13 Sep 2012

Composing a Symphony of Hope

Composing a Symphony of Hope

December 14, 1997|PATT MORRISON

A few singular stories pop up on my radar that make me want to cast aside the brassy halo of journalistic restraint and write something along the lines of this: Get off your fat wallets and do something!

The most recent of these is Yvette M. Devereaux's, and before I tell you what she needs, I'll tell you what she does:

In Compton, the city where she grew up, a community where the public schools are not quite so well-tended or inviting as a Turkish prison, she has opened the nonprofit Progressive Arts Academy to bring the great, rich world back to this small, poor place, to teach the arts, especially music--the discipline and exquisiteness of classical, the fevers and rigors of jazz--to kids who haven't always had even a passing acquaintance with the wider world and some of its wonders. One 17-year-old kid floored Devereaux not long ago when he pointed at something a musician was holding--an object Devereaux had been accustomed to holding since she was 5 years old--and asked: "What's that?"

It was a violin.


In the Compton public schools of another age, her music teachers were a powerful and magnetic force. At home and at church, her parents sang a cappella songs, harmonies and spirituals. Devereaux played the piano at age 3, the violin at 7--her own violin, finally, at age 8, after she kept borrowing her elder sister's, which was too big for her fingers but not for her ambitions.

(Embarrassingly, my first encounters with classical music were witless: "Flight of the Bumble Bee" scoring for cartoons, and the "William Tell Overture" as a masked man thundered across the TV screen and the announcer intoned, "A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty, 'Hi-o, Silver!' The Lone Ranger!" They say you're not a cultured person until you can listen to Rossini's music without thinking of Clayton Moore.)

On the walls of Devereaux's office--a small room in a former dental suite in Compton; the back practice room is painted the virulent pink of healthy gums--are her honors, "firsts" strung like beads on a necklace: first black woman in the conducting programs at Chapman University and the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University, first black woman guest conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, first woman music director/conductor of the Southeast Community Symphony, and her latest, making all but the last cut in a European conductor competition.

Other rooms await honors yet to be won by students yet to be trained, such as the 15-year-old who plays Haydn sonatas and blues licks with the same passion. Kids being taught by part-time academy teachers--whose pay practically qualifies them as volunteers--what they can no longer learn in school.

When music became extracurricular, disposable and optional, she believes fervently, "then people started not taking it seriously and it became an easy target to dismantle." And then kids don't know how to discern between what's really creative and what's fake and lazy, "and you listen to the radio and wonder why there's so much bad music." Like an orchestra cued to the downbeat, the sound comes through the cinder-block walls just then, through the traffic noise on Alondra Boulevard--the unmistakable bass shuddering of some rap ditty, more seismic than music.

The honors, as I said, are on the walls. On her desk are letters to foundations, seeking help. "They write back, 'We only help at-risk children,' and I . . . ." There are no words, only the look of perplexity on her face. "Do we need to constantly have children on drugs and in gangs to get some help? Some support?"


Classical music and classic jazz are not alien noises. Play the "New World Symphony" or Scott Joplin and kids will fall to talking about the shapes and colors they hear. Ten minutes of a Mozart sonata has been shown to raise their IQs for a time.

Her students may still get teased for studying hokey music by dead white guys, but Devereaux tells them about operas that were the sold-out rock concerts of their day, about Brahms, a poor kid who grew up hearing rich sounds, and Beethoven, who in later years could not hear at all. "I say, 'Be proud you're standing on your own . . . that you're creating something yourselves."


I hold my own cranky musical theories. One is that rap is not music. It is not sung, it is chanted, and maybe in that it is the modern version of epic poetry, storytelling recited to a beat.

I also believe that the best classical music has been written by German-speakers because German itself--even the words of the sweetest Lieder--makes each phrase sound like orders for field artillery, and right-brained Germans opted for the lyrical language of music.

My newest theory I take from Devereaux: Restoring the breadth and stature of fine music requires recalibrating young ears and minds to be the audiences and composers of future years. What about it, Arista Records? Do you care if anyone still knows a bass clef from a treble in 20 years' time?

The traffic on Alondra had thinned out by the time I left Devereaux to her students. I headed straight outta Compton and switched on the radio. It was a Saint-Sans cello concerto. I cranked it up, loud. It rocked.



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