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Meet Karen Louis of Neighborhood Music School in Boyle Heights

Today we’d like to introduce you to Karen Louis.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I grew up in Kent, Ohio, and started out as a theatre kid who was hungry for story development, music, and to get out of Ohio. When I was in undergrad at the College of Wooster, I was sent out on an internship to the NYC Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute which ended up shaping me as an artist and also as a human. I fell in love with NYC, with performance art, jazz clubs, the East Village and pushing boundaries while building community. During my internship, in between studio classes, I spent my time in this tiny little attic space at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, transferring the recordings of Lee Strasberg’s master classes from reel to reel to cassette tape (oh, the technology!), which became a sort of mentorship from beyond, because I would spend hours with an audio study in technique and discovery. This drove me to explore the fullness of the world in which we live, from every moment to every experience. It wasn’t until years later that I would recognize how deeply that time ad experience rooted my creative and professional path, and the drive to discover a creative home in every space and circumstance. That’s a superpower of creativity and the arts: the arts develop skills of technique, adaptability, problem-solving, conflict resolution and so much more. And those skills are uniquely developed from the core of the individual, refined and reflected by our mentors and environment so that we not only learn, but we cultivate, share and communicate through art and process. I would spend the next two decades as a teaching artist in NYC, Chicago, and landed out here in Los Angeles in 2010. In Los Angeles, I have found my home.

Before coming to the Neighborhood Music School, I worked in development, raising funds for the arts programs at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA), a school that is a model for what a public school should be: tuition-free, rooted in discipline, representative of LA County, and a launchpad of opportunity and success for students and the teaching artists employed by the school. I worked in arts advocacy with Arts for LA through which I learned so deeply the vast reach and impact of our creative community and the strength and importance of the creative economy. I feel so lucky and honored to be here at Neighborhood Music School, where I am able to draw from every aspect of my creative and professional path to nurture and oversee this creative home to 350 students, 22 teaching artist mentors, an incredible network of families and the 106 years history of being an anchor in the vibrant Boyle Heights community. In addition to being an artist and administrator, I am also a Mom, which influences every aspect of the work that I do for the better.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
The road has been an interesting one, that is for sure! Staying positive and moving forward has its challenges! I think of it less of a road and more of a learning curve. Early on in my career, it was exciting to take risks and explore unchartered territory, always keeping some sort of root anchored to the ground, for some sense of stability. For me, that root was in teaching and building creatively as an ensemble. An ensemble thrives when trust, support and mentorship are embedded in the culture of the work at hand. So much of creative work is based in problem-solving and navigating solutions, that, from the outside, I seemed to be a bit scattered because I was always moving: performing, creating, bartending, managing restaurants, teaching theatre, hosting Live Band Karaoke, random performance gigs that were interesting or challenging, but so much of that movement was based in connection and learning that it kept me centered because I was always learning. I was always collecting and connecting. My teaching residencies became my deepest resource of connection, creatively and professionally. I was constantly learning from my students, who were constantly testing, trusting and growing with each challenge and success. When that process of growth, perspective and journey came to land in the work they created, whether that be a production, a piece of music, a poem, choreography, a painting, the result was always powerful.

In 2009, when the recession hit deeply, I was in Chicago, teaching on the Southside and Westside in neighborhoods that are notoriously underserved. All of my teaching residencies for the year ahead were canceled, as arts programming is, unconscionably, always the first devastating cut. While it was terrifying and uncertain, personally, to lose my residencies so quickly, what struck me even deeper in my gut was the way that this programming was so cruelly pulled from the voices, hearts and access of the young artists in the classroom. The nation was in a crazy, unexpected stress, and the tools that are the most effective in exploring these stressful circumstances had just been taken away. Because the funding wasn’t there. That’s when I decided to learn development. I feel very fortunate to have been connected to the LACHSA Foundation, which provided the opportunity to dig deep into the development landscape to support this awesome school. Lack of funding always seems to be the foil to opportunity and access for our students, and I am so heartened by those foundations, organizations and individuals who are committed to building solutions to bridge or close those gaps and allow our communities to thrive. I’m really proud to be a part of Neighborhood Music School’s history and future, as this access is at the core of our mission, and we are in great company with our community, partners and collaborators. These relationships and support- again, the ensemble- bring me through the most trying obstacles and challenges, together, and always lead to a greater light.

Neighborhood Music School – what should we know? What do you do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Neighborhood Music School was founded in 1914 as a settlement house providing Music and English instruction to the immigrant communities that had settled in Boyle Heights. Our founder, composer Carrie Stone Freeman, established the “Neighborhood Music Settlement” to provide low-cost, private instruction to help families adapt and engage to their new home country. 106 years later, we remain that creative home, serving 350 students with private one on one lessons at an affordable rate with 22 outstanding teaching artists whose artistry measures their engagement. When you step inside our school, which is a Victorian house built in 1892, you step into a place out of time, and you know you are home. We are a home to our families, our teaching artists, our community, partners and our staff.

At NMS, we focus on the ways and means in which music transforms and influences life and community. Everyone, at every level and every age, is welcome and encouraged here. Our tuition is strategically low, and we also have a scholarship program that is both merits and needs based. For students who are interested in advancing their course of study, we have an ensemble program that is audition-based. We host a low-cost instrument rental program that ensures that all students have access to instruments at home and at school. We do all that we can to ensure that each student has the opportunity, guidance and support to explore music as it is unique to them.

We are proud to be in Boyle Heights and to contribute to the deep history of our community. We collaborate with and welcome partners throughout the vast and dynamic Los Angeles landscape and beyond to connect cultural opportunities and experiences, and develop voices that will resonate for years to come.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
Whoosh. Success. I define success as a process of building opportunity out of experience, honing perspective and growing your unique voice to contribute to a greater conversation. It’s the virtuous cycle, I suppose. It’s also the storyteller in me. I know I am successful, personally, when I have built something that can be shared, received, influenced and then shared by someone or something else. It is deepened when that shared thing: that skill, tool, work, smile -whatever it may be- drives positive and forward growth in someone or something outside of yourself. In that sense, success is being able to let go, because once it has left you, it is open for greater exploration and change. My favorite success is always when a student identifies something unexpected, and adapts to that change with bravery in excitement to dig deeper.

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