons.
Abel has never performed before an audience or judges, but he says he looks forward to giving it a shot. He is neither nervous nor overly concerned about winning a scholarship. His motivation is the music, he says. And the piano.
“It doesn’t matter if I win anything or if I mess up,” he says. “I just want to play the piano, because I heard they have a good one.”
He knows he will be competing against more experienced musicians, many of them younger.
“I think it’s great when they learn to play when they’re young,” he says. “I wish I would have had a chance, but then I think that if I would have started that young, it would have been because my parents wanted me to, and I wouldn’t have liked it. Some people play because they’re good at it. They don’t really have any feelings for it. I waited until I had the feelings, then I learned to play.”
In his bedroom, Abel has computer printout photos of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. In May, the piano kept at his father’s house is squeezed into his bedroom to help him prepare for the audition. The only rule is that he can’t play after 9 p.m., when his 2-year-old sister goes to bed.
Next to the piano is a computer, where he composes music, most of which is too difficult for him to play. Writing music has become as much, if not more, of a passion as playing, he says.
“Music gives life. Creating music makes me think differently. It helps me understand music and how it works, and I think that people who understand music are more connected to life than others, but it takes a lot of work.”
The language of music does not translate easily into words. For Blacklow, it has to do with exploring within, sharing himself with others.
“The piano is my voice,” Blacklow says. “It feels that much like it’s a part of me. I feel the most natural when I’m sitting at a piano, and I feel that the sound comes out of me. We’re sort of one.”
For Abel, it has to do with the moon.
“When I started listening to classical, everything changed. I started thinking about people who lived during those times, when Bach and Beethoven and Mozart were alive, about people playing the piano and the cello and how beautiful it must have been. I think about different things like, ‘That’s the same sun, the same moon that Bach and Mozart and Napoleon saw.’ To me, that’s interesting. Everyone has seen the moon.”
In early June, two weeks before the competition, Abel has memorized the Bach piece and has started on Mozart. The weekly one-hour lessons with Blacklow are stretched to almost two hours until Blacklow leaves for the Moscow competition. He will not be in L.A. for Abel’s audition but has arranged for colleagues to help Abel prepare.
Two days before the audition, Abel plays the Mozart piece beginning to end for the first time.
On June 21, Abel’s name is next to last on the list of 40 names. Throughout the day they arrive, standing quietly and nervously in a lobby awaiting their turns. Mothers lean forward and crush their ears against the doors to hear their children play.
Abel arrives with Bethany Blacklow, John’s former wife, current friend. He warms up for his audition, then asks Bethany to play something. She chooses Bach’s Prelude No. 2. Abel listens, then plays the same piece.
“Oh,” she says, “you know it.”
“No,” he answers. “I’ve never heard it before.”
Just before Abel’s name is called, Bethany tells him what John would say if he were here: “Be in the music.” From inside the room, notes are cascading into the lobby, one pianist at a time.
“It’s not always how fast you are,” Abel says. “It’s how much feeling you put into the music.”
The doors open, his name is called, and he enters the room. Three judges are seated at a table. For them it has been a long day. Abel sits silently, takes a deep breath and begins.
The Mozart piece turns out to be his strongest. He makes mistakes but is generally pleased with his performance. As he stands to leave the room, a judge asks him, “How long have you been taking lessons?”
“Two and a half months,” he says.
With a look of disbelief, the judge says, “I’m sorry.”
“Actually, two months and three weeks.”
The judge looks surprised, writes something in her notes, and Abel leaves the room. His math is off a bit. It never has been his strong suit. It’s actually been closer to six months.
He leaves with one lasting impression.
“Prize or no prize,” he says, “that was a great piano.”
It will be a couple weeks before notices are sent out informing entrants whether they have won. Of the 40 pianists, 13 will be notified that they have been awarded between $500 and $2,500 in scholarships. Auditions also have been conducted on other instruments. In all, $33,000 will be awarded.
In the meantime, Abel makes an important decision. He enlists in the U.S. Army Reserves and is scheduled to leave in July for boot camp. Blacklow, Shook and his mother try to encourage him to change his mind and focus on music.
“Not everyone has just one dream,” Abel explains. “I feel lucky to have two dreams, music and the military. Even though I wasn’t born in this country, I’ve always been very patriotic, and this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
He says he loves the piano, and it will always be a part of his life. When he returns from boot camp, he says, he will continue with music and work toward his high school diploma.
“I’m doing this for myself and my future. If I never become a professional musician, I’ll still love music.”
He hopes to continue working with Blacklow, a friend and mentor who, he says, has changed his life. The decision to enlist was not an easy one. Perhaps he would feel differently about the military if he believed he had talent. He sees nothing remarkable about his abilities.
“I know how much [music] means to me. In many ways, it means everything to me, but even now, I don’t believe I have talent. I never have.”
Lynne Shook has found a sponsor who agrees to pay for his college, but even that doesn’t change Abel’s mind. Two days after he leaves, a notice arrives in the mail. He has been awarded a $500 scholarship, a special encouragement award, rarely given.
“I heard him audition, and I contacted all three judges and asked if we could give him an encouragement award,” says programs director Virginia Leroy. “It will be interesting to see how he develops musically. He is so filled with music.”
Abel leaves home July 14. At the Red Shield center, basketballs still bounce, children laugh. Sirens scream.