In LA, Clearing A Backlog Of Aging Instruments : NPR Ed The district has made progress, but many students are stuck with broken strings, squeaky horns and out-of-tune pianos.

In LA, Clearing A Backlog Of Aging Instruments

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, a view inside one of the largest school systems in the country. Out-of-tune pianos, broken strings and worn-out horns - the Los Angeles Unified School District has hundreds of music programs - jazz and marching bands, orchestras, choirs - but for a couple of years, teachers and student musicians have struggled with a backlog of aging instruments. Mary Plummer of member station KPCC reports.

MARY PLUMMER, BYLINE: Hamilton High is one of Los Angeles Unified's top art schools. Here's what the jazz class sounds like, just when they're practicing.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMILTON HIGH SCHOOL JAZZ CLUB PRACTICE)

PLUMMER: The school's music academy is so popular that every year there's a wait list of about 400 students.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMILTON HIGH SCHOOL JAZZ CLUB PRACTICE)

PLUMMER: But inside a closet in one of the music rooms, senior Melissa Valenzuela shows us the problem.

MELISSA VALENZUELA: Well, there's no bow. This is a broken violin, actually. All the strings are detached. The bridge is broken.

PLUMMER: The closet holds an assortment of broken string instruments - mariachi guitars with deep cracks in their sides, violin bows without any hair. Teachers say this school is just one example. Leaky saxophones, dented trombone slides and violins without tuners have become routine.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN SAXOPHONE MUSIC)

PLUMMER: Fifteen minutes west is Venice High School. Senior Alexis Hernandez is one of the students struggling with broken equipment.

ALEXIS HERNANDEZ: It's a baritone saxophone. We only have one. (Playing broken saxophone).

PLUMMER: If this hurts your ears, keep in mind that Alexis is one of the school's top musicians. He says being stuck on a broken instrument makes him notice what he doesn't have.

HERNANDEZ: It just sounds horrible. You're kind of killing the whole sound.

PLUMMER: Like so many of LA's students from low-income homes, Alexis depends on the district to supply equipment. LA Unified has a long history of providing and fixing instruments. For decades, it's owned a 6,200 square foot repair shop. But staffing shortages have made it tough to keep up.

LAMONTE DOUGLAS: There is more work to be done.

PLUMMER: That's LaMonte Douglas, the new director. Before KPCC first reported on the shop in 2013, it had a much larger backlog of broken instruments.

DOUGLAS: While I understand the concerns of the past, we have made some marked improvements from what did happen a couple of years ago.

PLUMMER: At Venice High, Alexis' music teacher, Wendy Sarnoff, sorts through her storage closet.

WENDY SARNOFF: We have one piccolo. I mean, please, you know? Here's our bassoon.

PLUMMER: Sarnoff says she feels like she's constantly in triage, spending so much time on instrument repairs that it cuts into basics, like lesson planning. And besides, she says, it's just no fun for the kids.

SARNOFF: They hear that it's a wrong note, they're crestfallen. And now I'm sad because there's nothing that I can do to help them.

PLUMMER: Sarnoff says this challenge adds to her worry list. When students have instruments that don't work, how does she grade them? For NPR News, I'm Mary Plummer.

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