Violins for Kids program has roots as anti-gang activity

The Foundation to Assist Young Musicians’ Violins for Kids program began years ago when an elementary school principal was looking for ways to keep his students out of a local gang.

Arturo Ochoa, then principal of Sunrise Acres Elementary School, 211 N. 28th St., said, “When I arrived at Sunrise Acres, the 28th Street Gang was a big influence. It was the biggest draw for youth in the area. I wanted to give kids alternatives, so I began after-school programming, like a Boy Scouts unit.”

He also initiated other extracurricular activities — chess, dance and art — anything to keep the children occupied. Using some of the money from a 21st Century grant, Ochoa bought more than 75 violins and began an after-school music program. It started with kindergartners, so that by the time they got to middle school, the students would have five or six years’ experience, where most other children would be beginners.

But all that came to a halt about six years later when Ochoa transferred to another school, and his successor eliminated the program to focus on raising the school’s academic results.

“The district was of a mind that music doesn’t impact test scores. I was crushed,” Ochoa said.

After years in storage, the violins found a new purpose with the nonprofit foundation in 2010. That’s when founder/trustee Hal Weller approached Ochoa about providing the instruments to children living in the area surrounding the East Las Vegas Community/Senior Center, 250 N. Eastern Ave., so they could begin music lessons while in grade school.

Public schools do not usually offer students the chance to learn to play string, percussion and wind instruments until grades six through 12. Parents with financial means, however, often place their children in private music instruction as early as age 3, giving them an advantage when auditioning for magnet school programs. That advantage comes into play when high school seniors compete for limited music scholarships. The foundation’s effort includes two or three group lessons a week during the school year.

The program’s summer project was held June 9-16. Dozens of children, along with their parents, filled the auditorium of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which offered the use of its building at 4201 Stewart Ave. free.

The auditorium was filled with chatter, laughter and the sound of instruments being tuned and played.

“It began with 10 kids, and now we’re at 101,” said Weller as he looked out over the crowded room. “…We’re going to add another 40 in the fall.”

Ochoa is now the program coordinator for Violins for Kids. At the heart of the program is involving parents, who are encouraged to learn the instrument alongside their children. Then, at home, both can practice together.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” Weller said. “We make it a family activity, not ‘Go into the other room and practice.’ No. Practice should not be a punishment.”

Paola Morales and her son, Paul, 7, are both in the program. She said she sees the experience helping him in other subjects at school.

“I think it’s good for math because it’s music and it’s counting, you know?,” she said. “I always wanted to put him in something, and I think the violin is a good instrument. It’s harder than I thought, but I like it. I think I like it more than my kid (does).”

The children seemed to understand the benefits, as well.

Michelle Flores, 7, hasn’t been in the program long, but she said she likes it and practices daily, which makes her dog “run around like crazy. …When I play, I feel like I’m an angel in the sky.”

Karla Cruz, 14, began taking violin lessons three years ago.

“It helps you calm down and express your feelings through your instrument,” she said, adding that she likes her parents being involved in the program.

The program eventually plans to expand to include students from other elementary schools. The foundation’s goal is to develop a community youth orchestra.

Violins for Kids is getting noticed beyond Las Vegas. It was singer Josh Groban’s charity of choice for his Las Vegas appearance at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in October. Vegas PBS aired a special feature on the program, and the Rotary Club of Summerlin recently raised $3,500 for it.

In February, Jamie Bernstein, daughter of conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, was the foundation’s guest to boost its efforts to expand the program. As a result of her visit, $30,000 was raised.

Weller said music lessons go further than notes on a violin and that it breeds a consciousness of working as a team and of reaching loftier goals.

“They learn that the sky’s not the limit,” Weller said. “It goes beyond that, into the universe. So, this glass ceiling that they perhaps perceive in their neighborhoods and in these cultures, they see they can blast through all that and open the doors so they have a future.”

For more information, visit thefaym.com/violin_kids.htm, email faym@live.com or call 702-279-6858.

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 702-387-2949.

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