Making music an instrument for change: How NEA-funded HOLA points kids toward a better path


It is one of the most densely populated areas west of the Mississippi. The poverty rate is over 35%, and more than a quarter of all households earns less than $15,000 per year. At least 30 gangs roam the streets, recruiting children as young as 9. The high school graduation rate is around 50%.

That’s the state of affairs in Westlake, Pico Union and Koreatown, according to the organization Heart of Los Angeles. The group reaches more than 2,000 kids in those neighborhoods every year through after-school arts and athletics programs, but its crowning achievement is its partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic: Youth Orchestra Los Angeles at Heart of Los Angeles, or YOLA at HOLA.

The orchestra becomes a metaphor for community. It becomes a safe place to develop and be heard—to have a voice and to find a voice.

— Tony Brown, executive director of HOLA


YOLA at HOLA has received $270,000 in the form of five successive annual grants from the National Endowment for the Arts since 2013. The program provides intensive orchestral instruction, including classes on music creativity, singing and ensemble rehearsals, to 250 students in 1st through 12th grades. Classes take place daily. An hour of academic tutoring is thrown in each afternoon for good measure. All of these budding musicians will have the opportunity to play at Walt Disney Concert Hall and to audition for the YOLA group that tours.

“This program is using music for social change. It’s not that it’s trying to create the next Gustavo Dudamel or first-chair violinist, but it is trying to give voice to a community and kids in that community,” said HOLA Executive Director Tony Brown. “It’s trying to empower those kids to reach their potential and to expand their horizon.”

More than 350 families land on the waiting list for programs at HOLA every quarter, so Brown said HOLA wants to build a recreation center to serve more people. The statistics coming out of the HOLA’s academic enrichment, visual arts and music programs speak to why demand is so high.

Of the 63 students in those programs who were high school seniors in 2015, 100% of them graduated, and 97% went on to college.

“Those numbers are pretty consistent over the last four years,” said HOLA grants manager Cristina Wood, whose small team submits about 100 applications for financial support each year. “The cumulative number going to college over that same period is probably more than 95%.”

Brown and his staff are aggressive in preventing kids from falling between the cracks. They sometimes attend parent-teacher conferences to find out what support a child needs, and when a student disappears from their programs, a staff member might make a house call to help bring that student back.

Brown recalled a home visit where he found a boy living in conditions that were all too familiar for kids in the program.

“I open the door and to my left is a bed by the kitchenette where grandma sleeps, to my right is a couch where two kids sleep, and in the one bedroom there is mom and dad and two other little girls,” he said. “These are the kids we serve. The orchestra becomes a metaphor for community. It becomes a safe place to develop and be heard — to have a voice and to find a voice.”

Brown likes to tell the success story of a boy named Raymond who came through the program as a troubled middle-school student. His grandmother brought him to YOLA at HOLA because he was failing in school and in danger of joining a gang.

“This young man started playing the clarinet, and he played the heck out of it. Next thing you know he’s earned his way to playing in London with YOLA at HOLA and Dudamel,” Brown said, referring to the youth orchestra’s 2013 trip overseas. Raymond is now attending UC Santa Cruz, Brown said.

The total budget for HOLA is $3.9 million. The youth orchestra’s slice of that is $700,000; more than $360,000 of that amount is funded by the L.A. Phil. Most of the money goes to paying for two full-time staff members and about 15 other employees.

“The great thing about the NEA is that they’re flexible for us,” Wood said. “They fill gaps that other funding didn’t cover like transportation costs and a portion of our rent.”

Writing a grant application for the NEA is labor intensive, Wood adds. It can take more than 20 hours of preparation in comparison to the five to 10 hours it might take to prepare other grants. NEA staff includes arts education specialists who help grant writers suss out the parts of their programs that the NEA might be most interested in.

“We start at just about zero every year. It’s a full-time job to help bring resources into communities that wouldn’t otherwise have them,” Brown said of the search for funding. “So losing the NEA would be absolutely devastating.”

“L.A. Without the NEA” is a series looking at different community groups, how their NEA funds were spent, what artistic or public good did or didn’t result and what the cultural landscape would look like if programs were to disappear. Look for past and future installments at



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