Saving Music in Los Angeles Schools


This article appears in FLOOD 12: The Los Angeles Edition. You can purchase this special 232-page print edition celebrating the people, places, music and art of LA here.

Julio Sequeira opens a tall cabinet in the music technology classroom at Belmont High School, one of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s historic campuses near downtown LA. Every inch of shelf space is stocked with music-related equipment—headphones, microphones, cables—while computers, iPads, mixers, controllers, and more headphones are scattered across the classroom’s many desks. This wealth of equipment comes from the non-profit organization Save the Music Foundation J Dilla Music Tech Scholarshipof which Sequeira, Belmont’s music teacher, is the first LAUSD recipient.

“Save the Music literally saved the music,” says Sequeira, himself a graduate of Belmont’s legendary music program. “When I got here, basically everything the school had was gone. We looked for instruments. We should have had a hidden camera to capture the students when they first came into this lab. They were shocked, especially that we were going to get ‘nice things’ at Belmont.”

Sequeira is an accomplished guitarist who is on his way to earning his PhD in Music Arts. He got the music bug after seeing The Beatles The night of a hard day when he was in fifth grade. He forged his home address in order to visit Belmont just to join the school’s music program, specifically the jazz band. Sequeira returned to his alma mater in the fall of 2018 to revive the program that had been dormant for years. Save the Music made him a fellow the following year.

“Save the Music’s mission is that every student in every public school in the United States should make music as part of their school day,” says Foundation Executive Director Henry Donahue. “There are approximately five million Black and Hispanic students in inner-city and rural school districts who do not have music as part of their school day. If these districts agree to transfer a teacher like [Sequeira] back to the classroom to teach a class like music engineering during the school day, on loans, then we make an investment.”

In addition to the hardware, the J Dilla Grant – named after the late, pioneering hip-hop producer – includes the Soundtrap and FL Studio digital audio workstations, a complete curriculum developed with the Consortium for Innovation and Transformation in Music Education (CITME) of the Arizona State University ) and hands-on support from local nonprofit Give a Beat. Although Sequeira’s roots are in acoustic instruments, he has embraced the music technology offered by the J Dilla Grant.

“Save the Music literally saved music. When I got here, basically everything the school had was gone. We were looking for instruments.”

— Julio Sequeira, music teacher at Belmont High School

“That’s where music education leads,” says Sequeira. “Everyone is talking about 21st century skills, nothing more 21st century is possible. The music software literally shows the children real, practical applications. Musiktech is open to all of our music students. Every student has the opportunity to come to the music laboratory, work on their material and make something out of it. Some of those kids who never thought they could make their own music or beats are doing it here. It’s cool for students to see that something they learn in school is tangible. They can take it with them when they graduate from high school and say, ‘I know how to do that.'”

Ten minutes away, in the Cypress Park area, at Florence Nightingale Middle School, Dr. Diana McConnell Instrument boxes stacked high. These instruments are just a fraction of those included in Mariachi, one of Save the Music’s Core Grant programs.

McConnell came to Nightingale in the fall of 2011 to specifically bring a mariachi program to the school. It took a few years for a mariachi class to be included in the school syllabus, and even longer for them to collect the instruments specific to mariachi: guitar melodies, vihuelas, guitars, violins and trumpets. In addition to her role as a teacher, McConnell works regularly as a musician with her band Grupo Bella and plays gigs as far away as Mexico. On every trip there, McConnell visited the Mercado acquire vihuelas and guitar melodies for their mariachi students and asked their band members to kindly bring the instruments back to the United States as part of their carry-on luggage.

This year, the Save the Music Mariachi Scholarship provided McConnell and three other middle schools in LAUSD’s Local District East with 50 instruments each, along with supplies including polishing cloths, tuners, music stands and stands. “It’s been difficult to keep the program growing,” says McConnell. “There are many schools where you can’t attend a music program if you don’t have your own instrument. Acquiring these instruments will add a lot to longevity. We can expand and serve more students. The kids are excited and loving these beautiful new shiny instruments.”

The mariachi scholarship also offers method books, teacher training, and a subscription to the music-learning software SmartMusic, which McConnell raves about and calls its myriad technological skills, ranging from performance to recording, invaluable to students’ music education. “We don’t just take instruments to a school and say ‘Good luck,'” says Jaclyn Rudderow, Senior Director, School Programs at Save the Music. “We come as part of the local community’s arts and music education ecosystem: district arts administrators like Dr. Steven J. McCarthy, the LA County Office for Education, the LA County Arts Commission, all the other people who are doing a great job providing music education opportunities to students, strategizing how we can have the greatest impact in LA, and the decision makers from the beginning can invest in. We listen and learn and make sure what we do and what we contribute makes sense for this unique community.”

“We don’t just bring instruments to a school and say, ‘Good luck.’ We listen and learn and make sure our contribution makes sense to this unique community.”

– Jaclyn Rudderow, Save the Music

The focus is on communities where investments can be made in at least 30 to over 100 schools and where the school district can make a 10-year commitment for real change to take place. (LAUSD has received 64 scholarships in its elementary, middle, and high schools to date.) This change does not focus exclusively on traditional music students, but on a cross-section of music-related careers. “Music software is a powerful tool that gives students a very accessible way to learn music and the basics of composition,” says Rudderow, who has focused on GarageBand and Soundtrap for students during the pandemic. “Students are very familiar with the software, and from a music-tech perspective, it’s an amazing entry point to making music for kids who might not have picked up an instrument.”

“We’re attracting the music kids,” Donahue says of the J Dilla Grant, “but also a whole different group of students who weren’t on that traditional music or band track but are into beats or production or audio. We have also made a great effort over the past two years to work more with teachers on career paths. Students tend to be very focused on the achievement path. But they really benefit from seeing someone from their community doing one of the other 99 jobs in music or the music industry that may be more sustainable and lucrative than being an artist.”

Save the Music’s work in schools across the United States totaling over 100 school and community grants over the past year is supported by’s cloud-based customer relationship management system, which Donahue says is the “backbone of our whole organization,” in particular the collection of all data and information by Saleforce in a very user-friendly database.

“We’re attracting the music kids, but also a whole different group of students who haven’t been on that traditional music or band track but are into beats or production or audio.”

— Henry Donahue, Save the Music

“You have to leave conventional thinking behind, leave the familiar behind,” says Sequeira. “It’s an ‘extraordinary collaboration’. When we introduced the music tech component, it was like, “Here’s Belmont again, coming out in full force and trending again. I truly believe this is the next step in music education.

“I keep telling my students that they have no idea how lucky they are to get to Belmont,” he continues. “That it’s a privilege because of all the great things that are coming out of here and this is just another great example. When I was here, my music teacher used to say, ‘This isn’t my program. That is our Program. I just take care of it for the next person.” When I came back, I had the same mentality. If anything, I only take care of it for the next person. It is bigger than any of us.” FL


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