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Notes With a Purpose lifts the spirits of homeless diners, residents at rescue mission

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

William Shakespeare wrote those words more than four centuries ago, but Alexandria Le lives them today.

The Las Vegas-born pianist beams a smile at audience members departing the latest concert she’s organized.

“You guys are great! Awesome entertainment!” one listener enthuses as he files out of the Las Vegas Rescue Mission and returns to the streets.

It’s a Wednesday and the mission’s first dinner shift — serving Las Vegas’ homeless population — has just ended.

There’s a half-hour break before the next dinner shift, for the mission’s Addiction Recovery Program clients, begins.

But the musicians playing — mostly Las Vegas Academy students, mostly pianists, but also violinists and guitarists — gather around the piano, jamming to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” prior to the next round of dinner music organized by Le’s Notes With a Purpose nonprofit.

As the chow line forms, a slide projected onto a screen in one corner of the dining hall informs guests of the program: “Musicians from the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts are Delighted to Perform for You as You Enjoy Dinner Wednesday Evening.”

The diners at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission are delighted to hear them, as evidenced by the greeting client Marquis Brown gives Le. He’s been in the mission’s recovery program almost six months — 173 days, to be precise.

“We’re blessed to have someone so talented” coordinate the music, the 37-year-old Brown says of Le. “It lifts your spirits up.”

The feeling’s mutual, according to Le, 33, who started playing piano at 3, graduated from the Las Vegas Academy in 2001 and then moved to New York to pursue her musical career.

While in New York, performing in Carnegie Hall’s resident ACJW ensemble, Le played outside the legendary concert hall as well — in prisons, health care facilities, assisted living centers and schools.

Those experiences proved “just as meaningful an experience as playing at Carnegie Hall,” she notes.

Le’s community-service impulse took hold when, as a Las Vegas Academy senior, she visited inner-city fifth-graders, accompanied by a Metropolitan Police officer, as part of the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program.

When she read an essay by a 10-year-old describing how her father had been shot by a friend using drugs or alcohol, it “shattered my perception of the world and how lucky I was,” Le recalls.

So when Le turned her attention back to Southern Nevada (she officially moved back this summer), she started seeking ways to bring more music to more people throughout the valley.

Her first step: organizing last year’s Las Vegas Wine & Musical Festival at the Nevada State Museum. The festival will return (at different venues) next May, preceded by pop-up concerts in November, December, January and February.

In November, Notes With a Purpose will launch its Music JuiceBox Series to introduce schoolkids to classical music. Future plans, Le says, include performances at local hospitals and hospices.

But Le’s Notes With a Purpose found a more immediate purpose when she met a rescue mission official — “and when he told me there was a piano in here,” she admits, “it was like kismet.”

Le launched the program with two concerts at the mission in April and May, then recruited LVA piano students to join the effort; they’ve been playing there weekly since the end of July.

“At first, I didn’t know what to expect,” says academy senior Paige Thomson.

Initially, “it’s like being in the eye of the storm,” she says of performing at the rescue mission, because “you feel like nobody’s listening” to the music in the dining hall. “And then you’re finished and it doesn’t feel like that. They recognize what you’ve been playing and they feel happy you’re playing.”

Thomson encouraged two academy friends who’ve already graduated to join the Notes With a Purpose ensemble.

“It feels nice, getting people happy,” says bassist Michael Westlake, now a jazz studies freshman at UNLV. “You made their day.”

And the rescue mission’s clients are “a raw, beautiful audience,” adds guitarist Anthony Aceves, who’s heading to college in Los Angeles in the spring. “It’s a great experience to give this to them.” During the second dinner service, the trio of friends — Aceves, Thomson and Westlake — team up to perform Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” followed by the guitarists’ delivery of a soulful blues number.

While the babble of conversation continues through each tune, hearty “woo hoos!” and applause greet the performances.

Pianist Megan Pridmore, an academy sophomore, leads off the evening with a bit of Mozart, followed by an “Amadeus”-inspired stint playing the plaintive ballad “Greensleeves” while lying on her back on the piano bench.

“I really liked the idea of it,” Pridmore says of joining the Notes With a Purpose performances. “You’re playing for people who don’t usually get to hear” classical music, she adds. And besides, “if you mess up, they don’t judge you.”

For recovery client Geoff Post, who’s waiting in line for tonight’s Texas chili dinner, the performances are “one of the best gifts I’ve been given.”

A self-described country music fan, Post says Notes With a Purpose performances have inspired him “to turn the dial at least once a day and listen to classical music.”

Listening to classical music definitely has a purpose for Post, 33, who’s been in the recovery program since January.

He’s learning to meditate and the classical music “has no words to it, but a lot of emotion,” Post explains. “I’m not listening to a story, I’m feeling a story.”

As a result, the instrumental music “helps me center myself,” he says — especially as he tries to overcome the “drugs, gangs and violence in my past.”

For Le, “hearing that I’ve helped their lives in some way makes this incredibly moving for me.”

She recalls encountering one rescue mission audience member while walking downtown at Container Park — and spotting someone sitting by the “Love Locket” sculpture at the entrance.

“ ‘Hey, are you the pianist who brings in the high school students?’ ” Le remembers him asking. “That was a confirmation that this was making an impact.”

On Wednesdays at the mission, Le’s on hand to oversee and introduce the student musicians, but she doesn’t play much during the Wednesday night programs.

“If I get a flood of requests,” she will sit down at the piano, Le says. “I can play for two hours, but I want to give the students an opportunity.”

While the goal of Notes With a Purpose is to benefit others, the program helps the young musicians as well.

“Students don’t get an opportunity to perform,” according to Le. “They don’t realize what a gift they have.”

And often, “students have to play in really formal situations,” adds Jan Seeley, the academy’s piano director, as she watches her students in action. When they play at the rescue mission, she says, they can ditch their concert black, come as they are and “see they’re having an immediate impact.”

That impact has “created a great atmosphere,” according to Dean Perry, senior director of recovery at the rescue mission. “It’s neat to hear them get into it,” he says of the recovery clients. “It sets a good atmosphere of calm.”

Overall, Notes With a Purpose “enjoys finding and collaborating with existing, established nonprofits,” Le explains. “We come in and help enhance what’s there.”

In the case of the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, “food and shelter are crucial elements for human survival,” she says, “but so is music — it’s necessary for the human spirit.”

Read more stories from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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