Making music once again at St. Anthony HS
A determined effort has enabled students to discover how music ‘brings color, feeling and sense to life.’
A trumpet, a saxophone, drums and an inclusive music program can be life changers.
At least they have been for Long Beach’s St. Anthony High School 17-year-old juniors Jordan Sosa and Aldrin Lupisane Jr. Both have developed their music skills after joining The Saints band/jazz ensemble since they enrolled at the school. But that’s just an added-value.
Playing instruments has been their safe haven; has helped them endure appalling hardships and put them on the path to success, once threatened by a horizon covered with the “at-risk kid” label.
Both students wanted to play musical instruments way before getting to high school. But although they got involved in music programs at elementary or middle school level, at some point their dream was threatened by their families’ limited finances.
The music program at the schools they attended was not free, until they got to St. Anthony, where the program had resurged after being buried for a few years, thanks to the tenacity of alumna (class of 1967) Gina Rushing Maguire, the institution’s president.
This year the 11-member jazz ensemble has been exposed for the first time to a broader public rather than the school’s community. Their first public gig was during the March 18 Lakewood’s St. Maria Goretti Parish Carnival. A day later they performed at the opening of Catholic Charities’ Elizabeth Ann Seton Residence in Long Beach, where Archbishop José Gomez asked them to play an encore.
In the 1970s, when St. Anthony returned to being co-educational, it still boasted about its music program. Enrollment was still high, but never like in its peak in the 1960s when it surpassed 1,700 students.
The school founders, the Inmaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, had already left, but the music program continued to win numerous recognitions and championships in different categories. Trophies adorning one of the walls of the basement classroom where the ensemble rehearses attest to the successful program that drew many families from Long Beach and surrounding communities.
Recovering a treasure
In the mid-1990s, when the school was in danger of closing its doors due to a limited budget, “music and arts were the first programs to go,” according to Rushing Maguire, echoing the sad refrain of many public schools over the past 30 years.
Fighting back tears, she recalled when in 2001 she was called by board members to revamp the school’s image in an effort to keep its doors open and realized that the burgeoning music program she remembered was now gone. Throughout the years she had gained expertise in marketing and publicity, specializing on restoring companies on the verge of extinction or of declaring bankruptcy.
Her disappointment grew when discovering that most of the instruments that were supposed to be in a room used as a warehouse were gone, except for the drums, “which were difficult to hide due to their size.”
For more than 10 years (1995-2007) the school lacked a marching band, which in its heyday had been an important and colorful feature of Long Beach’s educational community.
When bringing the issue to the board’s attention, board member Frank Colonna, then Long Beach vice-mayor, led the effort to engage the community in re-opening the program.
Long Beach’s Press Telegram columnist Tom Henesy wrote a series of articles, which drew donors. Instruments and cash were donated by individuals. And in 2006 Jesuit-operated Mater Dei High School (Santa Ana) donated nearly 20 used instruments, which completed the band.
After winning a grant for the program, a teacher was hired in 2007 and the music program was re-established.
“The image I saw was a blank canvas,” Mike Lloyd told The Tidings regarding the responsibilities he assumed when hired. His ability to build something was challenged.
Initially, 10 students joined band class the first school year (2007-2008). In 2009-2010 music appreciation was added to the music department and incorporated to the honors freshman curriculum.
In recent years, the 31-year-old Lloyd (a graduate from Cal State Dominguez’ music education program as well as Loyola Marymount's CAST Masters of Education program) and the students have employed several fundraisers, including selling Christmas trees and the first annual "Sunset Serenade" spring concert, which have generated $7,500 (over the past 2 years) for purchasing instruments. The second annual "Sunset Serenade" spring concert was held April 28 and the jazz ensemble will also perform at the school’s June 18 annual golf tournament.
The band and drum line perform mainly during St. Anthony’s sports events. “They are the school ambassadors,” Lloyd declared.
His goal, he said, is to help them develop as professional musicians, instilling values such as discipline and responsibility that would in turn develop their character. “They gain maturity,” Lloyd said.
The musicians practice one hour every day before school, which adds a great atmosphere to the environment, according to Rushing Maguire.
“It’s nice to get here in the morning and hear music coming from the basement,” she said.
‘Every year is getting better’
And for Sosa and Lupisane, music provides relief.
“My music experience is great and every year is getting better and better,” Sosa told The Tidings.
“It’s way different than playing sports,” said the student, who has played in the school’s football, baseball and soccer teams and is now part of track and cross-country. “In sports you know what to expect, a team to win. But with music, at the same time that you’re enjoying what you’re doing you are giving something to the public, something to make them feel good, and something that surprises them and in turn surprises you.
“It’s like getting our voice to impact others in a strong way,” said Sosa, who for some years in his early childhood was a foster child together with four of his five younger siblings, moving from family to family or living at times with his father (for a few years in Chicago) or with his mother.
Although there is certain stability in his life, his parents cannot afford paying private school tuition, but a generous St. Anthony supporter has committed to pay the tuition for him and the rest of his siblings (his 14-year-old brother Alex is a freshman). Despite the tough times, his overall GPA is a solid 3.8.
He says that when attending public elementary schools for a time he was approached by other students to offer him drugs or to join gangs. But then his mother, a devout Catholic, managed to enroll him at St. Anthony School, next door to the high school.
“This is a blessing from God,” he reflected.
Lupisane feels the same way. He migrated from the Philippines with his mother and his younger brother Allen when he was six years old (his parents were then separated and later divorced; he has a half younger brother from his father’s side).
His expression changes when he talks about how hard it has been to accept his parents’ separation --- and how music and the school environment have been a refuge.
When he enrolled at St. Anthony after attending public schools, he was very introverted, he said, and another student advised him to join the President’s Ambassadors, a program started by Rushing Maguire with the goal of developing their members’ leadership skills. Requirement includes a high GPA (Lupisane’s is 4.4) and to be available to represent the school in any public or school event (Sosa is also a member). Since then Lupisane has become more outgoing.
Both students practice at home for an hour daily, both plan to attend college, and Lupisane would like to pursue a minor in music.
“If life didn’t have music, everything would be bland,” Lupisane said. “Music brings color, feeling and sense to life. It makes you see the world in a different perspective.”
To which Lloyd adds, “I just want to get them exposed to things they have never experienced; to help them find balance in life through music, through entertaining others; and to take risks, a leap of faith.”
St. Anthony is accepting instrument donations. For more information call (562) 435-4496. To learn more about the school visit www.longbeachsaints.org.