An orchestra by open invitation

Times Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, Edson Natareno was counting down the days of summer -- not in dread, but in anticipation. For the 10-year-old, the start of school meant the start of a new orchestra season.

“I’m excited for clarinet practice again,” said the fifth-grader at Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Science Center School. “I want to play well and get better.”

Edson is one of about 150 members of the nascent Youth Orchestra L.A., the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s effort to establish youth orchestras in underserved areas of the city.

Youth Orchestra L.A. -- YOLA for short -- turns the traditional youth orchestra model “completely on its head,” said Gretchen Nielsen, the Philharmonic’s director of educational initiatives. Whereas most youth orchestras select only the best musicians and sometimes charge fees, YOLA gives free instruments and lessons, signing up everyone it can, she said.


For parents such as Angel Gonzalez, YOLA offers children more than just music. His son Daniel, 13, plays the trumpet, and daughter Genesis, 10, the violin, and both sing in a choir run by YOLA’s partner, the Harmony Project. Gonzalez said the orchestra began as something to keep the kids busy. But then his children grew more disciplined, watched less TV and voluntarily practiced their instruments.

“I don’t have to tell them anything, they just go,” he said. “They go to their rooms and start playing themselves.”

Philharmonic Chief Executive and President Deborah Borda said instilling self-starting behavior in kids is one of the program’s goals. Music education, she said, “will roll over and spill over into other parts of their lives. It’s the ability to concentrate, the ability to learn, the ability to work well with a group, the ability to stick with something.”

The youth orchestra was hatched in spring 2007, drawing inspiration from the Philharmonic’s incoming music director, Gustavo Dudamel, the most heralded graduate of Venezuela’s El Sistema. That program, funded by the government’s health department, brings free instruments and orchestras to mostly disadvantaged Venezuelan children.


Both programs see music as an “agent of change,” Borda said, but YOLA is still learning how to address L.A.'s needs.

“We cannot make an exact carbon copy of what happens in Venezuela,” she said.

Still in its pilot stage, the program has started with one orchestra. The students, ages 7 to 16, come from some 20 public, private and parochial schools in central Los Angeles. YOLA is targeting locations and partners for new orchestras, Nielsen said.

For now, YOLA organizers are learning from their current orchestra, which rehearses at the city’s Expo Center near the Coliseum, to turn what has been more like an ensemble into a full orchestra by January. At this stage, the orchestra is heavy on flutes, trumpets and violins because they are easier to learn and play. More complex instruments will be introduced gradually.

Misael Ontiveros, 10, carefully weighed his options when he joined YOLA a year ago. He listened to every instrument, choosing the clarinet.

“I like that it has a lot of notes, and the sharp notes are easier to play than other instruments,” he said.

Misael, a student at Nativity School, aspires to bigger orchestras but recognizes a downside to his chosen instrument: “Mexican music and hip-hop -- there’s no clarinet in those.”