On a recent warm sunny afternoon, many of the youngsters at the East Capitol Dwellings public housing complex were out in force, playing hopscotch on the sidewalks and tossing footballs in the neat front yards.

But in a three-bedroom town house in the sprawling project, 20 children sat on creaky, folding chairs, practicing five-finger exercises on an electronic piano keyboard, singing the musical scale, or mastering the intricacies of the saxophone.

In an upstairs bedroom, Lorenz Wheatley, the choir director at St. Augustine's Catholic Church, sweated through a half-hour session with three girls who shared a saxophone and two boys on the clarinet.

Patiently, Wheatley coached each child on the technique of blowing the horn, winced at the blatting sounds produced by the novices and hoped for just one recognizable note.

"You're running out of gas," he said to one child who was struggling to sustain a note. "You're crossing the desert, and you don't want to run out of gas. Don't even think about how you're doing. Just go one, two, ready, breathe. There you go. That's was what I wanted to hear."

The 30-minute free music lessons in piano, drums, clarinet, saxophone, flute, recorder and music skills are offered four days a week to give about 100 children an introduction to the world of the arts -- a world they seldom see from their project overrun with drugs, poverty, alcoholism and teen-aged mothers.

The one-year-old program, known as Wolf Trapin Housing, was organized by Jasper Burnette, the district manager for public housing projects in Far Northeast, Mary Frances Pearson, a member of the board of directors of the Wolf Trap Foundation, and Grace Stewart, a community activist at East Capitol Dwellings and a single mother trying to raise her children and grandchildren in the projects.

Despite the project's name, it receives no money from theWolf Trap Foundation. Wolf Trap does contribute secretarial assistance, and free tickets to performances and workshops, but Pearson, Burnette and Stewart raise money for the program's $15,000-a-year budget from private sources.

The money is used to pay Wheatley and Gene Ashton, a jazz musician, who are the music instructors, and Stewart, who is now the director, and to buy instruments, Pearson said.

The free tickets have allowed dozens of families from East Capitol Dwellings to see performances at Wolf Trap Farm Park, and for the children to attend workshops in the arts at the Barns at Wolf Trap.

"I hope that with the successes from this community, the children will be able to see that this can happen," Stewart said. "That they don't have to come from well-to-do families to do what they're going to do. We've always had a lot of talent in these areas, but no one has pursued it," she said.

Burnette started a similar program as the manager of the Barry Farms public housing project in Anacostia, but the program ceased after he left as manager and the chief community sponsor died.

East Capitol Dwellings, the largest of Washington's 52 public housing projects, flanks the blocks of East Capitol Street between 58th Street and the D.C. boundary with Prince George's County.

The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development is nearing completion of a $22 million renovation of the 577 rundown units. The apartments are now outfitted with new kitchens and bathrooms, plumbing and electrical equipment, new windows and colorful front doors to combat the drabness of the rows of identical, two-story brick buildings.

"We're really interested in who comes to the lessons because we want to channel the activities of the kids into positive things. . . . We just realized we can't go out and rebuild the houses without doing something about the social conditions that exist," Burnette said.

The program has been displaced three times because of the renovation work. And two weeks ago burglars stole four wind instruments and the electronic keyboard. That ended the piano lessons, and the ratio of one instrument for every five students diminished.

Despite the problems, the students and their parents enjoy the lessons.

"It's fine," said Angela Felder, 9, who comes with her brothers and sisters.

"They get you out of the house," added Katina Bryant, 12. Katina plays the saxophone with the band at Eliot Junior High School, but she decided to take music lessons with Wolf Trap in Housing as well because "I want to learn how to really play."

The girls commented with pride on the strictness of the program. "You can't just not come because you don't want to. You got to have a signed excuse," Katina said.

Elaine Felder, Angela's mother, said, "I think it does help the children to give them something worthwhile to do. Wolf Trap is the only program out here that is concerned with the children, as far as I know," she said.

Nellie Hudson has been sending her daughter LaShawn Warren, 6, to the music lessons for a month. "It's like one happy family," Hudson said. "I help you, and you will help me. I just hope the program stays here and the children keep coming to the program."