Enriching Underserved Neighborhoods With Music Education

Life is not always easy for the children and families of Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood just outside of Los Angeles, Calif. Parents work long hours, often low-wage jobs. Schools with few resources grapple with educating their students. And many kids go to bed at night without full stomachs. In a world where families spend so many hours just trying to make ends meet, music education for children can gradually get pushed to the bottom of the priority list.
When Dr. Suzanne Gindin, a 1986 graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy, launched the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra, she found that families were thrilled to have a chance for their kids to pick up an instrument and find the beauty in notes once more.
“There was no music in the schools,” says Dr. Gindin. “The arts budget in Los Angeles was cut 76 percent during the recession and it was decimated especially at the elementary school level. If there was any music at all, it was for an hour a week with a general music teacher but nothing instrumental.”
When the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra program first opened its doors, “parents were like ‘finally, my kids can play an instrument,’” says Dr. Gindin. “They want their kids to partake in a full education.”
Dr. Gindin knew exactly how important music can be in a young person’s life. She first started attending Interlochen in the summer of 1982. After her father nixed camp one spring, she secretly applied to the Academy and went on to attend for her junior and senior years. “I was finally with my people,” she says. “Everybody spoke the same language and we all understood each other. You put all of these artistic people in one place and you feel like you’re alive. The ceiling goes off the world and you think, ‘this is what I could do.’”

It was this lifelong passion for music that inspired Dr. Gindin to begin the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra in 2012. Dr. Gindin’s creation of the program was also sparked by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s vision to bring El Sistema from Venezuela to the United States.

“My program is modeled on El Sistema both as a free program in a high-poverty area and as a curriculum based on classical orchestral training for very young people,” says Dr. Gindin. Every student learns to read musical notation and receives long-term instrument loans in order to practice at home. The orchestra meets four hours per week after school and some Saturdays with students also able to take part in an intensive six-week summer program.
“The kids run to the gate to start their music every day,” says Dr. Gindin. “We provide a very safe place for kids to learn even if they’re not the best performers,” says Dr. Gindin. “And if they don’t perform, they become an educated audience for music.”
And that passion for music has quickly spread beyond the walls of the orchestra’s practice room. When the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave free concert tickets to the program, Gindin and the students’ families were equally excited about the concert. “One student had 10 members of his family go with us,” she says. “A lot of these are people who never leave the neighborhood. I feel like we’re bringing music to the whole community, not just the parents and kids.”
The most rewarding moments for Dr. Gindin are some of the most simple. “I’ve watched several of our kids go to catch the bus, walking off in the dark at night with their violins on their backs, holding hands with their moms who don’t speak any English. And I think ‘there are violins walking around this neighborhood where there weren’t any before.’”
Feelings of accomplishment such as these help keep Dr. Gindin going as she works to raise money and ensure the doors of the orchestra remain open. The Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra exists solely on donations and grants. To learn more, visit www.boyleheightsyouthorchestra.org.