He doesn’t wince when out-of-tune melodies rock the room. He just tries to stop them from reoccurring.

Stephen Tucker, conductor of the UCI Symphony Orchestra, is at Santa Ana High School today directing a much less experienced group: a music class made up of 39 teenagers. And he’s stoic in the face of sour notes. Stoic but insistent.

“Start together and in tune this time, please,” he tells the young musicians. There’s a ripple of nervous laughter. The students are playing a passage from Richard Strauss’ “Allerseelen” (“All Souls’ Day”). It’s not progressing well.

“Are you going to watch me, or are you just going to do your own thing?” he asks. Then he turns slightly, smiling and waving his arm toward a cluster of woodwinds who have managed to stay in tune. “Thank you, people over here. I like you a lot,” he says. Their faces light up.

In actuality, Maestro Tucker likes all of these students a lot. That’s why he initiated a collaboration between UCI and Santa Ana High School six years ago. Tucker, an associate professor of music, teaches conducting, orchestration and analysis at UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts. He has led ensembles all over the world. But he has a special fondness for Santa Ana High School’s musicians.

The program Tucker founded began small, with a UCI concert at the downtown Santa Ana school. “There were 55 of my [UCI] kids there to play and fewer than 10 SAHS students who showed up,” he says. “But the ones who were there were very enthusiastic. So we invited them to UCI to see the campus.”

Their eagerness gave Tucker an idea. He wanted to adopt the school. “When you adopt a child, you have to feed it,” he says. And that’s exactly what UCI’s outreach program has done.

In addition to Tucker’s master classes at the high school, its students are coached by university students, visit UCI to observe symphony rehearsals, tour the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, and talk with UCI students and counselors. Each year climaxes with a combined UCI and SAHS concert at the high school’s Bill Medley Auditorium.

But the end goal of the program has nothing to do with creating more high school French horn players.

“This collaboration has never been about developing musicians,” Tucker explains. “It has always been about developing young people who have been valued and encouraged in a way that they can now see themselves going to college, continuing their education and taking advantage of opportunities. Music is how we are connecting with them, but this is bigger than music.”

Santa Ana High School, established in 1889, is the largest and oldest high school in Orange County – a Title I school with a large percentage of students from low-income families; 98 percent are Hispanic.

During the first UCI concert at the school a few years ago, attending students were asked how many of them wanted to go to college. “No hands went up,” Tucker recalls.

But things began to change, and by the third year of the program, 10 students said they had applied to college – and all had included UCI in their applications.

Among those who have gone on to UCI is Daniel Lopez Perez, a sophomore trumpet player who was accepted into the Department of Music, a prized admission. “It’s so great being here,” he says. “They helped me get the financial aid I needed. People really care, and everything they do is top-notch. Everything about UCI is phenomenal.”

Perez wants to eventually pay it forward: “I would like to have the kind of influence on younger students that Dr. Tucker and the outreach program have had on me.”

Part of the Band

UCI freshman Adam Kormondy rolls out of bed at 5 a.m., lays out the clothes he plans to wear, then jumps back
under the covers for a few more minutes of sleep. By 7 a.m., he’s at Santa Ana High School, ready to coach a novice jazz pianist. Such work is an integral part of the outreach program.

Today Kormondy is tutoring Daniel Cardena, a high school junior. Soon they’re seated at a well-used upright piano in a small, cluttered practice room, discussing a tricky passage in the jazz version of Michael Jackson’s pop hit “Billie Jean.”

“Let’s say you’re trying to work on this part and it doesn’t sound good by itself,” Kormondy says. “In a big jazz band, piano never sounds good by itself; that’s normal.”

He continues: “There might be five saxophones and four trombones, and you’re just a part of that rhythm section.”

Daniel nods.

“You might feel a little sad inside because you’re in the rhythm section,” Kormondy says reassuringly. “But you just have to relax and not worry about it – it’s about supporting the rest of the band.”

Kormondy, though only a year or two older than the students he tutors, is vastly more accomplished. He began playing piano when he was 6, had eight years of lessons and went on to specialize in jazz.

Few students in the Santa Ana Unified School District own instruments, take private lessons or even are able to take instruments home from school, teachers say. This makes it particularly difficult for them to develop a compelling interest in music.

But Kormondy loves working with them. That’s why he wakes up so early to give them pointers. “If you like music, one of the best things you can do is get someone else interested,” he says.

“There are a lot of skills you get from music that are applicable to other fields like science and reading. I tell [students], whether or not they major in music, to not sell themselves short. If they want to go to college, they can.”

