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UT News

Expanding Austin’s Soundwaves

Law School students in the Community Development Clinic help bring music education to underserved Austin neighborhoods.

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Middle-school students receive 10 hours of free orchestral instruction weekly. Photo: Nathan Bernier/KUT News

In the spring of 2011, a group of Austinites led by philanthropist Teresa Lozano Long approached The University of Texas School of Law for help forming a new music education nonprofit. Long and her husband Joe, a 1956 Law School graduate, had famously helped underwrite the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, which opened in 2008. Now, she hoped to broaden the complexion of the audiences that her namesake institution attracted and expand access to the performing arts for underserved communities.

“What we were looking to do was to find a way to engage the community, and not the community that already attends the ballet or the symphony,” said Teresa Villaseñor-Harris, an Austin attorney and one of Long’s collaborators on the project. “I don’t know if you’ve been to the symphony lately, but if you sit there and look out at the audience, they seem to be 50-plus years old. We’re looking to build new audiences among the population that is becoming the majority in Austin demographics show that young Hispanics will be the majority in just a couple of years and help bring young people from that community into the world of the performing arts, a world they don’t always have as much access to as more privileged communities do.”

The recent era of public education budget cuts and test-oriented curricula has not been kind to arts education programs. The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) estimated in 2007 that student access to music education had dropped 20 percent because of the No Child Left Behind Act. This decline is felt most acutely in lower-income neighborhood schools, where students may have the most to gain from music education. Schools with music education programs have a graduation rate 17 percent higher than those without such programs, according to a 2006 NAfME study.

Villaseñor-Harris, who had worked with the Law School’s Community Development Clinic previously on a different project, suggested to her collaborators that they approach Clinic Director Heather Way, a 1996 graduate, for help. Within a semester, the new group the Hispanic Alliance for the Performing Arts (HAPA) had begun the processes of incorporating, drafting bylaws, electing a board of directors and applying for 501(c)3 tax-exempt status from the IRS.

“We were there basically from day one of the organization,” said Bill Podurgiel, a 2011 graduate who volunteered with HAPA as a law student in the Clinic and is now a corporate associate at Cravath, Swaine and Moore LLP in New York. “They had ideas in mind of what they wanted to achieve. We assisted them in putting in place the legal structure to achieve those goals. As their goals evolved, we were there to counsel them on what direction they might want to go in.”

As HAPA prepared to offer programming, the organization’s legal needs expanded. Its first program, Austin Soundwaves, is modeled on the world-famous El Sistema pedagogy of Venezuelan economist and musician José Antonio Abreu. El Sistema develops community orchestras for children from early grade school onward. In Venezuela, the pedagogy follows a national curriculum and can require more than 20 hours a week of training and rehearsal. It has produced such classical music stars as Gustavo Dudamel, the young and charismatic conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. El Sistema has recently taken the United States by storm, with growing programs in most major cities, usually in lower-income areas.

HAPA had the opportunity to hire a program leader who had trained specifically in El Sistema methodology as an Abreu fellow at the New England Conservatory of Music. The group also brought in graduate students from The University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Music to teach instrument lessons. Hiring the staff brought new legal challenges for fall 2011 Community Development Clinic volunteers. Law students worked with HAPA on an employee handbook to address basic employment law issues.

Less than a year after Villaseñor-Harris first approached the Community Development Clinic, UT Law students were able to attend the program launch.

“They got into the schools earlier than they’d thought,” said Allyson Boney, class of 2012, who worked with HAPA at the Clinic that semester. “They’d been hoping to get in by the spring, but in fall 2011 they had a launch at the charter school. They showed a video about El Sistema. It was really neat to see the people get up and talk about the work that they were going to do. It was like, ‘OK, this is why we’ve spent all this time preparing legal advice for the nonprofit.'”

Austin Soundwaves Students

Middle-school students receive 10 hours of free orchestral instruction weekly. Photo: Nathan Bernier/KUT News

The Austin Soundwaves program launched at East Austin College Prep, a charter school in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood. Instruments are loaned to students at no charge, and instruction and practices are held five days a week. The program currently serves 62 students, with plans to expand.

By spring 2012, law student volunteers in the Community Development Clinic were no longer working with a startup; they were troubleshooting the day-to-day legal problems of a fully functioning music education nonprofit.

Teresa Long says she is excited by the pace at which HAPA has developed, thanks in part to the Law School’s contributions.

“It’s refreshing to see the successes we are already having,” she said. “We hope to continue to grow this program and ultimately be a key player in helping keep the arts alive in Austin well into the future. We could not have launched this program without the partnership and support of the University of Texas, including the support of the Law School. We are so appreciative of and grateful to UT.”

UT Law students, for their part, are grateful for the educational opportunity. More than one has expressed a desire to work with organizations such as HAPA in their law careers.

“Getting to work with an organization that has such a clear mission and has accomplished so much in such a short amount of time inspired me to continue working with nonprofits that are really well-organized and ambitious,” said Joseph Delgado, class of 2012, who grew up in Austin and was excited to give back to his community by volunteering with HAPA during the spring.

“Heather [Way] and the other clinic instructors have done an amazing job providing students with the tools necessary to succeed by teaching a broad but practical business law and general law practice curriculum,” said Podurgiel. “And they follow this with an excellent balance between mentoring and giving students lots of responsibility and the opportunity to apply those tools through substantive hands-on work with an interesting array of clients.”

The biggest winners are the children of East Austin, who have a new opportunity to engage with great music and to be part of something larger than themselves. During the spring, they played concerts around the city, including at the Long Center. Way and Delgado attended, among other Law School representatives.

HAPA has been documenting its progress, posting videos to YouTube of its young orchestra from the very earliest stages, including at five weeks and nine weeks.

“To play those two, and then to play the concert we had last week at Bates Concert Hall, and watch those together, you say to yourself, ‘You know, we’ve really done something here,’ ” said Villaseñor-Harris.

“You can tell that they’re playing ‘Ode to Joy,’ ” she said. “To go from ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ to ‘Ode to Joy’ I sat there and got goose bumps to hear them make that transformation. And the smiles on their faces and the faces of their parents my God. They filled the Bates Concert Hall.”

Banner image courtesy of Southwest Keys Program.