Music education for all

Mina Lee is a first grader at Cahuenga Elementary School.  When I first met Mina on October 16, she was one of a few dozen first graders who performed for celebrities like Sen. Barbara Boxer and Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the LA Philharmonic.

I later learned Mina has been playing the violin for about 3 months.  What makes her story more remarkable is that, until 3 months ago, her parents never considered the possibility of providing costly music lessons and instruments to their daughters.

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Mina’s family moved to the United States from South Korea two years ago.  Although it has been difficult for the family to settle in a new environment,  new opportunities in Los Angeles have been eye-opening for them.

“In Korea, instrumental lessons and a violin would be as much as a person’s monthly paycheck.  We never thought we would teach our children musical instruments,” Sanghee Kim, Mina’s mother, said in Korean.  “I saw an ad about this music program in a Korean American newspaper.  It said the organization wanted to recruit children from low-income, Korean American families.”

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The music program is called Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, also known as YOLA.  It was put together by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the guidance of the charismatic, popular conductor, Gustavo Dudamel.  YOLA was modeled after Venezuela’s publicly funded music education program that has nurtured leading musicians including Dudamel.


“As you know I am a student of El Sistema.  I try to give the message what we can do for the community through music,” the Venezuelan native said.  “In life, we forget many things.  But every time I go to the podium, I remember the first time when i held the violin for the first time and played in the orchestra.  I discovered a new world.  So to give this opportunity to these children is a dream.”

YOLA started in South LA with just about 100 students in 2007.  It’s now offering free, quality music education to some 400 students across Los Angeles.

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Listen to Daniel Berkowitz, a trombone instructor of YOLA, describing how YOLA started.
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There are about a dozen youth orchestras in Los Angeles County.  But what makes YOLA stand out is that YOLA’s door is open for anyone who is willing to learn, according to Christine Witkowski, the program director of YOLA at Heart of Los Angeles in Koreatown.

“We are all about access.  The entire program is about giving access to music education to children who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity,” Witkowski said.

And teachers at YOLA said working with children who are so thirsty for music has been a rewarding experience.

Listen to Nikki Shorts, a string instructor at YOLA.
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As a person who was impacted by music while growing up, I was touched by the hard work by teachers like Shorts.  They know music can change a child’s life.

Just like opera music changed the life of a Catholic girl with behavior problems 13 years ago, YOLA is impacting the lives of children in less-than-fortunate neighborhoods — one kid at a time.

The experience with YOLA has been priceless for Mina’s family as well, according to her mom.  She said she already began to see a change in her daughter.

“Mina seems like she’s developing a better sense of music,” Mina’s mom said.  It’s hard to believe Mina was shy and had difficulty making friends 3 months ago. “She never misses a practice.  She’s having such a great time.  She likes her teachers and friends. We are grateful for the opportunity.”

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