Raymundo Vizcarra, instrumental music director at Los Angeles-based Fairfax High School, speaks about the challenges of starting a music program from scratch in a financially strained environment.
For almost 20 years, Fairfax High School, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, had no instrumental music education. Last year, Raymundo Vizcarra was hired to restart a music program including a marching band. Halftime Magazine spoke with Vizcarra about the challenges of starting a new program.
Halftime: Why did you become a band director and how did you get involved at Fairfax?
Vizcarra: By the time I was a junior in high school, I realized that I wanted to teach music. I attended high school nearby, and I always had this eerie feeling every time I would pass Fairfax High School; I always wondered why they didn’t have a band.
Years later I was volunteering at a high to start recruiting. The first two weeks of rehearsals I spent day and night calling kids, asking them to come and speaking to parents. I spent all summer without pay, teaching kids how to play instruments. About 95 percent of the band was beginning band last year. I was able to speed them through the process of playing and reading music, and we were able to get them to play “Star-Spangled Banner” and a few pep tunes by the first football games.
Halftime: What challenges did you need to overcome as a new program?
Vizcarra: I came into a classroom that was full of graffiti. We had very old instruments that were there since the school was built practically, so we started borrowing instruments and using a donation to purchase some.
We started off with 65 students, but instead of growing in our second year, we had to drop 20 students because we had to return some of the instruments. We’ve had to borrow used uniforms from Cerritos High School.
Halftime: What support did you receive from the school, district or outside resources?
Vizcarra: I held a trombone recital fundraiser and raised about $4,000 last year and this year close to $7,000. I hope next year I can start a uniform fund. This year I had to spend the money to get chairs and to keep the band running including transportation and competition fees. I had kids sitting on buckets, piano benches, and I had to give up my own chair. I really don’t see the school support yet, but they are very supportive at times; I just haven’t seen much action. They do provide a bus for us every football game to go to away games.
Halftime: What events has the band participated in?
Vizcarra: Last year we performed at the L.A. Unified Championship as an exhibition performance. We played two songs with drill and did pretty well. In the spring we did a Black history parade in L.A., and the band won first place as well. This year we are planning to go to five competitions. We also play at all the football games. We have a year-round orchestra, and in the spring we have winter guard, jazz ensemble, jazz combo, wind ensemble, and—this year—are starting a spring drum line.
Halftime: Why compete and do so many events instead of just focusing on the basics?
Vizcarra: Last year, it took me three days to get through four measures of a song. This year we actually got through a whole song in one day. Where the program is now, I expected it to be in five years’ time, so these kids need to be competing now. I don’t want them to get bored and just do basics all the time. If I do that, then the program will die again.
Halftime: What are your goals for the band’s next few years?
Vizcarra: My goals are for the program to continue to grow both in quality and in numbers, and eventually I want us to start traveling and competing beyond our local city. I want them to see what it’s like out there because most of the kids never even leave this county. So when we have the opportunity to take a trip, it’s a big learning experience for them. I just want them to be able to take the experience they get in band and use them outside of the school. Though most of them won’t go into music, I want them to take the experience of the responsibility and commitment into the real world.
Halftime:What advice would you give to other newly emerging band programs?
Vizcarra: Be very persistent; it’s going to be very tough in the first year. You’re going to have kids that quit and don’t know what’s going on. And you’ve got to talk to the parents as much as you can.
If you’re starting in the first year, don’t expect much, but make it as fun as possible. In the second year, you can figure out who your committed people are and start over. You’ll have a group of kids who are committed and believe in the program and hopefully they will be your leaders, and they’re going to want to be more competitive. In your second year, you can start getting a little stricter.
Halftime: How has this experience personally affected you?
Vizcarra: I love being with the students after a performance. When they perform, I just think, “Wow, we didn’t have this a year ago; it’s amazing what they’re doing.” This school was so empty and so quiet for so many years, and now we have something to show off. It’s great; I’m very proud of them. I’m helping out so many kids that have so many problems at home, and as they’ve told me many times, they can escape while playing music.
Note from the Editor: For information about how you can help the Fairfax High School music program, visit www.fairfaxmusic.org.
About the Author
Elizabeth Geli is an editorial intern at Halftime Magazine. She is currently a junior majoring in print journalism at the University of Southern California. She plays flute in the USC Trojan Marching Band and has supported the teams at two Rose Bowls, the NCAA basketball tournament and as many other games as possible.
Photo by George Guajardo. All rights reserved.