By Melissa Anderson
On a Tuesday evening in East Salinas, a rhythmic sound can be heard in the city’s recreation center known as the Bread Box.
Students from the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts percussion program are lined up in rows to practice their drumline skills.
Natalie Plancarte a tall girl with curly hair, worked on setting up a full drum kit at the beginning of the class. She started ninth grade this year and she said the free percussion program will be her main extracurricular activity.
“All my friends are here and it’s not boring,” Plancarte said. She’s also fond of instructor Joshua Alfaro, who seemed really into teaching the class and giving students new skills. “I didn’t know how to set up drums, but now I know how to do it alone,” Plancarte said.
The percussion program is just one of several fine arts programs taught for free to East Salinas students ranging in ages from 8 to 22, with other arts including Aztec and Folklorico dance, visual arts and theater. The Bread Box Recreation Center hosts programs for students who live in the Alisal region of the city, home to a largely Hispanic population, where English is a second language to many.
“They use arts to get through school and stay in high school,” said executive director Willow Aray, of the students who take lessons with the center. “Some are cultural arts and some are contemporary arts. We work with anyone in the community and we do not charge any fees.”
The Alisal Center for the Fine Arts has been serving the community for 26 years, but it was only four months ago that they acquired the space on Sanborn Road to allow them to expand their programs. In June, the organization was selected as one of 14 to receive a Community Leadership Project of the Central Coast special grant that will provide them with $40,000 over the next three years.
Rose Flores, a parent to one of the youngest students in the percussion program, said her son Josiah Rodriguez has been taking lessons for a year. He started out with the Latin percussion music when he was 6 and now he is about to turn 7.
“He really likes it,” she said. “He always enjoyed music and as a single parent it would be hard to pay for lessons.”
She said he often practices at home on a drum pad he got from the class – the pad allows him to practice his rhythmic drumming without making a lot of noise in the family’s apartment.
Joshua Alfaro took over the program in April when he decided to switch the focus of the program from Latin percussion to a drumline. During practices, the students break into two drumlines. One includes the older students such as Plancarte. The other includes the younger students such as Rodriquez. Each drumline takes a turn on the drums, which include the same instruments that might be found in a marching band. The other drumline practices on their drum pads at the edge of the stage.
Alfaro led the students through several patterns of rhythmic drumming, crescendos and more. Plancarte was allowed to take center stage on the full drum kit, where she took instruction from Alfaro to experiment a little with the cymbals.
He reminded each student working with the drums to stand tall and look straight out at the audience. The next step for his classes is to add in marching.
Alfaro has 13 years of experience teaching percussion. When he started with the Alisal program, the students were playing on conga and samba drums. But he had a friend who worked in a school in Los Angeles that was selling off a full drumline set for $2,000. He jumped at the chance to get it for his students. Some of the instruments are missing parts, but a grant from the Steinbeck Rotary Club is helping to restore the drums.
“I used to see a lot of the kids around the neighborhood,” he said, including Plancarte. “Now it’s nice to see them come here. I’ve been teaching a while, but these kids have made a lot of progress in just a few months.”
Alfaro’s ultimate goal is to create a drumline that will be able to compete against teams in the Bay Area and the Central Valley. Until then, he also has plans to have one of his former students who works with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one who has played in bands on TV for shows such as “American Idol” come to Salinas to hold a clinic for the students. He said he is working on getting local sponsors to cover the cost of bringing the musicians to Salinas for the clinic.
“Out here people are finally putting resources back into the arts,” he said. “It seems to be a lot of attention and funds coming in.”