OAKLAND -- Helena Moss-Jack isn't one to gush. To her music students, she says things like, "Let me say this: It was better than yesterday," and "Wrong note, still," and "It comes in on beat four, not on beat one. Nobody came in!"

It works, said Erick Zamudio, 16. "I would say she knows how to teach," he said. "She makes it hard, but she makes it fun."

She also makes it possible.

Since she became a full-time teacher in 2004, Jack has thrown her energy into keeping the horns blowing and the drums drumming in East Oakland, a large section of the city that has been ravaged by gun violence. To her, she said, working with children from these neighborhoods is "like breathing."

Helena Moss-Jack  leads a group of students through a musical selection from "West Side Story" on Dec. 4, 2012, in Oakland.
Helena Moss-Jack, right, a music teacher at Alliance Academy and Elmhurst Community Prep schools, leads a group of students through a musical selection from "West Side Story" on Dec. 4, 2012, in Oakland. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

"I just know I can make a difference," she said. "And these kids need a difference. They need to be shown that there is a way out -- that there's another way to live, and think, and be."

Years ago she started a nonprofit, Standing Ovation Performing Arts, with seed money from a private donor and public dollars from the city's violence prevention fund for children. This year, she founded the Eastside Jazz Ensemble, an audition-only group that's supported in part by 51Oakland, the nonprofit arm of Yoshi's Jazz Club.

At Elmhurst's middle school campus, where Jack is a teacher and performing arts director, she started an after-school mentoring program for her students with young musicians from Castlemont High School, including Zamudio. One recent afternoon, she roved from classroom to classroom, assessing the progress of the brass players, the drummers and the guitarists. A sign in her classroom reads, "Without music, life would be a mistake."

Public education in California has taken a beating in the past five years, and music programs almost everywhere -- especially in low-income neighborhoods -- have struggled to survive. Jack, who lives just up the road from Elmhurst, said she grows disheartened at times by the attitude that music is an elective, an afterthought. But not enough to give up.

As a child, Jack picked up the trumpet -- her father was a trumpet player and it was the only instrument in the house -- and went on to become a freelance musician, playing all kinds of musical genres: big band, top 40, salsa, opera. She even traveled with a circus. Eventually, she started volunteering at a school and, later, went into teaching.

"I tell the kids, 'Want to travel? Play an instrument,'" she said.

Many of Jack's students don't know how to read music and prefer to play by ear. But Jack pushes them to develop this skill. Her argument, like much of her advice about punctuality and discipline, is practical and career-oriented: "Learn to read, and you can basically name your gig."

During practice, for instance, she told two trumpet players they needed to communicate with each other so they'd come in at precisely the same time. "Otherwise you'll get fired and get docked pay, if this is your job," she said.

Zach Pitt-Smith, a music director at Oakland's Edna Brewer Middle School, said he admires Jack's commitment to the children -- and her ability to find support from her vast network of local musicians and others who share her ideals, he said.

"She kind of flies in the face of the perception that underserved communities are to be underserved," he said. "I think she's a rebel in that way."

Sione Tupou, one of those trumpeters, said his music class and after-school music program, which Jack directs, are his favorite parts of the day.

"I can't wait to come over here after school and during school," he said.

Jack motivates him to practice. Whenever he puts in extra time, he said, he thinks to himself: "I hope Ms. Jack notices."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

HELENA MOSS-JACK

Age: 55
Hometown: Originally from Guam; lives in Oakland
Claim to fame: The Oakland teacher has launched a nonprofit, Standing Ovation Performing Arts (SOPA), and other projects to bring music education to children and teens from East Oakland.
Quote: "I love doing this. It just gives me a reason. It's like breathing."
Details: For more information about SOPA, go to www.soparts.org.

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