The Magical Music Man of Hancock Park

Hancock Park, Los Angeles

You get all kinds and colors in your car when you’re driving for Uber: from internet couples on their first physical date, to music video directors, special effects masters, talent managers, opera singers, producers, screenwriters, songwriters, comedians, actors — all brave DreamChasers migrating to Oz Angeles in the hopes of making a career of expressing themselves creatively, and sharing their gifts with the world.

But none of these have been so genteel and inspirational as George Grove.

Driving such a varied assortment of humanity around the city, you learn how to read people and become keenly attuned to the subtle energies people give off when they enter the small confines of a vehicle.

This gentleman had me tuned in to his every word from the moment he sat down, his aura of optimism and kindness immediately transforming the vibe in my car.

George Grove preparing for next recital.

I began to imagine him as a storied figure from Hollywood’s golden age as he related stories of his love for teaching music in the historic neighborhood of Hancock Park for over two decades. He explained how his passion has changed people’s lives for the better and how it has gifted him with the most meaningful work of his life. Joyously, he shared how he helped an eighty year-old man suffering from Leukemia who had a dying wish to learn to play the piano for his grandchild. George not only taught him to play for the first time, but taught him to play Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven, a piece that normally takes an established pianist over three years to learn. George also recounted a story of how he guided a pregnant mother to train her baby while still in the womb to become musically inclined. The baby, was since birth, naturally drawn to the piano and at nine months learned to play keys on the piano. He spoke of Sophie Strauss, a young protégé, who recently produced her first album at twenty-two — via crowd funding campaign. She is currently on tour promoting her music.

As I drove up to George’s modest apartment building, framed by the insanely tall palm trees of Los Angeles, I was reminded of the city’s pioneers who planted these same trees over 100 years ago, transforming the land from rural farms and orange groves into the entertainment capital and heartland of dreams it is today.

I felt like I had made a special friend, and as I helped him out of my car, George graciously offered me an invitation to an annual music recital for his students. This was an invitation that I wouldn’t miss out on.

In the weeks that followed, I learned of the many rich layers to my new friend. His great-great grandfather, Sir George Grove, was also a music teacher. He was the first director of the Royal College of Music, receiving knighthood for writing several books documenting classical music including the multi-volume Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which is considered by many more complete than Harvard’s Dictionary of Music and still used by music teachers around the world.

I learned how George came to L.A. from America’s heartland. How his father was a Whiskey smuggler for Al Capone and how his mother ran away while pregnant with George, pressuring her husband to quit his dangerous job for the sake of the family. After the search party found her hiding in a wooded area nearby, George’s father quit and promised to live within the law.

I learned how at age eleven, he almost died from a ruptured stomach caused by an attack from a bully at school. George vowed to become a missionary priest, if he were to survive. He did survive and at fourteen, he began his studies to become a missionary priest, living in monastery for seven years. He was granted dispensation after taking his major vows due to a physical ailment of hyperthyroidism, returning to the world at age twenty-one.

I learned how George was a well-known Hollywood criminal defense attorney in the 1960’s that among other successes, exposed illegal drug trafficking in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and a corrupt police ring in San Bernardino. After years in the business an inner conflict between morality and ethics prevented him from sleeping at night, ultimately compelling him to quit the business.

George was a thrill seeker, excelling as a spelunker, rock climber, skydiver and avid mountaineer that helped assemble a team of Russians, Americans and Chinese to climb the Stairway to Heaven on Mt. Everest in 1988 with the mission of making an international plea to bring down the Berlin Wall. The expedition was successful with thirteen climbers making it to the summit of the tallest mountain on the planet — just before they were scheduled to speak at the United Nations the Berlin Wall finally came down.

In testament of his will to live, George also survived two avalanches. While buried in snow and nearly freezing to death, he imagined himself trying to climb the mountain, taking one step at a time until the rescuers arrived. He realized

in those moments that mountains are metaphors for his life: challenges that are never as big as previously perceived until you tackle them.

“You have to climb the mountain to find out there is no mountain,
but only one step more.” –George Grove

Finally, I learned the origins of George’s passion for music. It started at an early age, at the tireless urging of his mother who said, “Read literature to find the things you want to do and the man you want to become, study music, learn to play music, and be happy with your music.”

They couldn’t afford a piano, so at six years old he would walk three miles across fields to play on his aunt’s old upright piano, teaching himself how to play. Eventually, he graduated from the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.

