MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Watts Willowbrook Conservatory brings music to youth


By Dorany Pineda

Conributing Writer

When Billy Mitchell realized that many South Los Angeles schools didn’t have art or music programs, he decided to change that.

So when the Boys and Girls Club in Watts invited him to start his own program in the community, he jumped on the opportunity to do so.

“I started the [Watts Willowbrook] Conservatory because for many years I was a judge for lots of music and arts programs and I wasn’t seeing any Hispanic and African-American youngsters show up,” Mitchell said. “ When they did show up, I didn’t think there were operating in full capacity.”

The music conservatory was an organic growth of the Scholarship Audition Performance Preparatory Academy (SAPPA), a program Mitchell founded in 2002 that provides training for youth interested in competing for music and arts scholarships.

The academy works with after-school programs and parks where music lessons are given to youth between the ages of 7 and 18 from low-income, high-risk communities.

Knowing full well the economic disadvantages of the community he was in, Mitchell wanted to ensure that families wouldn’t have to worry about purchasing expensive instruments. So instead of buying them, students can borrow the instruments and, if they choose to purchase one, can do so for a nominal fee.

Eventually, in 2010, thanks to a partnership with SAPPA, the conservatory also began offering youth free, after-school music lessons twice a week that included instruction in violin, cello, bass and other string instruments.

Offering classes throughout South L.A., the satellite program is designed to build the foundation of kids that will be part of the Watts-Willowbrook Youth Symphony. But the overall goal is to do something much deeper than that.

By introducing and bringing music into South L.A. communities, Mitchell believes he is opening opportunities for them.

“Our music programs raise the level of arts awareness and participation,” he said. “When you see symphonies, you notice there are very few Hispanic and African-American kids. It’s not because they’re not talented enough or don’t have the ability to play music, it’s because they haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to it.”

Once exposed to it and given lessons, students then perform what they’ve learned for friends and family. Twice a year, the youth symphony performs recitals to show off their musical skills and growth.

The first is the mid-year recital in June, and the second is the Christmas Holiday Recital in December. These recitals often feature special guest performances from renowned and Grammy-winning musicians like pianist Billy Childs, jazz vocalist Barbara Morrison and more.

As a jazz musician, Mitchell knows first hand the advantages of having music in his life.

For one, it helps children build character, self-esteem and teaches them discipline and focus. And classical music training is particularly good for that, Mitchell said.

“My mission [with teaching classical music] is to give as many of our kids a strong foundation so they can compete. At that point, it’s not about the community anymore, it’s about the world stage,” he said.

And getting Hispanic and African-American youth from South L.A. on to the world stage is the main goal, Mitchell said. He wants to expose youth to music and the arts so they can show the world what they’re capable of.

INFORMATION BOX

Executive Director: Billy Mitchell

Years in operation: 16

Number of employees: 8

Annual budget: $150,000

Location: 1081 N. Fair Oaks Ave, Pasadena, 91103