Strike up the band
Pasadena-area students facing school budget cuts for music can opt for a symphony of alternatives around town.
By Scarlet Cheng 09/01/2010
It’s a familiar refrain: When the economy takes a dive and school budgets shrink, the programs that feel the pinch always include music and arts. And the coming school year brings particularly painful cuts: The Pasadena Unified School District slashed $25.1 million from the 2010–11 budget, which involved pink-slipping 250 teachers — ultimately reducing the number of music educators by 13 percent this year alone. “Music seems very expendable,” says Cynthia Abbott, a choral teacher at Washington Middle School and the Pasadena Master Chorale’s director of education. “So it’s always on the chopping block.”
For the survivors, times are still tough, particularly at the elementary level, says Karen Klages, PUSD’s music specialist. This fall, only fifth-graders will have music education, rather than some of the kids in third through sixth grades as before. Even so, teachers will be stretched. “Some teachers will cover six or seven schools,” says Klages, who has been teaching music in public schools since 1987. “When I started out, I just covered three schools.”
That was before several years of belt-tightening: Choral programs that used to be available in every school are now limited to four high schools and two middle schools. Jo Stoup, a former music teacher at John Muir High School, says the school’s marching band — 110 students strong in her day — had been reduced to 30 when she checked a couple of years ago; and the orchestra, formerly 60 students, was down to 11.
Even in those relatively flusher days, running a music program was a struggle, says Stoup, currently music director of the Pasadena Young Musicians Orchestra (PYMO) and a full-time faculty member at Pasadena City College (PCC). She had no budget for transportation, costumes or sheet music. “I had to sell candy bars out of my office; we sold wrapping paper,” she says. “So besides all your duties as a teacher, you’re doing all this other stuff. I was putting in 60 to 70 hours a week.”
But fear not: Parents and students who consider music essential to a well-rounded education can cue up the “Hallelujah Chorus” — there are a number of alternatives in the Pasadena area. Most charge fees, although many offer scholarships to those in financial need. Here are some examples:
Stoup’s Pasadena Young Musicians Orchestra is composed of students from 10th grade through junior college age who rehearse once a week, and it’s conveniently housed on the PCC campus. The young musicians must audition; some 80 to 100 participants from the area make the cut each year. Performance venues have included PCC, the Wilshire Ebell in Los Angeles and a theater in Hawaii. The 50-year-old nonprofit requires students to participate in three concerts and a weekend retreat during the school year. Musicians must also belong to a performance group at their school. (So, Stroup notes, it’s a telling fact that this year, there are only two students from PUSD). Tuition and fees start at $900. Visit PYMO.org for more information.
Another option is the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra (PYSO), under the umbrella of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, which has been helping to train classical musicians since 1972. Students in grades six through nine can sign up for the school year for a basic cost of $420, which covers weekly meetings that include group rehearsals and instruction for their particular section (wind, brass, string, etc.). Field trips involve additional fees. The group currently has about 150 students, says Clay Campbell, the PSO’s director of education and community engagement.
“In February, we were asked to play at the American String Teachers Association’s National Orchestra Festival in Santa Clara,” says Campbell. “It’s a very big honor.” Next year they’re headed to Colorado Springs to play with the Air Force Academy Band, which is staffed by professional musicians. Visit pasadenasymphony-pops.org/education-and-community/pasadena-youth-symphony-orchestra/.
The Pasadena Conservatory of Music (PCM), an independent nonprofit community music school founded in 1983, has a good reputation for training young musicians at its 100 N. Hill Ave. location. PCM has a faculty of 50 and enrollment of more than 1,300 students, ranging from infants to senior citizens. Its Young Musicians program, which serves children up to age 12, offers weekly classes designed for students of a particular age or grade. According to the website, the program “encourages and nurtures each child’s musicality with one-year, age-specific classes that are fun, creative and developmentally appropriate.” Enrollment is for the entire school year. Annual tuition costs $648 ($576 for students also receiving private instruction at PCM). There’s a yearly family registration fee of $40, and an annual materials fee of $33 to $70. Visit pasadenaconservatory.org.
The Pasadena Master Chorale (PMC) was formed a couple of years ago by its artistic director, Jeffrey Bernstein, who served as director of choral music at Occidental College from 1997 to 2008. The adult group of some 80 auditioned voices performs several times a year and recruits young singers when the program calls for it. “For the Christmas concert, we wanted to feature the Blair [High School] choir,” says Cynthia Abbott. “I know the program has a lot of nice musicians, and I thought it would be great to expose them to something classical.” So the group brought in 30 students from Blair and eight from other high schools. Students, who were each paired with an adult mentor, rehearsed every other week at no charge. Visit pasadenamasterchorale.org.