Elysian Heights school program mixes art, improvisation & fun

Photo courtesy Oscar Arce

By Becky Koppenhaver

The overriding principles behind Oscar Arce’s after-school arts program at Elysian Heights Elementary School are fairly simple:  A student can do no wrong,  anything goes and improvisation rules. It’s a philosophy that Arce believes gives his students from Echo Park and Elysian Heights a chance to show their true artistic aspirations, without getting weighed down by formalities.

When I visited the class a few weeks ago, it was a music day, and several students sat on the stage of the main auditorium playing notes and experimenting with sounds on various musical instruments loaned to Arce by the school district. A few took turns pounding out rhythms on a drum set and practicing melodies on the piano with co-teacher, Cal Arts student Thea Mesirow.  Arce said the emphasis is to find the hidden talents of the students through improvisation, whether it’s painting, dancing or playing an instrument.

“Improvisation really allows kids to show their personalities, and it takes away a lot of the fear that students have about having to memorize. We want to give all the kids the message that they have talent and we want them here, and we want to give them a safe and encouraging environment where they can just go crazy.”

Arce, who has two children at Elysian Heights Elementary and has a background in directing theatre and dance, started the program after being approached earlier this year by school Principal Veronica Herrera, who wanted to  incorporate an arts program into the school’s line-up of after school activities. With the help of Echo Park resident, Mesirow, Arce developed a twice-a-week, after-school class that includes, music, dance, theatre and mime. The class  is open to all students regardless of age and grade.

During my recent visit, Arce divided his time between students, patiently demonstrating the proper way to hold and use the instruments. One student, who wasn’t interested in the day’s lessons, wore headphones and practiced dance moves on the corner of the stage, oblivious to the commotion around her. Two other students stood near the back of the stage, painting with bright colors on large white canvases. Arce admitted, it was all a little crazy, but the dozen or so kids couldn’t have looked more happy.

Arce says he knows the program has made a difference, adding that many parents, puzzled at first by the lack of a formal class structure, have commented that their children come home singing and dancing. “It’s obvious, the kids are happy in this class, and they carry that home with them.”

The class is also a way to bring together students that normally don’t have any contact with each other, breaking down barriers of age and cliques. “Because we are doing something collectively, we all work together, and kids become friends in here no matter what ages,” he said. The 24 or so students that usually show up leave negative attitudes at the door, he said.

As the school year draws to a close, Arce laments that most of his students will have to go the summer without creative outlets.  “I wish we could continue over the summer, I think it would be great for the kids.” Instead, Arce, who runs his own restaurant when he’s not teaching, says he and Mesirow will continue their arts program in the fall, and will spend the summer thinking about new ways to mine the artistic talents of next year’s students.

Becky Koppenhaver is a freelance writer covering schools. You can send Becky story tips and ideas at becky@theEastsiderLA.com

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