‘A Bigger World Out There’

Santa Ana High School orchestra teachers Joseph Kaye and Victor de los Santos were excited about the UCI partnership from the beginning.

“We had a vision when this started,” de los Santos says, “but we didn’t know how it would work out. It’s turned out to be so much better than we ever thought possible.”

Resources at the school are limited, they say, and some of their students come from families in distress. They mention teens who live in one-bedroom apartments with two or three families and others with similarly chaotic home lives.

Kaye and de los Santos believe that if their students have the opportunity to observe excellent musicians, hear well-played music and see what conductors expect at that next level, they’ll be motivated to  improve.

“Our kids aren’t used to having people do nice things for them,” de los Santos says. “With this program, they’re learning that there’s a bigger world out there. They’re learning that college – whether it’s UCI or somewhere else – is achievable.”

The original program has expanded in several ways.

The Claire Trevor School of the Arts has broadened its support beyond instrumental music. High school art, dance and drama
students are now interacting with UCI professors, undergrads and graduate students.

Another development occurred last summer when a weeklong class linked high school musicians from Santa Ana with a group in Manizales, Colombia.  The Telematic Bridges music course used cutting-edge audio software and high-bandwidth
internet to unite the students and allow them to collaborate and play music together even though they were on two continents.

Michael Dessen, UCI associate professor and Robert & Marjorie Rawlins Chair in Music, led the class; among his Colombian counterparts was Juan David Rubio, a 2017 M.F.A. graduate of the UCI music department. The course enabled students to interact across cultural borders and explore new perspectives on music making and technology. Topics included digital audio collages and soundscapes, telematic performance, improvisation and conducting.

“We don’t know what will catalyze a young person to achieve, so we try to provide as many access points as possible,” says Megan Belmonte, a main driver of the program and director of outreach for the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. “If we reach them through music, or through a tour of the art school, or through anecdotes from UCI students, and they are then driven to succeed – whether in their education, in the arts or in life – then we have succeeded.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Three French horns are warbling discordantly. Someone suggests that it sounds a bit like elephants dying on the savannah.

But Jasmine Koo, one of five UCI outreach coaches, stays calm and perseveres.

“It’s a rocky start,” she tells the trio of beginning horn students she’s working with today. “Let’s try that one again individually. Play each note one by one.”

The novices, two girls and a boy, are in a high-ceilinged practice room at SAHS. They giggle a bit about the jarring noises they’re producing. But they play the passage again and again, with encouragement from Koo, whose credits include being principal horn with the UCI Symphony Orchestra.

“At measure 8, be sure your eyes move fast enough,” she instructs one student. “They got behind on that
last note.”

“Use a lot of air,” Koo tells the group. “Half the problems we’re working on would be solved if you’d use more air.”

Then she advises: “Use the tip of your tongue, not the back of your tongue.”

After several minutes of practice, Koo sighs audibly and claps. “Everyone got it,” she says. “OK, now we’re going to do it in rhythm.” She claps again when they’re done: “That was great!”

Koo, a UCI junior, hails from Diamond Bar and visits Santa Ana High School weekly to work with students. She admits it can be trying at times but says, “I really enjoy teaching. Seeing improvement is the best.”

Not Taking Things for Granted

Last year, the Santa Ana Unified School District launched SanArts – a next-generation visual and performing arts conservatory – at the high school. Dan Abrams ’15, M.F.A. ’17, scored a teaching job at SanArts in January, bringing him back to the school where he had coached students for more than three years.

“While I was at UCI, Dr. Tucker encouraged me to work with the SAHS outreach program,” Abrams says. He taught bassoon and other instruments. The experience taught him a few lessons in return.

“You take things for granted,” he says. “Where I grew up, everyone had music lessons when they were young. The students at SAHS don’t have that advantage. But they were so enthusiastic.”

Abrams, who had spent some time in the finance industry, decided he had found his calling “working with individuals who didn’t have the access to music that they should.” Now, as a teacher, he strongly encourages students to be involved in the SAHS music program, even though it’s an elective.

“There are a lot of skills you get from music that are applicable to other fields like science and reading,” Abrams says. “I tell them, whether or not they major in music, to not sell themselves short. If they want to go to college, they can.”

Four of his novice bassoon players – all coached by Abrams when he was a UCI student – wanted to continue their education. He helped them with their applications and took them to auditions. The result? “They all pushed hard and got into college,” Abrams says. “I’m so proud of them.”

Originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of UCI Magazine.