Above: From left, students Lola Nimocks, Nazya Grant and Samantha Ugolnik join choir director Molly Shelby in a backstage performance of ‘Your Love is Driving Me Crazy’ for rocker Sammy Hagar.
Taking the stage in a room filled with rock-and-roll star power, the advanced choir from Rosewood Avenue Elementary School performed the opening number in Wednesday’s musical gala to raise money to support and expand arts education in LA. Unified schools.
The student choir, known as The Changels, sang their own rendition of legendary rock singer Sammy Hanger’s “Your Love is Driving Me Crazy,” then were joined in song by the former Van Halen frontman himself.
“It’s such an amazing song,” said fifth-grader Mariela Fritz. ”It’s very upbeat, and it just makes us all feel really, really happy while we’re singing it.”
The annual benefit was produced by Adopt the Arts, a non-profit foundation that brings together well-known artists, public figures and the public to support the arts in public schools. Actress Jane Lynch emceed the gala at the Avalon Nightclub in Hollywood, where members of Guns N’ Roses, Stone Temple Pilots and Toto also performed.
“We are raising awareness of the importance of arts in public schools,” said civil rights activist and L.A. Unified alumna Abby Berman. “Bringing such amazing talent together with caring members of the community, we can preserve this valuable component to childhood development, which is also known to boost test scores.”
Berman and former Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum co-founded Adopt the Arts in 2010. And, Sorum subsequently “adopted” Rosewood Elementary in West Hollywood, practicing with the choir and often introducing the group and performances throughout the city.
“Music and art was my savior growing up as a kid in public school,” Sorum said. “These kids are in their formative years, and that is when nourishing their talent and creativity is most important.”
Fifth-grader Charlie Perez described the Avalon Club as amazing and breathtaking.
“This is one of the fanciest places I have ever seen in my life,” he said. “I’ve been singing ever since I was in kindergarten, so I’ve had a lot of practice. But I still get nervous.”
Perez’ mother, Sherry Ross, said she could not be prouder of her son.
“Being in the choir is just natural for him, and he and all these kids are so fortunate to have Ms. Molly to lead them,” Ross said. “She just exudes positive energy and is such a great role model for them.”
Molly Shelby – known affectionately by the students and parents as “Ms. Molly” – was an itinerant music teacher before being hired full-time by Rosewood. Her position is funded by Adopt the Arts.
“These kids have changed my life,” she said. “When you get older, you realize more and more what really matters in life. The energy these kids get from performing and the joy I see in their eyes from music I get to teach them – it just doesn’t get any better than this.”
A number of choir members’ parents were on hand to help the students get ready. Many said the music programs have boosted their child’s confidence and overall chances for success.
“We are all so excited about this,” said Faye Ugolnik, mother of fifth-grader Samantha. “She’s getting ready for middle school, and having had the chance to study music and achieve what she has in elementary school, she is already so far ahead.”
“I know middle school is going to be a big change,” she said. “But, I am ready for it. We don’t just sing, Ms. Molly also teaches us piano. I practice whenever I just need a lift up, and it helps clear my mind and focus on important things like my homework.”
As the opening act, the students’ sound was energetic and inspiring, and they were met with cheers and wild applause – including praise from Hagar himself. He had been treated backstage to an a capella performance of “Your Love is Driving Me Crazy” before the show began.
“They sang it better than me!” he said.
The students said that performing in front of Hagar and other famous people wasn’t as hard as they thought it might be.
“We have been practicing so much that it just felt smooth and turned out OK,” said fifth-grader Sam Jacobson. “Performing for him was like performing for other kids at school, our teacher and our parents. He was just a different audience.”
Fourth-grader Ava Vieira joined professional musicians in accompanying the choir on a drum set, wowing the audience with her petite presence among the adult-size instruments. Calmly blowing bubbles with her gum backstage, Ava appeared focused and ready.
“The gum helps me relax,” she said.
Her father, Jimmy Vieira, himself a former musician, smiled approvingly.
“We do what we need to nurture her talent,” he said. “Access to music and art is more important than many people realize. It’s the first language of human beings, because it allows us to speak with our hearts. Every kid needs to have the chance to do that.”