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Features | Spring 2019
Photo: Thiago & Friend
Thiago (right) and friend play together.

Free Music Lessons

Building Community on the Streets

Hello. My name is Thiago. I am a musician, music lover, music teacher, performer, and community builder. Although I am not trained as a music therapist, I often see music in the world through a therapeutic lens.

I make all of my money as a music teacher for people from ages four months to their eighties. Since I work with so many young people—I teach in five daycare centers, two elementary schools, and an afterschool program for elementary and middle school students—experiential learning is my core strategy. I am a passionate sharer of knowledge, learner of skills, teacher, and student. I believe life is full of beauty and healing. I believe most people’s lives are a struggle to survive, although they can live with tremendous joy despite the suffering.

I am still writing, recording, and performing. My strongest instruments are my voice and guitar, but I am always learning to play others. I love sharing music and information about music with people. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to use my strengths to serve the community.

How the Program Began

In 2012, I had been living in my Los Angeles neighborhood off and on since 2003 on the border between Koreatown and Rampart Village. I knew the people who lived with me in the Urban Soil/Tierra Urbana housing cooperative, also known as the Los Angeles Ecovillage, but one of my frustrations with my community was that we were very insular. Our philosophies included wanting to demonstrate a different way of life to our neighbors, but we didn’t regularly exchange ideas with very many of them. A few community members did individually, but there was a thick social barrier between the people who lived outside and within its walls. I am generally a very friendly person. I’m quick to smile, quick to share something I’m excited or passionate about, interested in other people’s lives and interests. These attributes made me a cherished part of a loving community. I knew that I had the power to be a bridge if I shared these same attributes with people who regularly walked in our neighborhood.

On the musical side, I was regularly practicing multiple hours a day in my apartment. Though I would often share what I was practicing with friends and neighbors, and would often perform, my practice routine was solitary and was guided exclusively by my own interests. I had recently returned from a one-and-a-half-year stay in São Paulo, Brazil, and had brought back some amazing books on playing Brazilian rhythms on the guitar; the Brazilian tambourine, called the pandeiro (approximately “punDAYroe”); drum kit; and Brazilian repertoire. I was so excited to study them and share what I was learning.

Inspired by the ideals of the City Repair Project in Portland and by deeply moving experiences I had had while listening to music in public spaces in São Paulo (see sidebar), I decided that an easy solution would be to practice music in public and invite any and all passersby to participate. It would challenge me to find our greatest common musical denominator.

I began the free music lessons project in January 2012, with these desires:

  • I wanted to make practice time social.
  • I wanted to learn what musical skills others were interested in developing.
  • I wanted to get to know my neighbors.
  • I wanted to learn what kind of music my neighbors listened to, grew up with, and were interested in learning.
  • I wanted to have other people with musical skills to play with. The best way to create them, in my estimation, was to offer to share my knowledge of music and practice habits.
  • I wanted to become a better teacher.
  • I wanted to add something positive to the community in which I lived.
Photo: sign that says 'Free Music Lessons'
A big sign invites everyone to join the band.

A Typical Lesson

I conduct the Free Music Lessons on an extra wide sidewalk next to a stop sign in the Koreatown/Rampart Village neighborhood of Los Angeles. I typically arrive ten to thirty minutes before the lessons are scheduled to start. That gives me enough time to set up chairs I borrow from the nearby apartment building.

I spend a little time thinking of what I would enjoy practicing while I’m gathering instruments to share. I may want to practice a certain instrument. I may want to learn or share a particular song. I may have a specific music activity in mind. I often work on songs that I play at the elementary schools or preschools where I work, especially if there are children present.

I bring out a simple black-and-white sandwich board that says FREE MUSIC LESSONS and set it up next to the stop sign at the intersection.

