Apodaca: A career in the arts can be a 'Blast'

When Megan Malloy was in middle school at Sierra Vista in Irvine, her music teacher took his students to see a production of "Blast," which combined elements of a marching band with dance and Broadway-style razzle-dazzle.

Meggie, as her friends and family call her, was transfixed.

"I got my mind blown," she said. "It was musical and theatrical, and entertaining enough for people who don't know anything about marching bands to be entertained."

That fascination lay dormant for the better part of a decade. She continued on to excel at music at University High School, where she played trumpet in the marching band. She then attended Chapman University in Orange, where she joined the pep band, and graduated last spring with a degree in film production.

I recall speaking at the time with Meggie's parents, who are longtime friends of mine, about their uneasiness regarding their daughter's employment prospects. Would a degree in the arts and superior musical skills be enough for a 22-year-old to make a living?

That's when Meggie heard that "Blast" was seeking new talent for its national touring company, and the old feelings of wonder and enchantment rushed back to her. She decided that — as unlikely as the goal of landing a spot might seem — she had to try. She submitted a video showcasing her abilities, along with a resume and letters of recommendation.

About a month later she received the news. She got it.

The past few months have been a whirlwind of 13-hour rehearsals, a grueling performance schedule, and waking up in new cities with little recollection of dates, times or even which state she was in.

"I've been to every Wal-Mart and every Subway everywhere," she joked.

It's Meggie's idea of heaven on earth.

Now on an extended holiday break before resuming the tour in January, Meggie recently revisited the place where her dreams first took shape: the classroom of her beloved middle-school music teacher, Henry Miller.

Some readers may have noticed by now that I'm a sucker for stories about dedicated teachers who transform young lives. But I assure you, there's no need for embellishment here. As Meggie herself told me, it was Miller who first inspired and motivated her, and his lessons continued to resonate years after they'd parted ways.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him," she said.

Miller has taught music for 22 years, and now works at another Irvine Unified middle school, Vista Verde, where Meggie showed video clips of "Blast" to Miller's symphonic band class, and answered students' questions.

The kids watched the videos intently, their interest punctuated by the occasional spontaneous remark.

"Cool," said one kid during a drum battle, and again when the brass section marched on stage.

They tittered nervously during dramatic dance numbers, applauded enthusiastically at the end, and asked some very practical questions:

"How do you keep from running into each other?"

"How long do you have to practice?"

I spoke with Miller later, and he seemed humbled by the effect his teaching had on Meggie. "I think you always underestimate the influence you have on a kid," he said.

But it was clear that Miller was passionate about the positive impact a well-run music program can have on students — even those who aren't destined to continue on in the field. His role isn't merely teaching kids to read notes on a page, he said, but showing them how to learn and grow.

Playing music together "really teaches teamwork," he said. "It's like a giant group project" that enhances useful life skills: the ability to tackle complex tasks, to listen to others and make adjustments, and to dare to be creative while still bringing value to the group as a whole.

That's worth remembering at a time when arts programs throughout California have been decimated by budget cuts.

"I'm glad I'm in Irvine, where people still value the arts in education," Miller said.

The influence of that strong educational background is evident in Meggie's growing confidence and adaptability. She was initially inspired to take up the trumpet because of Miller's style of playing that instrument, but in "Blast" she's now required to play several instruments and even dance.

She's also taken to heart Miller's teachings regarding teamwork, and that's come in handy during the show's bone-wearying schedule and close-knit living conditions. Working on such a production, "you're a family whether you like it or not," she said.

When "Blast" comes to the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts March 30 through April 1, Miller is hoping to attend with his students. The show's current U.S. tour is due to end in April, after which Meggie is hoping to sign on for an international tour, which might take her initially to Japan.

For now, though, she's still in that pinch-me phase, not quite believing that she's living her dream.

"During the first few weeks, I'd drive around with a huge grin," she told me. "I'd stop and think, 'Oh my god, I'm in "Blast."'"

She paused, thought for a moment, and flashed that joyous grin. "You can do what you love," she said.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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