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In LA, Clearing A Backlog Of Aging Instruments

There are about 800 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and hundreds of them have music programs. There are jazz bands, choirs, orchestras and marching bands. But for a couple of years, teachers and student musicians have faced a big problem: broken strings, worn-out horns and out-of-tune pianos — a backlog of aging instruments that the district is scrambling to repair and replace.

Instruments like the violin in senior Melissa Valenzuela's hands.

"Well, there's no bow," she says. "This is a broken violin, actually. All the strings are detached. The bridge is broken."

Valenzuela attends Hamilton High School, one of LA's top magnet art schools. The school's music academy is so popular, that every year there's a waiting list of about 400 students.

But in the closet Valenzuela has opened you can see the problem: an assortment of broken string instruments — mariachi guitars with deep cracks in their sides, violin bows without any hair.

Some district teachers say this school is just one example. Leaky saxophones, dented trombone slides and violins without tuners have become routine for many students.

At Venice High School, a 15-minute drive from Hamilton, all that Senior Alexis Hernandez can get from his saxophone is a strange bleating noise.

"It's a baritone saxophone," says Hernandez, one of the school's top musicians. "We only have one."

He says being stuck on a broken instrument makes him notice what he doesn't have. "You just sound horrible, you're just kind of killing the whole sound."

Like so many 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.

"There is more work to be done," says LaMonte Douglas, the new director.

When KPCC first reported on the shop in 2013 it had a much larger backlog of broken instruments — about 2,600. Officials said today there are now only 350. The backlog is clearing, and they're working on a new arts budget that will include funding for instruments.

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

At Venice High, music teacher Wendy 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.

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

Sarnoff says this challenge adds to her worry list – when students have instruments that don't work, how does she grade them?

Copyright 2015 KPCC

Mary Plummer