Public Safety

Juvenile Hall Youth Get Taste of Bach, Mozart

Ja’Vonna Percy-Simpson didn’t know what the word ‘symphony’ meant when she noticed it on her Juvenile Hall events calendar.

“I said, what is this?” the 18-year old detainee explained. “Someone told me, it’s music.”

That’s probably because the only classical music Percy-Simpson had ever heard before last week was on her grandfather’s cell phone. She has had a lot on her mind the last few years, after giving birth to two young children, the second born just last month. They are living with her mother until she is released next month.

Last week, Percy-Simpson and a dozen other young women in custody in the high risk Youthful Offender Unit at the County’s Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility got an intimate lesson in classical music from the pros. A small group of musicians from the San Diego Symphony traveled to their wing of Juvenile Hall to perform pieces by Bach, Mozart and other legendary composers.

It was the first time in memory that musicians have performed live at a local juvenile hall, said Supervising Probation Officer Jason Druxman. He said he’s always looking for interesting speakers and activities for the incarcerated youth, who have also recently taken a cooking lesson with Sam the Cooking Guy and participated in a four-week dance class.

It was an unusual sight last week watching six musicians from the San Diego Symphony carry violins, French horns, a viola and a bass through a metal detector into the juvenile hall in Kearny Mesa. From there, they walked through the spartan, concrete-walled facility to a multi-purpose room in the County’s only female high risk Youthful Offender Unit. They set up their music stands and sat in the same brown plastic chairs the young women use to eat meals and attend classes each day.

It was their second performance of the day. The first was at the nonprofit Second Chance, which provides counseling, substance abuse recovery and other programs for youth both inside the County’s Juvenile Halls in Kearny Mesa and Otay Mesa and for those re-integrating into the community.

Many of the youth have dealt with a great deal of trauma in their lives, said Natalie Rouse, a Second Chance group facilitator and counselor, who organized the concerts. Many are documented gang members and many have parents behind bars.

Getting an up-close look at—and listen to—the symphony exposes them to a type of culture they may not know anything about, she said.

“A lot of them have never seen a symphony or orchestra, this is something new,” Rouse said. “So this broadens their horizons, helps them look past their neighborhood. It opens their eyes a little bit.”

The project dovetailed well with part of the San Diego Symphony’s mission: reaching out to the community, said Adrienne Valencia, the symphony’s director of education and outreach. The San Diego Symphony’s 80 contracted musicians do outreach work each year, whether it’s coaching young musicians, performing for hospice patients, shut-ins or now incarcerated youth.

“Really the goal is to bring music to people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to enjoy it,” Valencia said. “So bringing this kind of music to incarcerated youth—they probably wouldn’t have otherwise had that opportunity.”

The effort grew out of a chance meeting earlier this summer between Rouse and Bill Sannwald, Teen Services Librarian at the San Diego Public Library. Rouse was searching for paperback books at the Central Library downtown to bring to Juvenile Hall and the conversation turned to the youth. Sannwald mentioned that the San Diego Symphony had performed at City of San Diego libraries before and he sent Rouse the symphony’s contact information. From there, the effort came together quickly, Rouse said. She hopes this won’t be the last performance of this kind.

The young women’s growing interest in the concert showed in their body language. At the start of the show, they sat with their backs mostly upright. Dressed in a uniform of green T-shirts, blue pants and with their hair pulled back, some tilted their heads forward as if they were asleep or not paying attention. As the musicians’ extraordinary skills became clear over the course of the first pieces, though, many opened their eyes and watched. The questions soon started to flow, first a few, than many. By the end, many were smiling and clapping vigorously between songs. And they were full of questions: How do the French horn players hold their breaths so long? How long does it take the musicians to learn pieces? If one musician messes up, is the whole song ruined?

Shamaria, 17 and seated in the front row, had more questions than anyone else. The aspiring rapper said music has helped her shed her shy side. She said that to get ahead in the music industry some day she needs to listen to many different styles of music. Before the concert, she had only heard classical music on TV.

“My heart dropped when they started playing, ‘cause it was surprising” she said. She didn’t expect the music to be that powerful.

How do the musicians stay so focused, she wondered.

Musician Dorothy Zeavin responded that focusing is not easy. She herself has Attention Deficit Disorder, but she has trained herself not to let her mind wander.

Fellow musician Randall Brinton agreed.

“It’s like anything you try to do well, it just takes discipline,” he told the young women.

Michele Clock is a group communications officer with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact