Thu, Aug

The Day the Music Died … and What to Do About It

EDUCATION - Virgil Middle School (152 N. Vermont) has had a nationally renowned music program since the mid-1940's, and has been known particularly for its orchestra (The Virgil Little Symphony), which was famous not only for its quality,

but for its early racial integration in the 40's and 50's when arts programs were generally lily white.  (Link) Thus, it was particularly crushing when Principal James Kodani announced last Thursday morning, one day before the end of the school year, that music education would no longer be a part of Virgil's curriculum.

That afternoon I visited the school to ask Mr. Kodani to reconsider his decision, and that if he was really set on terminating the program, to tell me what he intended to do with the substantial inventory of musical instruments, sheet music, and paraphernalia collected over the last seven decades.  

Unfortunately, Mr. Kodani was unavailable, so I returned home and wrote him an email, asking him those questions.  I explained that I intended to write an article for CityWatch, and asked if he wished to write a companion piece.  He has not replied.  

Next morning, concerned that the instruments (worth something in the neighborhood of $300,000) might begin to grow legs, I went to the school again.  As I arrived, I discovered fans and alumni of the orchestra--kids, young adults and a few over 50's--protesting outside, announcing to passing traffic that Virgil was losing its music.  

I spoke with the leader of the protest (an LAUSD substitute teacher), who informed me that Principal Kodani would not speak with her, so I suggested that we go in together, which we did.  He was too busy to grant us the 5 minutes we requested, so we went next door into the office suite shared by Assistant Principals Goade and Gurr.

Mr. Gurr was not in.  Ms. Goade told us that she was leaving her post that day to become principal at another school and hoped that we could appreciate that she did not want to get involved in the future issues of Virgil.  She indicated that she did not completely understand Principal Kodani's very late decision and that earlier in the morning, at the request of the now-terminated music teacher, she had received a “tacit commitment” (whatever that is) from Principal Kodani to secure the instruments.  

It seemed clear that she had opinions and equally clear that she was not going to share them.

So, what's the issue?  Why should be we concerned?

First, as a people who believe in public education, we should all be troubled that the music and arts programs in the schools are being cut hugely (something like 40%) and that no one at LAUSD has proposed any alternatives.  No alternatives?  Why not?  

Second, we should be saddened and perhaps angry because Virgil's music program is the pride of its alumni and its community; and proud communities make for good students.  

So far as I know, no one has even tried to raise money to continue this widely recognized and obviously well-run program.  

Third, it bothers me that I have seen nothing in the Times nor heard anything on the radio about the disposition of instruments, but I have heard scuttlebutt from music educators about musical instruments and equipment being dumpstered, and we certainly do not want that to happen.   

Let me state what should be obvious: instrumental music education doesn't work without instruments.  

Also, just as a matter of practical finances, there are many millions of dollars worth of instruments in the Los Angeles City Schools, mostly uninventoried, which will not be used next year.  At an absolute minimum the individual schools should know what instruments they own, how they plan to utilize them, or how they plan to store them securely for some future date.

Yes, we do have a financial problem.  There is no question of that, but we are not helpless, so let's stop acting helpless.  

Here's a related family story: In the early 60's, when Cold War fears about losing the race with the Soviets to get to the moon impelled the Kennedy administration to demand additional math and physics classes for public schools across the country, something had to give, and what gave were the arts and music programs, which took massive cuts.   

At that time my father was a supervisor of music in LAUSD, and I can still picture him just beside himself with frustration.  But he recognized that LAUSD still had instruments and it had teachers dedicated to music education, and that there was some publicly owned space which just maybe he could negotiate to use on weekends.  

Dad quit his job, wheedled and cajoled a few dozen of the music teachers who used to work under him to load their cars and station wagons with school instruments every Friday night and schlep them to the music building at Cal State LA Saturday morning so that music students displaced by the “improved” educational system could continue to learn to read music, to play an instrument, and to compete to be in an orchestra.  

From servicing 50 or 60 kids the first few years, the average attendance has been somewhere around 350 for the past decade.  More important, other childrens  orchestras have copied (and sometimes improved upon) the model and at least one of these offshoots holds classes in a Los Angeles City school every Saturday.

So, what do we do?  First we insist that there be some kind of plan, whether it is a system-wide policy or the choice of local principals.

What's the plan, Mr. Kodani?  What's the plan, LAUSD?  What's the plan, Board of Education?  Shall we do something more than just running in place and lighting our hair on fire?  Will you work with some of the numerous private orchestras and private arts schools to find a way to continue the music education of our children?  

Will you accept help, or will you continue to watch the indignity of a decaying Los Angeles?  Let's get a plan.

I am tired of these educational catastrophes.  How about you?  Want to do something?  Let's try this:

  • If you are concerned with the loss of music education generally, or at Virgil Middle School specifically, email this article to your friends.
  • If you are concerned about the waste of millions of dollars worth of musical instruments and equipment (there's at least $300,000 worth at Virgil—that's just one school), email this article to your friends.
  • Call your child's or grandchild's school and ask if there will be any change to the music program next year.  Join the PTA and make it clear throughout the semester that music education is necessary education.

Use the list of email addresses and phone numbers below to ask the following questions:

  • How it is that the flagship music program of LAUSD could be shut down with only one day's notice?
  • (For the schools who have terminated their music programs) where will the instruments be stored and do you have a complete inventory?
  • Will every school commit to inventorying the instruments and promise that none will be destroyed or discarded?
  • Will every school now without a music program sell, donate, or at least lend its instruments to outside educational institutions, whether private or public, so that music education in Los Angeles can continue?

Anything else you think is germane, but do contact them.  It's our city.  It's your kids.


● General Number for Virgil Middle School—213.368.2800
● Principal James Kodani—213.368.2800 X 2812   ([email protected])
● John Deasy (Superintendent of Schools) 213-241-7000  ([email protected])
● Monica Garcia (President, Board of Education) 213.241-6180  ([email protected])
● Dale Vigil (Dist. 4 Superintendent) 213.244-0100  ([email protected])

Let's do it.  Let's all do it.  Let's get our neighbors to do it.  Let's make sure the people listed above, these people who are charged with doing the best thing for the children of Los Angeles, are doing it.

(Jeff Bruce is a community activist in Los Angeles. He can be reached at: [email protected])

Vol 9 Issue 51
Pub: June 28, 2011