COSTA MESA — Seated at a grand piano, Mary Leist played the oversized instrument as she taught three students the basics of music. They sang and laughed along.
"So a piano starts with a 'C' and ends with a 'C,'" Leist explained to high school students Oree, Kelly and Jesus.
While the four huddled around the piano, the room around them was buzzing.
Girls danced in front of a line of mirrors in the center of the room as they practiced steps. In one corner, boys huddled, words spilling out of their mouths as they worked on a rap song. Sitting next to them, another group practiced a song as the instructor tried to cajole one boy into singing with a Motown feel.
The organized chaos took place this week in an upstairs room in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall as part of the 20th annual Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Summer at the Center program.
Although the festivities might appear to be an arts summer camp, organizers said a lot more than singing and dancing was going on.
"We hope that this program provides them with tool to make new choices, better choices," Talena Mara, the Segerstrom Center's vice president of education.
The program caters to high school students born into complicated situations who need a new life direction, she said. The students, because of various personal reasons, were identified only by their first names.
They don't have to have any artistic abilities, but they have to be ready to correct their bad choices and achieve positive goals, Mara said.
"We want them to walk away understanding that there is always a better choice," Mara said.
The 40 students chosen to participate were from the county's Alternative, Community and Correctional Education Schools and Services, or ACCESS, program.
The students spend their time in music and theater workshops, hear presentations from program alumni and rehearse for the program's culmination: three free public performances in the Segerstrom Center's Samueli Theater.
The program teaches the students the importance of the creative process — focus, self-awareness, an entrepreneurial spirit, using their imaginations and being courageous enough to try for goals — in their everyday lives and at work, Mara said.
For Liz, a 17-year-old senior, hearing from the program's alumni about what they have gone on to do has been the most inspiring.
Liz had issues at her school with bullying, fighting and cutting class. She fell behind in credits before she transferred to ACCESS.
"It makes me feel like after this [program], I'll be someone else," she said.
The program helps students go on to achieve their full potential, but the change starts on the first day, Mara said.
Coming into the program, the students looked frightened as they sang or danced, but by the end of the day they are already growing, Mara said.
Liz fell into exactly that scenario.
She broke free from her fear and tried out for solos — and earned two. She also gained the confidence to open up to her friends about her love of singing and acting. Now she doesn't shy away from center stage.
"It's so great to watch their journey," said Bill Brawley, the program's artistic director who has been with the program since its inception. He later added, "After these two weeks, you just remember what's important."
To get the students to open up, the staff instills confidence in the students by preaching that anyone who can talk can sing, and anyone who can walk can dance, Brawley said.
"I think for the most part, they finally feel support, and they are told they can do anything," he said.
Nathaniel, 15, said he too had a confidence boost and feels more comfortable with people.
The Costa Mesa resident worked hard to get into the summer program after being sent to ACCESS for ditching and failing grades. Already, he can see it was worth it.
"It's an experience I'll never forget," Nathaniel said.
If You Go
What: Summer at the Center's Broadway revue-style show with a summer theme
When: 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Where: Samueli Theater, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Tickets: Free on a first-come, first-serve basis