It’s no secret that when it comes to under-resourced communities in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods, arts and music education is usually lacking. But the program director of the Watts-Willowbrook Conservatory & Youth Symphony, Billy Mitchell, says it’s not because the programs don’t exist.
“The problem with under resourced areas is that they very seldom get information on all the opportunities that are out there,” says Mitchell. “There are college scholarships and grants and all kinds of things available.”
One of those programs you should know about in the South Central L.A., Watts and Compton area, is the Watts-Willowbrook Conservatory, or WWC, which is now preparing for its tenth year of providing free music classes to youth, ages 6-18.
WWC was established in early 2010 at the Watts-Willowbrook Boys & Girls Club in partnership with the Scholarship Performance Preparatory Academy, also known as SAPPA. The program offers high quality music education and exposure into the world of arts which builds self-esteem, discipline and creativity amongst its youth participants.
“We stress learning music correctly at a very early age so you can create any music you want not only creatively, but effectively,” says Mitchell, a self-taught pianist who has had an affinity for music since childhood. Growing up with that natural inclination for music meant that Mitchell says he, like many students, struggled with the technical aspect of practicing and taking lessons.
“I totally get it, I understand why young people are resistant [of music lessons] and why this is kind of difficult. I did the same thing. But later, as I got back into music, I found myself in a professional setting, and I wasn’t prepared.”
Mitchell went back to school to get professionally trained which he says was much more difficult as an adult. Now, Mitchell has instilled this lesson he learned in his outreach to youth.“It’s so important to learn music as a child. So, I brought that message to young people because once you got it as a child…you got it,” says Mitchell.
“I have been judging music competitions for years and I am always disappointed that a lot of my inner-city students, who I know are qualified and talented, are not showing up. And when they do show up, they are not operating at the level that I would expect them to, and the level that I know they can operate at, because they’ve never had the exposure to these kinds of programs.”
The students of WWC are being prepared to reverse these types of disparities in music. Participants attend one hour classes after school, twice a week. They learn to read music and play symphonic string instruments — violin, viola, cello and bass. These satellite programs are designed to be the network that forms the core of the Watts-Willowbrook Youth Symphony, made up of young people from the South Central L.A. and the Watts/Compton communities. Classes are offered at three locations in the Watts/Compton area, including the WLCAC campus on Central Avenue. Classes are completely free with the exception of a $10 registration fee.
The WWC program is free through the sponsorship and support of The Herb Alpert Foundation, The Ayrshire Foundation, California Community Foundation, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, Southern California Edison, The Colburn Foundation, The California Arts Council and the Jerry & Terri Kohl Foundation. Still, Mitchell says as with most inner-city music programs, funding remains a continuous need for WWC.
“We’ve been very fortunate from corporate funding, but we haven’t been so fortunate with community funding which has been an issue with me,” says Mitchell. He doesn’t know why exactly that is, but he says its troubling to see so much funding and attention from celebrities and public figures, being invested elsewhere, while the communities they came from are still struggling.
Regardless, the goal of the program remains focused on enriching the youth of South L.A., Watts and Compton with music.
“My goal is to make sure our kids learn music correctly so that they can have control of their careers and control of their lives. I don’t want my hip-hop artists to go into a studio and the engineer has to tell them that there are three beats there, or four beats there,” says Mitchell.
“In any genre we represent, I want us to know all the technical aspects of it so we can control it.”
WWC’s Fall 2019 session begins September 10. Registration and orientation will take place Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 5PM in the City of Los Angeles “Old Library Building”’ at 1501 E 103rdSt., Los Angeles, CA 90002. Applications are available online at www.sappa.net and you can learn more about WWC at wattswillowbrookconservatory.com.