Gift of clarinet brings Fresno student closer to Carnegie Hall dream

The Fresno BeeJune 14, 2013 

Elizabeth Leon received a new clarinet through the A.J. Parker-Foster Memorial Muscial Instrument Award. Elizabeth plans to attend an Ivy League School and play at Carnegie Hall.

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Gifted musician Elizabeth Leon believes she is closer to her goal of playing at Carnegie Hall, thanks to a different kind of memorial scholarship.

The Fresno high school student from a farmworker family received a new clarinet of her own this week — the first instrument she's ever owned — through a memorial fund in the name of a Clovis North High student who died in 2011.

Elizabeth, 17, said she was grateful to be this year's recipient of the A.J. Parker-Foster Memorial Musical Instrument Award on Tuesday at Arte Americas.

"When I saw the clarinet, I flash-backed and remembered the first time I held a clarinet," she said.

That was her fifth-grade year at KIPP Academy charter school when her teacher and mentor Christine Montanez, also an accomplished clarinetist, introduced Elizabeth to music.

VIDEO: Elizabeth Leon, mentor Christine Montanez play clarinet duet

Elizabeth, who until she was 12 lived with 20 people — including her parents, siblings, relatives and friends — in a two-bedroom apartment, said the large familial group inspired her to pursue music.

"A lot of my cousins and relatives who I lived with played guitars and drums and sang and that kind of motivated me to reach toward music," she said.

Elizabeth is humble, kind, caring and dedicated, and deserving of the memorial award, Montanez said.

"She has a hunger and eagerness to play at a high level," she said. "Not only is she talented, but she works very hard."

The teen also displays patience when helping her peers, Montanez said.

"I've seen her teach other students better than myself," she said.

Montanez introduced Elizabeth to the piano, marimba, bells and xylophone in the fifth grade. During that year, she took up the clarinet because that was the instrument played by Montanez, who has been generous with her time in teaching her, Elizabeth said.

The teen immediately dedicated herself to the clarinet, practicing five hours a day, she said.

"I really loved it," she said.

RELATED LINK: Cultural Art Rotary Club

Montanez and Elizabeth have become quite a duo, playing at many community events together.

Elizabeth credits her strong work ethic to her parents, Juana and Nestor Leon, especially her father who became a field worker in his early teens.

"One thing he showed me by his actions is to never give up and that anything is possible," she said.

She was a student at ACEL, the Academy for Civic and Entrepreneurial Leadership charter school, during her sophomore and junior years but will spend her senior year at University High School, Design Science High School or Fresno High School. She wants to be an engineer and fulfill her goal of playing at Carnegie Hall.

She hopes to attend an Ivy League school, the Juliet Music School in New York or UCLA.

Elizabeth has shared her talents and civic-mindedness at the Boys & Girls Club near Fresno Street and Belmont Avenue. She was chosen the Youth of the Year for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fresno County.

"She is very optimistic and she doesn't become discouraged because of barriers," said Jonquisha Damon, director of operations at the Boys & Girls Club where Elizabeth volunteers her time. "She just has a lot of heart and determination."

The A.J. Parker-Foster Memorial Music Instrument Award is administered by the Cultural Arts Rotary Club.

A.J., a guitarist, was 16 and a Clovis North junior when he died in December 2011. He had about $3,000 in the bank at the time of his death, said his step-sister, Stephanie Foster-Thomas. His family decided to donate the money to buy instruments for students, she said.

"We are so thankful to be able to use the money that A.J. had saved," she said, "to help deserving students stay involved in the arts."

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