The community might not be described as one of the most privileged in the city of San Diego.
In fact, according to the city’s planning department, many households within the community make less than $10,000 and many of its residents are migrants who speak very little English.
However, walk into the City Heights Recreation Center in the heart of the community on any given Saturday afternoon and privileged is what you’ll be.
From one room come the sounds of violins playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” In others, you can hear voices singing Yiddish folk songs and Portuguese classics or students strumming guitar chords and playing classical pieces on the piano.
In a community with a high concentration of low-income students and a lack of music education opportunity, the City Heights Music School and other music organizations are making up the difference.
MULTIMEDIA: City Heights music director Victoria Eicher describes the benefits of music education for students.
Going beyond the limits
The school, which is supported by the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, offers music classes to students of all ages and cultures despite the limitations that most of these students face.
According to Victoria Eicher, director of the City Heights Music School (CHMS), one limitation is that many students don’t speak English. However, to her, music becomes the universal language that binds.
“Music is a common language and can reach every culture through music,” said Eicher. “Music has the extra benefit of transcending language and cultural barriers to bring a community together.”
Brazilian artist and CHMS teacher Ilana Quiroz understands that teaching capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts class that combines the elements of song and dance, breaks many cultural barriers because most of the songs taught are sung in Portuguese. None of her students speak the language, so for her, it is a form of unity.
“Kids want to connect,” said Quiroz. “Capoeira is like a community thing. You have to be connected to your peers.”
According to Quiroz, kids are not the only ones who tend to be her students in class.
“The parents think they are coming for their kids but they actually end up leaving class learning something themselves,” said Quiroz.
Victoria Eicher wants to make sure experiences like the capoeira class can be offered to anyone and makes sure money is not a limitation.
The tuition for each class session is $60; however, according to Eicher, partial and full scholarships are distributed to students thanks to sponsors.
“To me, there’s no difference in ability and potential between a child born in one community versus a child born in another. The difference is in opportunity,” said Eicher.
Nearby schools are also benefitting from CHMS’ generosity and value in music since funding for instruments and instructors is minimal.
“Eventually, the seed we plant in our Saturday music classes begins to grow and spreads to support other programs (music and other) as our students build a sense of identity, achievement, and confidence.”
The City Heights Music School is able to supplement the music classes at Rosa Parks Elementary School with congas, bongos, and timbales while Hoover High School receives instruments for their mariachi program.
Making up the difference in schools
A similar outreach program is giving students an opportunity to experience music in a smaller group setting and is expanding from what already exists at schools.
Currently, Villa Musica is offering music programs at four schools within the City Heights community and at the Logan Heights Library.
“We are trying to be a supplement because there wasn’t enough (music) in schools,” said Ariana Warren, community programming coordinator for Villa Musica.
According to Warren, music instruction is only being taught to kids in the fifth and sixth grade once a week within the San Diego Unified School District. She sees resources such as time and money as the limiting factors for the students. Now the organization is supplementing instruments and instructors because of lack of funding from the district.
“The kids who are learning instruments are excited and we hope to foster that excitement,” said Warren.
Warren hopes that Villa Musica will be able to continue fostering those feelings but with such small class sizes, funding can be a problem. In recent efforts, the organization has applied for more funding with a new push within Title I schools. Twenty-two of them have been selected to receive funding to team up with a non-profit like Villa Musica to expand music education.
Benefits of music education
Music has a profound effect for students who live in areas like City Heights and come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
According to a 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, students who receive quality music education earn better grades, are more likely to earn a degree and involve themselves in more extracurricular activities. Students tend to have high career goals and pursue careers in medicine, math or law.
“Music allows kids to be expressive and focus on a lot of detail,” said Victoria Eicher. “Once they get good at something they can share their success. It’s a great team builder.”
Ron Bolles, retired San Diego music teacher and music education advocate, has seen his fair share of the impact music has made on students throughout his career.
“One of my former music students now works for the district attorney’s office in San Diego and told me that she takes all that she’s learned in my class and goes in to her court cases as if it’s a performance,” said Bolles. “If she hasn’t practiced and prepared she knows she will lose her case.”
Bolles published a book called “Learning That Lasts a Lifetime,” that tells more of his student’s testimonies through the years to help advocate for more music opportunities in schools.
According to Bolles, more music opportunities are crucial to society because music builds a sense of community, but more importantly –identity.
“Our society seems to be very self-centered,” Bolles said, “But when a person participates in a musical ensemble they create, through rehearsals, a beautiful piece of art and understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Identity and discipline are the common benefit seen among many teachers, including those within the City Heights Music School and Villa Musica.