Music has been important in Larry Wang's life since preschool, when he started tapping away at the piano.
So when the 14-year-old Pleasant Hill teen heard the Mt. Diablo school district had cut the fourth-grade band program, he knew he had to try to save the music. Fourth grade is the level at which East Bay public school students traditionally get the first chance to learn instruments.
"Fourth grade and beyond really inspired me, and if you took that away that would be really tough," Larry said.
In January, the teen approached his leadership teacher at Sequoia Middle School, Chris Cook, to see if he could start an after-school music program for fourth-graders at nearby Sequoia Elementary. Cook got thebacking from both schools' principals, and before long the teen was recruiting mini-Mozarts, as well as a handful of other Sequoia eighth-graders to help teach them.
Some other schools have restored the program by charging a fee for after-school lessons or welcoming volunteers — though none as young as Larry.
"I like to call Larry the prodigal son of Sequoia," Cook said. "It all came from him."
Larry's mother, Yi Gao, said she was proud of her son's initiative, but didn't want to see him disappointed by a low turnout. After all, parents would have to trust him with their kids and with their wallets (instrument rentals can run about $40 per month).
"I told Larry, 'Don't expect big,' " Gao said.
In subsequent weeks, Larry and his team of youth instructors taught the younger kids the basics of clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, percussion and violin in sessions every Wednesday afternoon. The students learned how to read music and to play simple compositions, some written by Larry himself.
"It's a good thing for everyone to be able to be taught and then to teach other people when you get older," said Edward Evans, 13, who taught trumpet. "It's a fun experience."
By May the new musicians were ready to showcase their skills, which they did at the district's year-end middle school concert. Larry took his inaugural turn at the conductor's podium.
"Of course, they have more to learn — we all have more to learn — but it gives them a foundation," he said.
Before taking on the volunteer duties, Larry was already a busy kid: he served as eighth-grade class president, led Sequoia's junior scholarship federation, was a peer tutor and was teaching himself advanced math.
He is also an accomplished musician, adding trombone to his repertoire along with piano. He played in two school ensembles this year at Sequoia Middle School and in his spare time formed a quintet with friends.
"It's basically like all types of art — a way to express yourself," Larry said.
Eloquent and thoughtful in a way teens aren't famous for, Larry is quick to deflect any praise. Instead, he points to the backing from school officials and the work his friends put in. But there's no fooling the adults in his life that the teen's efforts are special.
"He saw the need, he saw the void, and he just went for it," Cook said, adding that, "He's going to go far, for sure."
He also received two awards from his school: the Principal's Award and the Louis Armstrong Award for musical involvement.
The odds look good that next year's eighth-graders will continue the volunteer after-school music program in the fall, though the fifth-grade music program will be cut if enough money isn't raised by parent groups.
In the immediate future, Larry will start at Acalanes High School in the fall. He sought a transfer to the neighboring school district mainly because of Acalanes' acclaimed music program.
The teen doesn't know what field he wants to pursue, but he thinks music will always be a hobby.
"Hopefully," he said, "I'll become someone who can make a difference in this world."
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the Hometown Heroes feature aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofits and key causes in the area and create a spirit of giving.
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