Imagine a music program so impactful that you pass up an opportunity to study at the Berklee College of Music. That's the story of Josue May Quinones, 22, who was born and raised in South L.A. He started playing trombone at eight with Gustavo Dudamel's Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) when it first launched at the Expo Center in 2007. By the time he was 10 years old, he already played the Hollywood Bowl. Quinones is now the Community Engagement Coordinator at YOLA's first permanent site, The Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center (BYC), which opened last month in the heart of Inglewood.
“I realized the inequity in music when I got to high school,” said Quinones, who graduated from Los Angeles County High School of the Arts (LACHSA) in 2017 and is currently attending Los Angeles City College. “The students had been playing half the time I had, but were at a much higher level because they had private lessons and their own instruments. Their parents were funding them. This is exactly what YOLA is fighting for. Having a center in this community to play music at no cost is really impactful.”
Located on La Brea Avenue in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where home prices are skyrocketing and development is off the charts (L.A. Rams and Chargers' new SoFi Stadium just opened; the Clippers' Intuit Stadium and a new Metro line are next), but a renaissance of Black-owned businesses stand tall like Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen, which opened across the street in 2019. Co-owned by "Insecure" creator Issa Rae, along with fellow South L.A. natives Yonnie Hagos and Ajay Relan, Hilltop and the BYC are on the same block as Stevie Wonder's iconic KJLH radio station. The BYC was built in close collaboration with Inglewood mayor James T. Butts to inspire K-12 students who live in a five-mile radius to make music.
Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, who took on the project pro bono, the 25,000-square-foot building, which used to be a Security Pacific Bank, then a Burger King, maintained most of its original 1965 Brutalist charm on the outside, but was gutted inside to create a practical, bright white canvas with orange and red accents for students to tap into their creativity.
"This building is for the kids of Inglewood," said Gehry, who also designed L.A. Phil's Walt Disney Concert Hall. "They are my inspiration and source of joy. We wanted to create a world-class instrument for them to play in, to be able to experiment in and to make their own. I can't wait to see what they do with it.”
I'm directed by a parking lot security guard to the Frank Gehry Artist Entrance, where YOLA students (artists, as they're called here) are dropped off by hurried parents, get their temperatures checked and excitedly line up outside. They come Monday through Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m. The first hour is for homework and getting their wiggles out and the last two are for music instruction. L.A. Phil's VP of Learning, Elsje Kibler-Vermaas, takes me inside where I meet Quinones, who gives me a tour of the three-story building. Each floor circles back like a donut to maintain Gehry's purported food theme (the pipe organ at the Walt Disney Concert Hall is said to resemble French fries). The bottom floor, which used to be the bank's vault, was remade into a performance hall known affectionately as the donut hole. This is where all the magic happens. With a 45-foot high ceiling, the hall has optimal acoustics, a skylight that creates a lantern effect at night (Gehry's favorite design element) and retractable seating that fits flush inside the back wall so the room can be split in half, enabling two ensembles to rehearse at the same time.
Dudamel, LA Phil's Music & Artistic Director, is a tireless advocate of free music education for underserved youth, a concept inspired by a publicly funded program in his native Venezuela called El Sistema. Besides its new home base in Inglewood, YOLA runs four other programs in Westlake/MacArthur Park, East L.A., Rampart District and Exposition Park, which provide free instruments, intensive music training, academic support and leadership training for 1,500 K-12 students. The BYC currently serves 126 students in grades 1 through 5 and students from other YOLA programs can be transported here on Saturdays.
"After such a long time in isolation, seeing each other only on Zoom, there's a powerful desire to connect," said Dudamel via email. "The key to working with students now is to be present with them, sharing not just time but space. After this complex time we've been living through, it's important to bring both the musicians and the people of Inglewood together to show them there are no limits to what they can create."
Inside the BYC is The Black Family Foundation & Thomas Safran Family Lounge, which have comfy gray, low-riding sofa chairs and an adjacent kitchen, where families can warm up food. Automatic water bottle refill stations and gender-neutral bathrooms are on every floor, creating a safe space for students of all identities. Wainscoting, a staple of Gehry's work, provides a protective wood paneling that prevents walls from getting damaged by instruments and is less expensive to replace. Tiled carpeting is easy to remove in case of spills and exposed cables are neatly tucked inside trays along the ceiling to simplify the process of replacing wires when technology changes. We popped into a 5th grade percussion class led by Grammy-nominated teacher Ismael Pineda. Students rehearsed "Good King Wenceslas" to a "1 and 2 and 3 and 4" beat flawlessly for an upcoming holiday performance.
"For the majority of students, this is their first time playing an instrument," Pineda beamed with pride.
YOLA concerts were hard to pull off before having their own space. It was difficult to plan and rehearse when other things were happening inside shared buildings.
"Having a space that’s just ours erases all those conflicts," said Quinones, who traveled to Barcelona in 2019 with Dudamel to perform Mahler's Symphony No. 1 at the Festival Castell Peralada. "We have 100% control of what we do now."
All BYC classrooms are equipped with computer-connected monitors that broadcast what’s called Family Time, a chance for YOLA at Inglewood manager Lorenzo Johnson to discuss program value: integrity, community, commitment and joy. The performance hall has Internet2, a program used by many academic institutions that make it possible to play a duet with somebody at say, San Francisco Conservatory, with no latency in between. There’s even a production studio filled with brand-new iMac computers that line Ikea desks fitted with blue microphones, where students learn the ins and outs of music production using the best tools possible.
"It’s really expensive for parents to provide these for their children," said Quinones, who’s on a mission to learn everything there is to know about music — from the legal to the creative side. "Now they don’t have to worry about it because we have it here."
Arts education is highly undervalued at schools across California, which is ironic considering Los Angeles is ground zero for careers in music and film. Arts programs are often the first to get cut at underfunded schools, but are just as important as math, science and English. Art programs facilitate social-emotional intelligence and create a safe space for students to express themselves.
Erika Miramon has three daughters enrolled at YOLA at Esteban E. Torres High School in East L.A. She said before the program, they would fight all the time over the TV and get bored inside because Miramon isn't comfortable letting them play outside with the other kids that live in their apartment in Northeast L.A. Vice President of Unidos Por NELA, a community group that provides food and financial literacy for the community, Miramon said YOLA gave her girls a sense of purpose.
"I was over them fighting," she said in Spanish. "I enrolled them in this music program and it was a total change. The girls are more dedicated and follow a schedule. They don’t have time to talk with the kids in the apartment."
Inspirational quotes by Gehry and Dudamel dot the white walls of the BYC in black lettering in Spanish and English. One really strikes a chord:
Cuando hacemos música juntos, nos convertimos en una comunidad plena de armonía, belleza, alma y solidaridad. When we make music together, we become a community full of harmony, beauty, soul and solidarity.Gustavo Dudamel