When Mickey Fruchter started teaching at the Neighborhood Music School in Boyle Heights in 1964, they didn't tell him how much he'd get paid. The violinist simply showed up, did his job and went home, figuring he'd get the going rate of between $4 and $6 an hour.
"When I got my first paycheck, I freaked out," says Fruchter, who was 25 at the time.
He was paid 75 cents for a half-hour lesson, or $1.50 an hour. For someone who played professionally and also taught at Cal State L.A., it didn't seem worth the trouble to work for small change.
"So I wanted to quit," Fruchter said.
But he didn't. He was already under the spell of the nonprofit school housed in a grand old Victorian on South Boyle Avenue. And almost half a century later, now 74, Fruchter is still there.
"Right away, it was a labor of love," said Fruchter, who realized, as other teachers at the school have, that there were rewards greater than money.
There was the wonder in the eyes of children as they discovered that pulling a horsehair bow across a violin's strings could produce music. And the genuine appreciation of parents who couldn't always pay in cash, but offered homemade tamales and inclusion in the family, instead, bringing Fruchter into their homes to celebrate graduations, quinceañeras and anniversaries.
"I'm like a big uncle," Fruchter said.
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So here he is now, coming up on the 50-year mark at a school that's about to hit its own milestone. The doors first opened in 1914, so next year it turns 100.
I might not have known any of this if not for Janet Doud, a board member at the nonprofit school. I was asked to speak at a Rotary Club event last month, and Doud, a Rotarian, schemed to seat me at the same table as Fruchter. She had a hunch I might take a liking to him and decide to check out the school, which has been one of the city's best-kept secrets for too long.
So yes, Doud read me like a book, and last week I paid a visit to the Neighborhood Music School. Once I swung open the screen door and stepped inside, it didn't take long to understand the seduction.
This is not a building, but a home. Moms and dads wait quietly in the foyer, toddlers in their laps, as their older children disappear into practice rooms to unravel the mysteries of the piano, stringed instruments or woodwinds. You can almost hear the sighs of generations of children forced to plow through the scales, and you can easily imagine the confidence-building joy as they make breakthroughs, young brains absorbing a new language.
The day I visited, a mariachi band made up of children and adult students sent sheets of music cascading through the house. One of the violinists, 16-year-old Genesis Martinez, had forfeited a quinceañera at 15, telling her mother she'd rather have a violin, a viola and keyboards, so she could get even more enjoyment out of her several weekly visits to the school.
"It's been good for her self-esteem and her academics," said her mother, Sandra, who began bringing Genesis to the school 2 1/2 years ago from their home in South Los Angeles. "She changed totally from a student who had to be told to do her homework to becoming very independent. Music opened her up."
The school is like a second home, said Genesis, and she feels safer and more connected in Boyle Heights than she does in her own neighborhood.
Wendy Kikkert, the director, said the cuts in public school music programs make it all the more imperative that the school reach out to new supporters, raise its profile and attract new generations of kids with no other access to music. About 250 kids now take lessons there.
Kids, and the occasional adult, too. Bernard Leon, who began taking lessons at 8 and is now the school's office manager, took me into an upstairs practice room to play the piano with him.
But I don't play the piano, I said.
You can, he argued, and he effortlessly laid down a set of C-major chords so that no matter what key I stabbed with an index finger, I was in his flow. This little trick helps take away the intimidation, said Leon, and lets new students catch a glimpse of the power they can feel through music.
And who was Leon's teacher?
Mickey Fruchter, who the kids call Picky Mickey because he makes them repeat a task until they get it right. During my visit, Fruchter was working with 11-year-old Nelson Cheng on a Vivaldi piece and then with 10-year-old Myles Moreno on Beethoven.
"Let's do it one more time, for good luck," Fruchter said to Moreno as the boy's mother sat with younger son Oliver in her lap, saying he'd soon be taking lessons too.
"I don't expect them to be professional musicians when they grow up," said the mother. "It's just the experience of being around other people who play music."
Leon told me he has been to three retirement parties for Fruchter, who changed his mind each time, and unretired.
"Without this," said Fruchter, who now gets $10 a lesson but still doesn't do it for the money, "I would go crazy."