Music Of The Heart
Volunteers and eager students make the Salinas Center for the Musical Arts an inspiration.
Thursday, March 23, 2000
Every Monday at 5pm, the Frank Paul School in East Salinas is transformed from an ordinary elementary school into a virtual music conservatory, when it is temporarily reincarnated for the evening as the Salinas Center for the Musical Arts.
An outreach program of the Western Stage at Hartnell College, the center offers free instrumental music instruction to more than 80 students, offering what neither of the two middle schools or two high schools in East Salinas provide--a music education for neighborhood youth.
The idea for the center was born five years ago in the second-grade classroom of Room 24 at Frank Paul School. Teacher Jeannie Echenique was holding a class discussion after some rudimentary music lessons, and her students shouted out, "Let''s be a real band." Her class certainly had enthusiasm, and Echenique went on to fulfill their wish one year later with the help of the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. The Foundation "adopted" Room 24 and funded the purchase of instruments and the hiring of two musicians--Kris Strom of the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra, and Robin Anderson, of the Robin Anderson Big Band--to give a one-hour group lesson once a week on a variety of different instruments.
As the years passed and the students from Room 24 grew up, Echenique followed them. The success of the program brought about a revolutionizing change of ideals within the classroom. Each year the parents of her students would vote to have their children in her class, so she would follow her former students as well as bring in new ones to learn the joy of music. When Echenique''s original Room 24 class was in sixth grade, they played at an adjudication festival and John Anderson, musical instructor for the Monterey Peninsula College, said, "They are by far the best elementary group any of us [the judges] have heard."
This spun Echenique and her class into a new idea about how important, and how fun it would be not only to learn music, but find a way to carry it with them forever.
A year ago February, classes began at the new Salinas Center for the Musical Arts. The first night, 41 students showed up to play music in the school''s fledgling Salinas All-City Band. Another dozen showed up for beginning instrumental classes.The center now has 80 students, from the fifth grade on up, studying flute, clarinet, saxophone, guitar, drums, oboe and electric bass, in classes taught by six professional musicians and educators. Most of the tutors either volunteer, or are paid through grants obtained by Echenique''s efforts. Echenique, who plays flute for the Gilroy Symphony, receives no pay for her coordination work or the class she teaches at the center.
All of the original Room 24 students are Mexican-American, mostly the children of farmworkers who work in the Salinas fields. The goals of the All-City Band are described as English acquisition, success in all areas of learning, and avoiding pressure to join a gang.
Music should be a cornerstone of education. The effect that the musical arts has on a student is wonderous, and the inspiration and the dedication it takes to learn an instrument and play in a band promotes his or her becoming a better student. The satisfaction and spirit of a group of young people learning to play music changes all areas of their education, and besides, learning to play an instrument can be a hell of a lot of fun.
The students of Room 24 are now in seventh grade and there are less of them due to a number of factors that range from the personal to the trickle-down effects of a city they sometimes feel couldn''t care less about them. "It''s sad you know, I lost a seventh grader this year who was from the original band," Echinique says. "Just dropped out. It''s a horrible thing."
Echenique, the music teachers and the students at the center envision a future that will include vocal, keyboard, and strings as part of the school''s training. The search goes on for people willing to dedicate some time, and for funding to buy instruments for the students.
Echenique and the teachers at the weekly programs at the Salinas Center for the Musical Arts are building a personal foundation for every student. It''s no secret that educators in general are underrated, underpaid, and overworked--but they wouldn''t give it up for the world. The children that are learning to play an instrument every Monday in East Salinas will carry that, and the lessons of dedication to an art form, for the rest of their lives. Their world will be revolutionized from the inside out by the ability to make artistic representations of how they feel, or what they think. Music is not just an international language between people--it is also a personal conversation with yourself.
A fundraiser for the Salinas Center for the Musical Arts will be held Saturday at The Western Stage at Hartnell College, 156 Homestead Ave., Salinas. The Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra is the highlighted performer. Tickets are $12 in advance and $14 at the door. Call 755-6816 or 375-2111 for tickets and information.