I always bring my guitar and a bag of percussion instruments, plus a few others. The ensemble can include any of the following:

  • Accordion
  • Melodica
  • 3/4 violin
  • 7/8 violin
  • Viola
  • Clarinet
  • Trombone
  • Pocket trumpet
  • Soprano recorder
  • Alto recorder
  • Flute
  • Conga drum
  • Tantan/rebolo (brazilian drum)
  • Pandeiro
  • Repique de mão
  • Jarana
  • Soprano ukulele
  • Baritone ukulele
  • Cavaquinho
  • 12-string guitar
  • 7-string guitar
  • Toy piano
  • Gathering drum
  • Bongos
  • Sheet music
  • Lyrics
  • Music songbooks
  • Music stand and light
  • Shade structure/protection from rain

Myriad groups walk through that neighborhood and that intersection:

  • Families walking to or from home, the grocery store, fast-food places, shops around the corner, laundry, church, or one of the four schools in a five-block radius
  • People attending the addiction recovery home two doors down from us
  • People attending the church on our street
  • Children from nearby middle and high schools going to the youth center at the end of our two-block street
  • People riding bicycles, pushing shopping carts, or driving an automobile
  • Homeless people on the streets
  • People who live on the adjacent residential street and in the housing cooperative, many of whom are dear friends

When a person passes by, if they make eye contact or seem interested, I always greet them. Usually, within my first few exchanges, I do one of the following:

  • Ask if they play music or sing
  • Ask if they are interested in learning how to play an instrument or sing
  • If the answer to the previous question is an instrument I have with me, or something close to it, I put one in their hand and ask if they are interested in holding it, playing it, or learning a musical skill on it
  • Ask them what kind of music they like

If it is someone with little musical experience or confidence, I will generally give them a crash course on an instrument and try to get them playing, practicing, or exploring as soon as possible. For very young children, I rarely give any direction. I will just hand them an instrument after playing it briefly in front of them, and let them explore. If the child’s musicality or development seems advanced, I will try to find a (fun) challenge for their level of coordination.

Photo: Group on sidewalk Photo: Boy with drum
People of all ages join in to make music.

When the groups have been large (more than five people), I have tried to coordinate playing one song together. It means I have to assign parts, make up parts, and conduct. “La Bamba,” “Rosa Maria,” “Un Million de Amigos,” “Sabor A Mi,” “Stand By Me,” “Lean On Me,” “Hallelujah,” and “This Land Is Your Land” are all popular favorites. I often have multiple copies of a song. We’ve played pop tunes like “Despacito” (version in Spanish), “Hello” (Adele), “Seven Nation Army” (White Stripes), “Royals” (Lorde), and everything from Black Sabbath to Big Bill Broonzy, Adele to Gal Costa, Bach to Beatles, Dolly Parton to Los Lobos, Marvin Gaye to Mercedes Sosa, Jose Alfredo Jimenez to Soda Stereo, Manu Chao to Ibrahim Ferrer, Malvina Reynolds to Nina Simone. From participants, I’ve learned about music from Egypt, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Korea, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, and Chile.

I always stay for two hours. The time has changed over the years, but in the hotter months it is generally 4:00–6:00 p.m., when the two-story apartment building provides shade, and 3:00–5:00 p.m. or 3:30–5:30 p.m. during the winter before the suns sets and the temperature drops.

Considering it’s a public street where gang tagging is still a sporadic occurrence, where homeless people and struggling addicts pass through, the experience has been almost completely free of drama or negative incidences. The only ones I remember are when I asked publicly intoxicated folks acting erractically or aggressively to leave. After I shared my thoughts about what I was trying to create, they were either apologetic or quiet as they moved on—a respectful parting of company. Even under the influence, people understood that I wanted it to be a safe space for children.

I prefer to have no internet-based promotion. I do this as a study, meditation, public service, art installation, and social experiment all at once. I am not trying to grow it to a certain size, develop a particular curriculum, or create master musicians. I am building community.

What I’ve Learned

People are really happy to see something like this and really grateful for the chance to play an instrument and explore learning experientially.

I have made and nurtured quite a number of friendships by sitting there for two hours every week. Many people have expressed their gratitude. Some park their cars and come over to tell me why they think what we’re doing is great.

