In the past four months, 13-year-old Mercedes Barcella has performed piano concerts for young patients at two different children's hospitals -- one in Madera, the other in Los Angeles.
Aside from her age, this may not seem remarkable until you learn that she taught herself to play the piano and has been playing for less than a year.
"It just comes instinctive to me," she said. "The first piece I played was by Mozart."
For the record, I have spoken to Mercedes only by telephone and have yet to meet her in person. I have heard her play, however, by way of several short recitals available on YouTube. She plays with a concentrated vigor and is notable for the rapidity of her finger movements.
Since discovering Mozart's music, Mercedes, an eighth-grade student at Valley Oaks Charter School, has done research on the composer. She has incorporated her knowledge into a concert program in which she appears in a costume typical of the era in which he lived.
"I like to play for the children -- it takes their mind away from all their pain," she said.
"I start with the 'Overture to the Marriage of Figaro,' then I explain some things about Mozart's life and after that I play a minuet and some of his other music."
Although Mercedes has yet to take lessons from a professional, she has been taking private instruction in the art of composition from Ken Fix, director of Stars School of Performing Arts. Fix has a bachelor's degree in film scoring from Berklee College of Music in Boston, and has worked professionally in that field.
"I wouldn't use the term prodigy for (Mercedes), but she definitely has a gift," Fix said in describing her talent. "For a 13-year-old to write such coherent harmonies is very rare to find in children that age. She'll come in every week with a new composition."
The young pianist, and Fix himself, affirm that he is not a piano teacher. Fix works with her strictly on composition and has urged Mercedes to seek professional piano instruction to perfect her technique.
"She's not polished; some of her fingering is incorrect, but she's so motivated to do these things," he said. "She needs direction and practice -- if she has the right kind of training, in two or three years she could easily be a scholarship student."
Mercedes said her younger sister, Celeste, age 10, is teaching herself to play the violin and hopes they soon will be able to perform together.
Both girls were born in Bakersfield and are the daughters of Ernst and Liliana Barcella who have lived in California for about 30 years and originally are from Argentina.
Looking good in Oildale
"Discovery Well," a new mural on the wall of a building in Oildale, commemorates -- in artistic fashion -- a momentous event that occurred more than a century ago and caused what arguably could be called the greatest economic boom in Kern County's history.
Local artist Patti Doolittle's colorful painting depicts the two men who, using hand-held tools, brought in the first well that marked the birth of the Kern River Field.
On Wednesday morning, one day short of the 113th anniversary of that discovery, the mural will be dedicated in a ceremony at 200 China Grade Loop.
"It (the mural) was proposed by Citizens for a New Oildale and funded by Chevron," Doolittle said. "I'm a native of Oildale and I am so honored that they chose me."
The 8-by-12-foot painting is on an exterior wall of a building on the north side of China Grade Loop, one block east of North Chester Avenue. The building is owned by Terry Delamater, who operates Anytime Fitness in a retail center immediately north of the free-standing structure.
The mural is part of an ongoing effort by the citizens group and the county of Kern to make the core of Oildale more attractive and appealing for both the public and new businesses.
"'To change the face of Oildale,' that's our motto," said Jan Gary, head of the citizens committee. "With the mural, the trees, the lights, people are seeing what can be done."
And, says Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard -- who represents Oildale -- the improvements have begun to pay off.
Dollar General, a discount grocery store, recently opened on the northwest corner of China Grade Loop and North Chester. Also new to the area are Kelly's Cafe, which has relocated from Golden State Highway, and Covenant Coffee Shop at 1700 N. Chester, which employs young adults who formerly were foster children.
"This all started with a charrette we held a couple of years ago," Maggard said. "The whole idea was to create foot traffic and jobs."
Thus far, $1.2 million, funded by a community development block grant, has been spent on the project. The next phase of improvements, budgeted at $300,000, is currently up for bid. Maggard said the additional money will come from discretionary funds available to him for his district.
One focus of the upcoming phase will be the construction of a stage in a pocket park, a small lawn-covered area at the south end of a frontage road that runs parallel to North Chester Avenue between Norris Road and China Grade Loop.
The stage will be equipped with electrical outlets suitable for lights and sound equipment. Trees and benches also will be installed.
Maggard envisions the park as a center for community gatherings. The genesis of the idea came during a recent visit he made to Prescott, Ariz.
"They have a square in the middle of town where they have art fairs, concerts and other things," he said. "And I thought that would be perfect for Oildale -- a town square that would give it a sense of identity."
Several informal events already are being held in the park and on the frontage road, he said. A farmers market is held each Tuesday night and the North of the River Chamber of Commerce is planning to have a car show soon.
For the past three years the area has been the site of a Halloween party called "Trunk-N-Treats."
"People point their cars inward and open up their trunks or hatchbacks; they decorate them and fill them with candy for the kids," he said. "Everybody wears a costume -- last year I went as a cowboy sheriff."
The first year, he added, only a few children came to the event but last year there were about 1,200.
He anticipates at least as many if not more will attend the one planned for the coming Halloween season in October.
Meanwhile, as an outgrowth of the citizens committee, an organization called the Oildale Foundation has been formed and has achieved its nonprofit status, Gary said. Steven Esselmen of ICF International is the president.