At Colburn School, Adult Student Musicians Get to the Head of the Class - Arts and Culture - LADTN

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At Colburn School, Adult Student Musicians Get to the Head of the Class

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photo by Gary Leonard

Students in the Colburn Community Chorale rehearse on a recent Monday. The class is part of the school’s new Adult Studies Program.


DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - To most Downtown denizens, the Colburn School is the exclusive Bunker Hill conservatory that breeds the philharmonic players of tomorrow. In other words, weekend piano warriors need not apply. 

That has changed. 

School officials are working hard to bring more amateur string bowers and horn blowers to its campus via a recently launched curriculum for adults. If all goes as planned, the Adult Studies Program will not only deliver more students to the Grand Avenue campus, it will grow the institution’s supporter base and fill additional seats in its performance halls.

Now nearly midway through its second 13-week term, the program is looking beyond traditional musician breeding grounds for students. In particular it is calling out to those living in Downtown Los Angeles lofts and working in local office towers. 

The curriculum targets everyone from the corporate lawyer looking to dust off the clarinet that hasn’t been touched in years, to the semi-pro violinist in need of fine-tuning from a conservatory coach. Some classes, including a series on music appreciation, require no experience or musical know-how.

While the school has long offered lessons to the public including classes for children through its Community School, the Adult Studies Program represents a new focus on older musicians.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for us to engage more people,” said Sel Kardan, Colburn’s president and CEO. “Adult students sometimes have the longest tenure at an institution. We might have a young person for conservatory and they’re here two or four years, but adult learners could potentially be with us for decades.”

 For those who already have a handle on their instrument, there is a range of group performance classes, from a jazz combo to a wind instrument symphony. Such classes offer serious coaching for skilled players like Jim Bright, who has recently re-devoted himself to piano after a couple decades away from the keyboard.

Bright, who owns an executive search firm on the west side of Los Angeles, discovered the Colburn School through his daughter, who plays the clarinet. Now, after years of ferrying her to classes, he attends adult chamber music workshops that bring experienced classical musicians into a group setting to tackle ensemble pieces.

“I think that the level of professionalism is extremely high there and there’s no other place in L.A. where you can get the same level, particularly as an adult,” Bright said. “And hooking up with other people that are interested in playing chamber music isn’t always easy.”

Shaking Off the Rust

Classes meet weekly and cost anywhere from $15 per session for “Brass and Brew,” a two-date course for horn players that culminates with beer tastings, to $556 for the Piano Master Class. Classes are one to two hours long and most meet in the early evening on weeknights.  

The classes run the gamut in terms of style and ability. Those aimed at experienced players include the Flute Choir and the Jazz Combo. 

For the less experienced, there is a beginner guitar group class and five different six-week courses in music appreciation. Those range from a survey of rock music to the nuts and bolts of opera.

Susan Heard, a longtime Colburn volunteer, is among a small group of people who signed up for a course called Downtown Concertgoing. Some sessions involve, naturally, attending a performance. Others center on discussions about the show, with in-class instrumental demonstrations from Colburn students.

“It has completely changed the way I listen to music,” Heard said.

So far, the adult-oriented program is drawing a diverse new student base comprised of Downtown workers, residents and people commuting from around Los Angeles, said Nathaniel Zeisler, who was hired last year to be the school’s first director of community engagement and continuing education. Altogether, there are 13 classes in music performance or theory offered per semester, along with five music appreciation classes. Currently approximately 150 students are enrolled.

“We have students who work at [the law firm] Gibson, Dunn [& Crutcher] and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” Zeisler said. “They want to keep learning, they want to keep playing and we want to help them in that path.”

Some of the Adult Studies courses, including the Colburn Community Chorale, also offer the opportunity to get on stage. The 45-member chorale, which is led by Steven Kronauer, who has master’s degrees and a doctorate in vocal performance and conducting, builds up to two end-of-term performances.

“We’re offering another opportunity for people to sing and to sing high quality,” Kronauer said.

The new community push isn’t restricted to music. As part of the attempt to bring a wider audience to the Grand Avenue campus, the school has expanded its yoga and Pilates class offerings. It also launched a “Rush Hour” monthly concert series that offers Downtown workers the chance to delay a traffic-laden freeway experience and instead attend free after-work recitals by conservatory students. The next concert is March 28.

Kardan, the school’s president, acknowledged that attendance for Colburn’s hundreds of free performances has been lower than desired over the years, despite the fact that the student players are among the best young talent available.

That may be changing, as evidenced by the initial Rush Hour concert in January. It drew 150 people, Kardan said. 

“I think we see it changing with the growth in Downtown residents,” he said. “I think there’s a change going on. Institutionally, we’re all very excited.”

Going forward, they hope that change involves more area residents fetching their musty guitar cases and out-of-tune violins from their closets, and making them sing once again.

Additional information on the Colburn Adult Studies program is at (213) 621-4745 or

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012

1 image

photo by Gary Leonard

Students in the Colburn Community Chorale rehearse on a recent Monday. The class is part of the school’s new Adult Studies Program.