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Learning Mozart, DIY

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 25, 2009 - Alex Wiegand, a 17-year-old from Metro High School, picked up the bass last year. "Everyone plays guitar, and I was like, 'You know what? I'm going to be different,'" he remembers.

Courtland Day, who attends Normandy High School, started two years earlier. His first two teachers "didn't know how to teach," the 15-year-old says. "They gave me stuff to work on, and I pretty much learned it on my own."

For eight weeks this summer, the high school students are learning to play together. They form two-thirds of the bass section of a chamber orchestra, part of a free music program run by the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center.

Better known as a mainstay in St. Louis' experimental music scene, the Lemp launched the program to boost area high school musicians whose financial backgrounds have prevented them from reaching their fullest potential. The arts center's volunteers are instructing their students in a semester's worth of college-level material, including music theory, musicianship and music history.

Self-reliance, Slightly out of Key

Experimental musicians are not renowned for being welcoming, and their venues do not often step beyond a hole-in-the-wall, concrete-coffin atmosphere. But the Lemp tempers that austerity with a well-worn collection of pianos, sound equipment, old posters and band stickers, and couches.

"Pull the couches in, make it comfortable, like you're in somebody's living room," explains Mark Sarich.

Founder and director of the center, Sarich has spent nearly 20 years making his space comfortable. In his family since 1930, the building once served as a drugstore. After the last tenant left in 1990, Sarich began to rehab.

"I'd never done carpentry, none of it," he recalls. "You learn how to do a lot of stuff." After finishing the renovation, he thanked a neighbor for his help and described his disbelief that he had been capable of fixing up a building. "And [the neighbor] laughed and said, 'Son, necessity makes experts out of all of us'."

Sarich has placed this Do-It-Yourself (DIY) lesson at the arts center's heart. When it opened in 1995, he realized, "What was missing was a place where music that falls outside of the mainstream" could be performed, so he created that place himself. Over the past six years, the Riverfront Times has showered the Lemp with a host of awards including, most recently, Best All-Ages Venue in 2007.

While Sarich's decision to ban alcohol in 2001 drove away some scenes, he believes it has allowed the Lemp to occupy a unique niche as an educational venue. "A very young kid can walk into a show here and just have his head blown open by something he would never have heard otherwise," he explains. Drawn together by such shared experiences, a community of teens and 20-somethings has grown up around the arts center.

Getting Classical

One member of this community is Max Woods, a rising junior at Washington University. "My brother had been coming down here for five years, six years, and he told me I should be here," he explains. Last January, Woods learned that his university would be offering students grants for social change projects over the summer.

When Woods approached Sarich about doing a program at the arts center, Sarich reflected on the need for an alternative to available music education. He had come to realize that students from poorer financial backgrounds lack access to the training and coaching necessary to break into the world of classical music performance.

"Increasingly, you go to a community college because you want to learn to mix beatboxing," he observes.

Sarich, Woods and Jesse Windels, another member of the board, pooled their musical knowledge and experience to draft the program.

Each weekday runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., supplemented by a half-day on Saturday. Mornings consist of theory and history; afternoons alternate between individual practice and chamber orchestra rehearsal.

"For a lot of kids, they're never going to get something like this," Woods says.

While the Kaldi's Social Change grant from Washington University launched the program, it covered only a small portion of the total cost, which Windels estimates is somewhere between $25,000 and $35,000. Since all students have received full scholarships, these costs must be offset in other ways.

Woods concedes that the recession has made finding funding more difficult, but he has also found donors to be receptive to their project. "You call up and they go, 'We can't donate. We really want to, but it's the economic times.' You tell them about the program, you come talk to them, they seem enthusiastic, and they go, 'Call us on Monday; we'll try to figure something out'."

Windels sees the money reaching beyond the door of the arts center. "It's kind of also a two-way investment. Because while you're investing in the kids, the kids are also an investment in the institution that they attend." Music programs like the one at Carnahan High School, which was started only two years ago, will benefit from the advancements their students will make over the summer.

Of course, this experience will not come easily. "These kids are going to be challenged," predicts Woods.

Orchestrating DIY

A few weeks into the program, the students claim they want to tackle that challenge.

"They said they were going to give us private teaching and they were going to help us out with theory and stuff like that. And I need a lot of work on theory," says Matthew Clark, a 17-year-old violinist and percussionist from Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.

Windels highlights the students' enthusiasm as the factor that drove him to participate. "I'm very eager to work with kids that have that kind of a dedication, that know that their parents can't afford to send them to school, that they have to get a full-ride scholarship."

The work has already begun to yield results. "I started off with [singing] gospel, and then I went to jazz," says Trevon Griffith, a 15-year-old pianist from Central, describing his musical background. But "I learned that everything really came from classical, and it just branched off into different things."

The students also rave about the program's environment and attitude. "When we're learning our music theory, we have a circle of couches that we sit in," Wiegand explains. "And it's not like the teacher's the focus; he'll come and sit on one of the random couches with us."

Courtland Day agrees. "It'll be good for me, because I'm hearing this from another student; therefore it's like, 'OK, I'm gonna go ahead and learn about that.'"

Sarich and his aides have tried to emphasize the idea of the students teaching one another. To pass each section of the class, every student must score at least a 90 percent on a test. "Basically the classes stop until everyone passes the test," says Wiegand. "If you did really well on this test, you go over and explain to someone who didn't do quite so well, so that the whole class can move on."

Windels credits the group's initiative at least partly to the arts center's DIY philosophy. "You just automatically assume that you don't have to know how to do things. You just have to really want to do them. And then you have to work really hard to learn how to do them.

"And it's nice, because you do things that you didn't know you could do."

Joe Milner, who will be a junior at Brown University in the fall, is an intern with the St. Louis Beacon.