USC quartet inspires inmates in New Orleans

The quartet played concerts for schools and a prison affected by Hurricane Katrina

Steffi Lau, staff writer
Daily Trojan
April 25, 2008

French horn player Brian Bush walked into the New Orleans Parish Prison on April 17, expecting to play to a group of middle school girls. Instead, what he found was a group of 18- to 50-year-old women in orange jumpsuits, convicted for rape, prostitution, robbery and murder.

Last week, "The Horn Squad," a French horn quartet from USC consisting of Bush, Anni Hochhalter, Annie Bosler and Katie Faraudo, all studying musical performance in French horn at the USC Thornton School of Music, traveled to New Orleans.

In five days, they performed 13 concerts for elementary, middle, and high schools, college and a women's prison.

For the quartet, the chance to connect with a community still grappling with the effects of Hurricane Katrina was rewarding.

"The trip had an amazing impression on my soul," Bosler said. "I haven't absorbed everything yet."

The trip was part of the Thornton Outreach Program, which seeks to provide music opportunities for low-income schools that often lack music programs.

The opportunity to perform in New Orleans came about unexpectedly, said Susan Helfter, the director of Outreach Programs for Thornton.

John Snyder of the music department at Loyola University in New Orleans was visiting USC, and after talking with Helfter, became a fan of Thornton Outreach and suggested the horn ensemble go to New Orleans.

Thornton Outreach began about four years ago, creating what Helfter described as a win-win situation that allows Thornton students to connect with the community and gain career skills while meeting needs in the community.

The program provides music instruction by Thornton students at about 11 schools near USC. Weekly lessons and music sessions are offered in singing, jazz, violin, choir, drumline, guitar and the recorder.

As part of Thornton Outreach, members of the program give about 600 private lessons each year to local students. The program also heads an all-star jazz ensemble that high school students within a 15-mile radius of USC audition to join.

Helfter said the program arose in response to a call from the community to help its diminishing music programs.

"A lot of it is funding and priorities," Helfter said. "The [Los Angeles] Unified School District provides a certain amount of music instruction, but it is no way adequate."

Often, Helfter said, a school of 1,000 students might only have one music teacher once a week, resulting in little music education.

"Schools are already so overburdened with dealing with students who come to school and aren't ready to learn," she said. "Students already have so many challenges and struggles within their community, that it's really hard for the teachers."

The grant-funded Thornton Outreach program provides its programs for free.

Bush coaches the trumpet section twice a week at Manual Arts High School.

"The band instructors are overloaded, so by taking that section away, they have nine less kids to worry about," he said. "The kids get motivated just by you giving them a push."

The quartet's trip was meant to provide the same motivation to the New Orleans community.

In order to spark the students' excitement, the quartet started by playing the music from Harry Potter.

Its members then played a series of pieces, interspersing them with introductions to basic music concepts, and informing students of the opportunities to get involved in music.

Though the program was scripted, ensemble members said one of the greatest challenges was improvisation.

"If you go in and treat high school kids like kindergartners, you're going to get booed," Bush said.

The quartet met these challenges by changing the topics of discussion to appeal more to the audience, addressing college and their future musical careers for older audiences.

They also mentioned their personal experiences with Reggie Bush, who played football for USC, and is now playing for the New Orleans Saints, and Kanye West's usage of French horn in his music to draw connections with the sometimes hard-to-please audience.

At one school that teaches eighth grade repeats, the students were so raucous that Helfter said she was tempted to call the performance off. But Bush recalled that by the end of the performance, students approached the group to rap for them, while Bush played along.

"I think it's important to not be judgmental and just have that basic level of human respect," Helfter said of resolving differences.

Another improvisational challenge occurred during the trip to the prison.

Expecting to arrive at a school full of teenage girls, the quartet had to quickly change its script.

Since the three other members forgot their driver's licenses in the car, Bush had to make small talk with 60 inmates.

"Obviously, I was a bit shaken up at first," he said.

Yet, the group described the inmates as one of their most gracious audiences.

"They made us feel so welcome in a place where they weren't there by choice," Helfter said. "They were really caring, giving us restaurant recommendations and asking very forthright questions."

Helfter said the Thornton Outreach Program is important because it teaches the Thornton students how to interact with people of different economic, ethnic and social backgrounds.

"Once you find common ground," Bosler said. "You open up a whole new world."

For them, music becomes a way to bridge this social gap and bring inspiration.

"We were able to bring smiles, hope and joy," Bosler said of the group's performance for inmates. "Things they don't get everyday."

Bush described one school visit where a teacher said she was overwhelmed because so many students had post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing Hurricane Katrina.

"We encourage them to play instruments, but obviously you can't expect all of them to walk out and start doing that," Bush said. "It's about trying to help kids by providing a distraction from their unimaginable problems."


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