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LA high school benefits from pros through LA Master Chorale program

February 16, 2011

Nearly 100 Music Academy students at Central LA High School #9 now have a better understanding of collaboration. They have spent the past five months with lyricist Doug Cooney, conductor David O and Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Marnie Mosiman in the Chorale’s Voices Within artists’ residency program. 

Their assignment: to write a 45-minute oratorio and perform it twice on Thursday, February 17 along with several members of the LAMC’s chamber singers

Taylor Washington rehearsing as Hummingbird

For about 90 minutes twice a week, the professional trio has met with the students who are as young as 14, each skilled in some aspect of performance – composing, acting, singing or playing an instrument. While their skill levels vary (auditions are not required for school admission), each is highly dedicated. CLAHS teachers Desiree Fowler, Christopher Rodriguez and Yolanda Gardea (Music Academy Assistant Principal) have been key to developing this semester’s program. 

Fourteen-year-old freshman Serena Boutin explains struggling at first within her student group of five or six fellow students. “But being the leader-type that I am I gave everybody the extra push they needed to get their ideas out.” She speaks with confidence, but not arrogance. “There’s a difference between being a leader and being bossy. Being a leader means giving everybody that extra push they need to achieve their goals, not just telling people what to do,” a trait she explains she learned from her mother. 

“You know the saying, ‘Be a leader and not a follower’? My mother would say she was always the driver, the person who got everybody where they needed to be. I’ve always been a very ambitious girl and my mother taught me how to be a good leader without being bossy. I can get people to depend on them selves and not just on me. It’s important to be able to trust other people that they’ll be doing their jobs and doing them well.”

To that end, Mosiman explains one group of students would write lyrics to a song but, rather than also pen the music, would turn over their words to another group. Students within each group would offer feedback and suggestions, prodded and inspired by David O and Doug Cooney, until they achieved each of the oratorio’s 20 songs. “The students had to decide whether a section would be sung by a soloist or by multiple voices. They had to figure that out.”

Boutin takes her work seriously. “I am probably one of the biggest perfectionists I have ever met. I never do anything unless I am 110-percent sure on it. That is why I not only take my artistic fields at this school seriously, I also take my academics seriously because at this school you have to have a 2.0 [grade point average] or above to perform. So I always think that if you don’t do a performance to the best of your ability, what is the point of doing it at all?”

Senior Molly Thapviwat plays the mother in the piece. Her pregnancy prompts anger. “It’s a very challenging role for me because I don’t do many classical types of pieces.” She knows, however, the experience will linger with her well beyond high school. “The first time the LA Master Chorale came into the class I wondered how this project would end up. I saw a lot of acting in our warm-ups and such, but then I saw them introduce writing music and I thought that was interesting because we could all work together. I’m not much of a composer, but I did share some ideas that turned into a song. That surprised me!”

The Thailand native, Thapviwat says she has performed as a soloist in live concerts many times. “I’m not really accustomed to working in groups. It’s good to work in groups because you can get a lot done with several heads working on it.” 

Evan Washington and his twin brother, Taylor, recently turned 16. They are juniors. Evan plays the narrator. “It’s great to work with professionals and collaborate with your peers. We didn’t do just one thing – we did everything. It’s great to collaborate on an idea of your own so that you can say ‘that piece is mine – I did that.’ I think that’s one of the great treasures I’ll keep with me forever.”

Taylor’s role as Huitzilopochtli or Hummingbird, who talks to his mother in utero, forced him to branch out. “When we began, Marnie, David and Doug said to write all of our ideas on paper. I’ve written songs before but I’d always done it by myself. This was a group project and it turned out better than I even could have imagined. When I was playing the chords for a piece I was writing and we were thinking of a melody, I would sing something. My friend would say ‘No, no, no – try this.’ ‘Oh, I like that better.’ It was cool having two minds instead of one – or four or five or six.”

He may follow in David O’s footsteps. “I really look up to him. The way he plays piano is just phenomenal. It’s been really good to see how professionals would attack a song or go for the structure or sing it.” 

Desiree Fowler conducts rehearsal; David O at piano

And Taylor has learned, too, to rely on others. “This teaches me that I shouldn’t be the only ear. Maybe I should go to my brother or friend or teacher when I write something to get their opinion. We learned strategies to write better music. I can think in more general terms now with all the tools I learned. I like to sing more than anything.

Mosiman says the students studied oratorio styles from Green Day to Stravinsky to Handel. “They had a lot of tools to think about. In the end, they took an entire graphic piece and broke it down into 20 sections. “

After establishing its artists’ residency program 9 years ago among local 5th and 6th grade students, this is LAMC’s first foray into a high school. “We took a deep breath,” remembers Mosiman, “and plunged in thanks to a grant from the California Arts Council. And, with any luck, we’ll get to do this again next year!”

“Hummingbird Warrior Oratorio” was written and will be premiered by the students at the Central Los Angeles High School #9 at a free concert at 7pm on February 17, which is free to the public. The school is at the corner of Grand Avenue and Cesar Chavez Avenue in Los Angeles. Its massive campus can be seen from the 101 and 110 freeways.

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