After twenty years as an attorney, he quit his law practice to become a full-time music teacher, with over one hundred young students in Hancock Park under his tutelage. These days, he teaches six days a week and has no plans to stop anytime soon.

The day of the anticipated recital finally arrived. Parking in front of the New England style home in Hancock Park, shaded by native Sycamore trees, I savored the classic vision of Americana, complete with white picket fence and rose garden. Entering with frayed nerves, frazzled by the toxic state of division in our politics and national discourse — arguments erupting daily on social media — I took a seat and a slow deep breath to settle into the calm atmosphere inside the home of Dean Parisot and Sally Menke. Sally had been a passionate supporter of these recitals for years before her tragic death in 2010.

“Encourage originates from the Latin word, Cor: heart.” — Recital Program

The Sally Jo Menke Tribute Ensemble was established in 2011 and every year since George has directed the annual event while his students proudly sing and play their instruments in loving tribute to the late Sally Menke, loving mother, highly esteemed film editor for Quentin Tarantino’s films and beloved wife of Oscar winning director, Dean Parisot.

I sat with gratitude, fully in the moment, feeling very fortunate to witness this recital of rising musical talent. George stood up to speak and offer encouragement to his nervous students, repeating several times “never, ever, ever give up on your music”, as a mantra for them to remember.

George Grove with Jesse Nevins age 11, playing a piece from Moonlight Sonata
“I learn as much from them as they learn from me.
Mentoring allows me to relive my life through them.”
-George Grove

George’s eyes lit up, his face beaming with a profound joy, watching these young Americans he has mentored, as they played classical and contemporary musical pieces. The recitalists ranged in age from an incredible nine months to 18 years.

Piano: Talia & Sophie Abrahamson, Violin: Diane Demetras, professional musician, First Cello: Lucas Parisot, Second Cello: Rex Rath, Guitar: Harrison Fincher, Vocals: Beth, Siena & Tessa Michaelis, Charlotte Zabel, Kylie McManus, Avery Fincher
“When the student puts their whole heart into the process of learning,
the world of music opens.” — George Grove

Holistic healers believe that specific sounds can open the chakras, enabling the body to heal itself. I’m not sure if that’s what happened to me that day, but as I sat listening to the soft music, I took another deep breath, closed my eyes and allowed myself to be fully in the moment. I felt a welling of emotion, overcome with a blissful Zen usually experienced after a grueling hour of yoga. For that moment, the world outside boiling with conflict, slipped away.

Avery, age 12 playing Rachmaninov

Watching these bright-eyed, young Americans play their music renewed my weary (on the verge of total apathy) hope for our future. A stark contrast from the images of bloodied and dusty Syrian children flashing in my mind, clutching to their parents with nothing but hope for a safe place to call home.

“Music overflows in my heart and brings joy to my life.”
Charlotte Zabel — Age 9
Corner of a memento dedicated to Sally Menke from set of All the Pretty Horses

Sally Menke’s life and untimely death touched all who knew and loved her. Through Dean Parisot’s continued support of the annual recitals, Sally’s spirit is alive and well in Hancock Park and George is her agent in this dimension, ensuring their music continues to breathe life into the lovely community, encouraging each new generation to “never ever, ever give up on your music”.

George handing out certificates of accomplishment to his music students

Mr. Grove’s life is a life fueled by promises, from his mother’s daring promise to keep the family safe, through his father’s promise to alter the course of his life, to George’s vow of redemption for another chance to make a change.

George has remained true to his vow. In the end, he did become a missionary, a missionary of music — using a medium that overcomes all boundaries. Music knows no borders, religion, political affiliation or immigration laws. It is organic and universal. It equalizes us, not ruled or contained by any government or culture. Like nature, it can only be borrowed or shared.

At a time in our country’s history where the state of the union is so polarized that we seem to be on the verge of a civil war, making music may be just the thing to un-break us and bring the Divided States of America back together again.

Additional Reading:

“When there is violence, you have to make music.” — The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians now scattered around the globe after war ravaged their country are finally reuniting to play again

Rise up As One movement — founded by Quincy Jones, Gloria Estefan, Salma Hayek and other celebrities. A concert held on October 15th that utilized song and dance shared between cultures to unite and rise up as one.

Podcast — Can Music Be Prescribed Like Medicine to Heal?

Music’s Effect on Neurological Development in Children