The 11-year-old girl walked across the imposing stage in patent leather ballet flats; her eyes squinting in the glare of the overhead lights. Arlette Romero took a deep breath. She sat up straight in rest position, her right hand firmly gripping the neck of her violin, and flashed a smile.
It was finally showtime.
Romero is a member of the nascent YOLA Expo Center Youth Orchestra. She and her orchestra mates were making their debut at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday night, performing an abbreviated version of "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel during the "?Bienvenido Gustavo!" concert; the event marked Dudamel's first performance as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"This is something big and marvelous," Maria Isabel Jimenez, Arlette's mother, said in Spanish. "And I'm proud to say that my daughter performed at the Hollywood Bowl with [Gustavo]. He is a grand person."
The sixth-grader's eyes shifted from the music sheet to Dudamel's flashy hand movements during the short performance, always remaining careful to play each note with power and precision. "I just kept thinking, 'Don't mess up!' " Romero said. "But we've been practicing all summer, so it wasn't so bad."
Romero, who attends New Designs Charter School, is one of about 200 members of YOLA, the Philharmonic's effort to establish youth orchestras in underserved areas of the city in partnership with the Harmony Project -- an L.A.-based nonprofit organization that provides free instruments -- and the EXPO Center, which provides the venue for rehearsals.
The students, ages 6 to 17, come from more than 60 public, private and parochial schools in central Los Angeles. In January, YOLA will pilot an early childhood music program in the EXPO Center's preschool that will serve children ages 3 to 5.
At this stage, the orchestra is heavy on flutes, trumpets and violins because they are easier to learn.
The youth orchestra formed in spring 2007; it's modeled after El Sistema, the Venezuelan music education program that fostered Dudamel. That program, funded by the government's health department, brings free instruments and orchestras to mostly disadvantaged Venezuelan children.
Deborah Borda, the L.A. Phil's chief executive and president, stressed the importance of music programs for youth to realize their sense of worth.
"As Gustavo says, music is a metaphor for community," Borda said, "and realizing the potential of one's self. Gustavo is an example of what they can achieve."
Romero's journey to one of the city's grandest stages began in earnest this summer. Early on Saturday mornings, she would make the 30-minute bus ride to the EXPO Center near the Coliseum. With her small hands juggling a scuffed black violin case, a music stand and a red folder of music, Romero would make her way inside the massive building to "the room." Beyond the double doors of the second-floor space was her music sanctuary and more than 100 of her orchestra mates.
As the minutes wound down before the start of practice, it was always the same: a medley of sounds. Muffled early morning chatter was accented by the thump-thump-thump of running feet against plush carpet. In the midst of the aural chaos, doe-eyed Romero would take her seat in the second violins section.
And then, at 9 a.m., the conductor would assume his position and give instructions -- "Let's play concert C major scale!" or "Pull out Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy'!" -- and rehearsal would begin.
It started slow; Steven Venz, their conductor from fall 2008 through the summer, familiarized them with tempo by having them clap their hands. Sometimes mini-reviews on the whiteboard were needed to refresh their memory.
"Squiggly lines are what?" he asked.
"Rests!" they shouted.
"Anyone know what these are called?"
"Name a dynamic marking."
Hesitant stares. Then: "Forte?"
But mostly they played. From random strings of notes and scales to "Royal March of the Lion" from Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the young musicians grabbed hold of their instruments -- sporadically fighting back yawns and occasionally rubbing the sleep from their eyes -- and just played.
"It can be hard to hold it and stay in tune," said Romero. "But I like how you can express yourself just by playing a few notes. And it's fun. Lots of fun."
The daughter of a shoe repairman and a stay-at-home mom, Romero began playing the violin when she was 9. She's a fan of Chopin, Mozart . . . and Taylor Swift. When she's bored at home, she'll pull out the violin or bass, the latest instrument she's added to her repertoire, and practice. She'll even pluck her violin's strings while she's watching Disney Channel favorites "Sonny With a Chance" or "Cory in the House." The music doesn't always come easy, but it's always natural.
"Sometimes, melodies will pop into my head," Romero said. "But when I try and play them, it can be hard. So I practice."
And there's no shortage of chances to hone her skills. Mondays and Wednesdays are her bass classes. Tuesdays and Fridays are violin classes. Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to noon, the orchestra rehearses.
"It has been a little difficult," said Jimenez, 44, who, along with her 18-year-old son, accompanies Romero. "The bus ride is sometimes 30 minutes. But we make the effort to be there."
Jimenez isn't alone. Look inside any of the orchestra rehearsals, and dozens of parents sit along the perimeter of the room, watching as the children go from learning bits and pieces of a bar to playing full sections. They're there for the journey, cheering the children on along the way. And sometimes nagging them to sit straight.
"It's been great to see how the families are involved," said Bruce Kiesling, 36, who became the youth orchestra's conductor in September. "The parents are here, watching the rehearsals, watching their lessons, really participating in the whole experience. It's incredibly encouraging to see that. They've developed a sense of community."
This weekend at the Bowl, once the last striking note of the piece had faded into the air, the orchestra stood up and peered out at the cheering crowd. Down front it was a sea of camera flashes as their parents, relatives and friends captured the young musicians in their moment of glory. Some cried; others yelled out "?Que precioso!" or "?Que bonito!" A few blew kisses.
"They can't even drive a car yet and they're playing at the Hollywood Bowl," Venz said. "There are so many professional musicians who would love to be in their shoes."
Romero seemed aware of that. She scanned the perimeters as if she were taking a mental snapshot of each angle, each person. Then Dudamel, wearing a YOLA T-shirt, descended from his podium and stood beside her, leaning in to tell her she had done a "great job."
"It was pretty cool," Romero said after the concert. "Now, I want to go home and sleep."