The power of music

A music program started by the granddaughter of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn “opens the floodgates” for underserved and at-risk youth, offering not only a chance to learn musical skills, but also hope.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

In a classroom located in the hills above Malibu Canyon, students are learning to improvise with their meager recording equipment-laptops, along with two small speakers, a tiny hard drive, a mini keyboard and a filtered mike. One props up his hand-written lyric sheet under a window frame so that he can see to read and rap clearly into the microphone: “How do I stay alive in a war zone, when my beautiful baby daughter’s waitin’ for me at home…”

The other students nod their heads in time to his rhythm.

All the students sit with pencils gripped firmly while filling sheet after sheet with their lyrics, beating out time on the tabletops.

As they work on their lyrics and beats, they are under the watchful eye of the L.A. County Probation Department, as they are serving time in the juvenile system at Camp David Gonzales. Many of the teenage residents are serving sentences for gang-related crime-robbery, drugs, weapons possession-and face uncertain futures once they are released.

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In keeping with the theory that rigorous rehabilitation will promote future productive citizenship, Camp David Gonzales focuses on ensuring that their charges complete high school or get their GED, as well as offering them introduction to real-life skills and trades.

That’s where Sound Art plays a part. Founded four years ago, Sound Art’s motto is “Changing Young Lives Through Music.” Sound Art is a nonprofit musical education program designed to reach the often underserved, inner-city youth who are at risk. Every step of music production is taught-from lyric writing to chromatic scales to harmonics to recording engineered through programs loaded into transportable laptop computers.

Sound Art is the brainchild of Catherine Goldwyn, Los Angeles native and graduate of the Berklee College of Music. Finding herself back in California after many years in Boston, Goldwyn ended up volunteering in South Central Los Angeles community centers in neighborhoods infamous for their gang activity. The disconnect between the young men and their society was profound, Goldwyn said, “Their ‘skill sets’ for life are nonexistent. There really has been an extraordinary trashing of a generation.”

Goldwyn thought if music could give her the inspiration she had always felt, music could also help to empower these youths. Sound Art has now served more than 10,000 young people in after-school programs and community centers across the Southland.

“I’ve been passionate about music all my life, and my family did teach that you give back when you have a gift,” Goldwyn said.

Part of her family’s social conscience came from her grandfather, movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, who arrived in this country from Poland without much in his pocket. “His free spirit and sense of entrepreneurialism led him to great things, but he always felt that it was incumbent upon him to offer advantages to the underprivileged, knowing where he came from himself,” she said. “My grandfather was a hustler with an endless capacity to make something out of nothing. I see a lot of that in these kids.”

Goldwyn’s program teaches in teams of two: mostly Berklee College graduates and already established spin-meisters who are big in underground hip-hop. In class at Camp David, Reggie “D.J. Pudge” Sinkler, of the Vinyl Junkies, shows one student how to navigate the Pro Tools display on the laptop in front of him. The teachers guide the students through each aspect of CD production and it becomes a very close, collaborative effort to produce commercially viable results. The young men sit raptly in class, occasionally laughing at their own missteps, sitting in silent support when a classmate is having a hard time getting through a take. “They all write their own lyrics, and we let them write whatever they want, without restriction,” Goldwyn said.

At first, she said, it was all four-letter words, “bling and ho’s. But we told them, ‘Nope, been there, done that. What is your story?’ After that, the floodgates open.”

The opportunity to let the truth of their lives flow does yield swaggering titles such as “Survival” and “The Way of the Gun,” but also the tender “In Love With You” and even “We Vote!” The success of Goldwyn’s program in neighborhoods with students notoriously difficult to engage drew the attention of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which began to offer classroom space to Sound Art, hoping that this popular after-school program would bring students to classes on a more regular basis.

The district did not yet, however, offer to fund the program, which is entirely paid for through the efforts of Goldwyn and her working relationship with a nonprofit foundation called New Visions.

Paul Cummins, founder and headmaster of the Crossroads School, founded the New Visions Foundation, located in Santa Monica, with a goal of developing educational opportunities for underserved K-12 youth, using inclusive independent and neighborhood charter schools, special educational partnerships and model educational programs. Sound Art’s unique, self-contained curriculum and budget consciousness fit in well with New Visions’ methods.

“Our budget is about $500,000 a year and we serve about 3,000 kids with that,” Goldwyn said. “We keep it lean.”

New Visions realized that, at a cost of less than $200 a student yearly, the expense is far outweighed by the eventual cost to society of angry, disenfranchised young men who have no goal for their futures.

“We need all the financial help we can get to expand the program,” Goldwyn said, “but we are creating a huge, fertile pool of talent for the music industry right here in their own backyard.”

Aaron Drane of New Visions works with children at Crossroads School in Santa Monica and at Camp David Gonzales.

“We had one kid who went through the Sound Art program, get signed to a record label and another started up his own band,” he said.

Fernando Montez-Rodriguez, one of the facilitators at Camp David Gonzales, echoes this enthusiasm for the program: “The success that comes from producing a working album in these classes gives these kids a 180-degree flip to their self esteem when they transition out from when they arrived.”

Goldwyn would like to see Sound Art reach a generation of young men before they end up in detention facilities.

“Many of them are afraid to think of their future because it’s something they might not ever see. Hope is scary. So we encourage them to take what could be a horrible, misspent life and make a marketable skill out of it.”

As part of its community outreach effort, Sound Art will be participating in the African Marketplace Faire Aug. 26 at the Youth Village Unity Festival in Rancho Cienega Park, offering percussion workshops and introductions to its program. Their first commercial CD, titled “SOUND ART,” was professionally mixed and mastered by Grammy Award-winning engineers and is available at www.soundartla.org. In keeping with Goldwyn’s mantra of “giving back” all the proceeds from its sales are being donated to the American Red Cross for Tsunami relief effort.

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