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Victor Vasquez, fourth-year drama student at UC Irvine, surveys the Breath of Fire theater. He's mentally arranging the handful of Santa Ana high-school students and more than a handful of instruments, including a few iPads, scattered in front of him. Some of the teenagers are gossiping and laughing, while others are practicing for today's rehearsal of the theatrical-music piece LISTEN!
"All right, everybody," Vasquez finally calls out. "Let's get 'Nightmare Song' up. Go to your stations!"
"Am I playing theremin for this one?" a girl asks.
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Vasquez checks his notes, then says, "Nah, you're playing theremin on 'Mother's Song,' but we're going to work that part next week. Right now, we're just working the major movements. Move it, guys!"
This is an average Saturday scene for the group, an extracurricular creation of Vasquez's: the Santa Ana Institute of Sound.
Last year, Vasquez wrote letters to every scholarship and grant foundation he could find. When he was rewarded with grants from both the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and UCI's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, he put his plan into action. He bought the instruments ("a little more expensive than I anticipated," he says, looking at the iPads with a sheepish smile) and asked around: Are there any kids in Orange County who would be interested in a collective musical project?
Although the response wasn't huge, those who signed up were enthusiastic and willing to learn. Eleven kids gave up their Saturdays for several months, working together to create a theatrical presentation of sound pieces. The music they've created is beautiful and strange, crossing genres and defying expectations. Although music and arts programs are usually the first to go in tough economic times, the Santa Ana Institute of Sound offers these teens the opportunity to get their hands on instruments they might have never seen otherwise.
Alondra Salazar, a sophomore at Segerstrom High School, tentatively plucks out a melody on the brand-new keyboard. She hasn't had much practice with this piece, but Alex Fong, another UCI student, has been helping her through the sight-reading.
"Relax your fingers!" he instructs.
Her fingers, arched and trembling, settle on the keys.
"Wow!" Fong says, hovering over Salazar. "You can sight-read really well! You've only been taking that keyboard class for a year?"
She blushes and nods.
"This is the final song in the play," Vasquez says as Salazar continues her practice. "We started out writing songs and talking, playing music and talking. And the more we talked and shared our experiences, we ended up coming up with a narrative that ties everything together. Our story's about this little boy who has an orchestra in his head. People keep telling him there's something wrong with him, but he makes peace with the music that he hears, and then decides to make something beautiful out of it."
Across the room, Fong exhorts another student, "Just imagine that the bars between the measures aren't there at all. Keep going as much as you can. . . . Don't rest; don't stop."
Vasquez and Salazar nod at the same time. It's hard to imagine any of these kids stopping any time soon.
This column appeared in print as "Get Institutionalized."