People have said, “Right on! Giving back, the way we all should be!” “Thank you so much for doing this.” “This is so cool!” “This made my day!” “This made my week!” “I come here every week because this is my healing time.” “I love that you do this. This is amazing.”

People I haven’t seen for years walk up to me to tell me about musical things they are doing. I have also met people who come by because someone else told them about it. People often tell me, “Oh, I’m going to bring my son-daughter-niece-nephew-grandson-friend! They really want to learn [instrument].” Some even do!

Photo: Thiago one-on-one
Thiago works one-on-one with a young ukulele player.

Being inclusive is really important to me.

Los Angeles has a tremendous number of people living in their cars, on the street, in all sorts of hidden and neglected spaces. I’ve handed my guitar or other instruments to many people who seemed to be homeless. Often, those folks were visibly affected by the experience.

Some had tears in their eyes as they thanked me, saying, “This is really beautiful. Right on, man.” “The world needs more of this.”

I’ve watched people transform into performers, sharing their hearts. There have been opera singers, beatboxers, rappers, rockers, divas, mariachi, ranchera, bolero singers. We’ve had days of multiple mothers with children ranging from toddler to middle school, from different cultures, speaking different languages (I can only do well in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, so I’m out of luck when the families are Filipinx, Korean, and Bengali), participating in a giant percussion section.

I’ve witnessed master musicians play instruments and sing, people whose lives now are too busy or just include fewer instances of making music than they used to. These folks seem refreshed by the experience.

I must embrace the unpredictable.

I have chosen to lean heavily on improvisation to make it fun and sustainable. If the anxiety produced by an unpredictable context were more intense than the joy of achieving flow in the moment, I would probably spend more time in preparing and developing a structure.

Committing myself to teaching an unpredictable audience in public is a fertile opportunity to demonstrate how challenges with others can be approached in a loving way.

Location and consistency matter.

The fixed time and place and my regular attendance make the lessons a stronger and more positive influence on the community than something sporadic and random. The consistency of you in your space allows you to develop trust.

The location where I conduct the lessons is excellent for a number of reasons:

  • It’s close to four community centers.
  • There are four elementary, middle, and high schools within a five-block radius.
  • It is a highly population-dense neighborhood of L.A., a city not known for density. There is significant pedestrian foot traffic due to the socio-economic class of the residents and the proximity of community centers, schools, and grocery stores.
  • It is on a small street near a major street. Vermont Ave, one of the busiest transit corridors of L.A., is one block away.
  • It is a public space. We are literally sharing the sidewalk with pedestrians, and because we’re by a stop sign, people who are driving stop right next to us. Many people roll down their windows to talk to us and some even decide to park their car nearby and walk over to check us out. Also, it costs nothing.

If You’d Like to Start Something Similar . . .

Photo: Community Jam
Community jam with the backdrop of a city street

When I was sharing my experience with a fellow CMN member, she said, “I’m glad you do that, but as an introvert, that sounds horrifying.”

Chances are that if this sounds like something you want to try, you are probably more outgoing than not. If you consider yourself an introvert or are easily annoyed by people’s idiosyncrasies, preparing yourself mentally for the interactions will be important. Also, prepare for promoting sensitive listening and hearing while in an open public space with no shield from the sound of trucks, construction, sound systems, and skaters.

I recommend you have some principles thought out before starting:

  • Why do you want to do this?
  • Whom would you like to attract?
  • Whom are you most passionate about teaching?
  • What are you most passionate about teaching: Songs? Theory? Technique? Reading?
  • Do you prefer to have prepared materials or to teach on the fly?

I really enjoy these music lessons and have benefitted tremendously from the beautiful humanity I have witnessed there. I believe in the power and necessity of including folks, of engaging them with positivity. I am very excited and passionate about sharing my knowledge of music and learning more myself. At a busy city intersection, I have found the intersection of the many needs that can be filled by music.

More questions or ideas about free music lessons? Email Thiago at!