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People: Harold Weller brings music to the kids

‘Musical engagement enhances learning.’

Once upon a time — OK, four years ago — about 80 miniature violins were gathering dust in a Sunrise Acres Elementary School closet. They were the remnants of a discontinued string program at Sunrise Acres, begun under then-Principal Arturo Ochoa. When Las Vegas Philharmonic founder Harold Weller enlisted longtime friend Ochoa in his nascent Foundation to Assist Young Musicians, back in 2007, their thoughts soon turned to those neglected violins. Rescue mission complete: Now for a mere five bucks a month, East Las Vegas tykes have been receiving violin lessons — and a free instrument. “Underprivileged families rarely have money necessary to provide early music instruction for their youngsters,” Weller says. “(The foundation) will offer positive alternatives and open opportunities — magnet school placement, scholarship opportunities and the like — as the child progresses.” Why get ’em while they’re young? “Musical engagement helps brain development and greatly enhances learning and discipline,” Weller says. Call it a string theory with real-world results. The Suzuki Violin Initiative, aka “Violins for Kids,” puts them in the hands of kindergarteners. After two years operating at the East Las Vegas Community Center, the Suzuki program is now extending its reach into the west side, too. In the meantime, the foundation needs to raise $76,000 to run both programs. It’s also trying to find the dollars to have a salaried violin instructor. Currently, UNLV music-education major Amanda Gentile is giving lessons pro bono, twice weekly. Look west, young musician. Weller’s ultimate aspirations for the foundation echo those of Los Angeles’ Harmony Project, which began 10 years ago with $9,000 from the Rotary Club of Hollywood and 36 at-risk youth. It has since blossomed into 900 pupils, seven orchestras (including a hip-hop ensemble), a $1.5 million budget and a working relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Some help from the neighbors? Harmony Project founder Margaret Martin “is extremely excited by the program we’ve begun in Las Vegas,” Weller says. He hopes to bring her here to give the foundation a pep talk and some expert guidance. That should be music to lots of people’s ears.

[HEAR MORE: Listen to the interview on " KNPR's State of Nevada."]