Behind the music
LOS ANGELES — Even before Maestra Rachel Worby of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra lowers her baton, concluding John Williams's "The Cowboys Overture," the audience at John Adams Middle School is cheering and whistling their approval.
Looking more like an MTV star than a symphony conductor, with her ponytail dancing down her back, Ms. Worby turns to the students, announcing, "You asked what I do for a living, well, this is [it]."
Unlike many of the concertgoers who attend Pops performances - nibbling gourmet picnics beneath the stars - 95 percent of the students at John Adams receive federally funded free lunches.
Their school is old and overcrowded, located in a bleak industrial district of South Los Angeles. The grounds are mostly concrete; even their athletic field is asphalt.
But their principal, Joseph Santana, works on helping his students to find beauty in all things, including the rose garden he planted amid the concrete, and the music Worby brings to his school.
The 50-minute concert, however, is not a one-time special event - what some educators dub "drive-by arts education." Instead, it just one piece of a three-year-long relationship between a conductor and her audience, a teacher and her pupils.
Worby will work with the same 500 middle-schoolers - kids more apt to quote the lyrics of rapper 50 Cent than tap out the opening rhythm of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - until they graduate in 2006.
Her purpose is not to develop new musicians or groom a future generation of season ticketholders. Nor is it to raise standardized test scores, although according to the National Association for Music Educators, an impressive correlation exists between music study and academic achievement.
The main objective, says the conductor, is to teach discipline.
People often tell children to hang onto their dreams. But dreaming is not enough, says Worby.
"You cannot keep your dream alive without extremely hard work. I am peddling the reward of hard work," says Worby, the daughter of a retired salesman.
Modeled after a program Worby instituted at Carnegie Hall in New York (where she worked for more than a decade as the music director of the Young People's Concerts), the Pops' outreach program, "Let Music Ring," is based on continuity.
It's a three-year commitment with a price tag of more than $150,000, most of which is paid by the Rotary Club of Los Angeles.
A passionate speaker, Worby met with the children for the first time last September, talking as much about the instruments of the orchestra as the dedication it takes to play them. If a child appeared uninterested, she would take him by the hand and literally lead him back into the conversation.
She returned throughout the year, always meeting with the children in groups of no more than 50. She explained how the instruments were constructed and the sounds they make. Each time she brought musicians - violinists, cellists, flutists, and percussionists - and created music. The children have begun to call her Rachel. More students ask to participate, but, for now, they are turned away.
By June, when she brings the entire orchestra to perform, Worby has made more than 10 visits to the school, leading at least 40 small-group sessions.
"If the kids only see the performance, then they never see the whole story. I try to make them aware of all the time and commitment it takes to make one performance happen," says Worby.
Some of that theory may be lost on 11-year-old Jovani Alvarado, who says, "It's great to get out of class to listen to something really cool."
Jovani and his friends shout that they want to play the percussion instruments - the marimba, vibraphone, and bongos.
Seated quietly in the back of her classroom, Fernanda Gomez says she likes the sound of the violin best of all. Then, in a whisper, she admits that she hopes to be a conductor some day, just like Rachel.
Unfortunately for students like Fernanda, music education has disappeared at the school, replaced by additional math and English classes as mandated by the Los Angeles Unified School District - a decision that dismays some of the school's instructors. "They've taken away half of their education. It's a soul-less curriculum," says sixth-grade teacher Norman McClelland.
Music is already an important part of these children's lives, point out their teachers. But predominantly that means rap. "They're addicted to it, and most of the rappers are part of the drug and gang world," says English teacher Jim Midgley. "Not a positive influence."
Exposure to new experiences is what his students need to become active, curious learners, says Dr. Santana, a veteran Marine Corps fighter pilot and cousin of famed guitarist Carlos Santana.
Worby says her own upbringing was the antithesis of that of many of the students. Born in Nyack, N.Y., to parents who introduced their preschool daughter to piano lessons and all types of music from Bach to Pete Seeger, Worby, by age 5, decided to be a conductor.
Although there were no female role models at the time, she refused to let gender guide her future. Instructors, she says, often dismissed her. Fellow musicians sometimes ignored her. Today, an acclaimed conductor with more than 20 years of experience, Worby says she knows well what it is to overcome adversity.
Proof of the program's success is seen in the children's faces, says Robert Spencer, a former music teacher at the school.
"Rachel knows how to reach them," says Mr. Spencer, who once played back-up for blues artist B.B. King and now teaches English and social studies at John Adams. "These kids light up when the orchestra begins to play."