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This Ain't No Juilliard! 

Life and violins at the school that Flea built

Wednesday, Oct 2 2002
Photos by Stacy Kranitz

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

--ancient Zen riddle

IT'S HALF PAST FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON, AND THE big front room with the picture window and high ceiling and green walls, hung with pictures of John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, is full of motion and noise. The 4 o'clock students give way to the 4:30: Ingoing tide meets outgoing, making eddies and whirlpools of teachers and parents and children of various sizes and colors and ages. (There's a dog present as well.) The practice rooms empty and fill up again; a muffled, accidental counterpoint of violin, piano, banjo, flute, whatever, played mostly with a beginner's deliberateness, colors the air. A new student, on scholarship, comes in for her first lesson; she's brought flowers. A young woman just arrived from New York drops off a résumé; the area, she says, reminds her of the East Village. Kids whose lessons haven't started and kids who haven't gone home yet do homework, twist into pretzels, fidget with their instruments, roughhouse, color, run next door for candy, argue with their parents; one negotiates himself a bribe of $4 per half-hour of practice. Mothers commiserate over Eminem. Everyone seems to know someone else from the world outside, through school, through kids, through work or just from the neighborhood.

"You painted your toenails," school manager Jennifer Bolger says to a little girl in pink Hello Kitty sandals. Tacked to a bulletin board behind Bolger are a certificate from the El Centro del Pueblo Family Development Network, "in recognition for your service to the children and their families in the Echo Park community," and a clutch of kids' drawings, one of which bears the legend, written in block letters: "NEWS FLASH: ALL THE TEACHERS WHO WORK HERE ROCK."

The Silverlake Conservatory of Music is located between the Carnicería San Antonio and a storefront of no immediately clear purpose in the little old Moroccan-style complex called Sunset Junction, on an especially groovy, funky, motley, hill-cradled block of Sunset Boulevard. The space had once been a thrift store, and then for a while an unoccupied empty box; but since last October it has been filled with a school -- which is to say, by an idea, and by people committed to the idea. The material facilities don't amount to more than a few pianos, some whiteboards and music stands, a couple of low-slung blue couches and some Eames-y wooden chairs, and assorted walls and doors. The rest is all atmosphere and possibility. It is not a conservatory in the Juilliard sense, having no educational prerequisites, age restrictions, curriculum, semesters, accreditation or degrees, but is technically, and legally, a "music store with lessons," and not much of a music store at that. It's simply a place where teachers -- 25, when last I asked -- may teach and students (close to 400, about half of them adults) may learn. There is no prejudice as to instruments or musical styles. The conservatory was designed to be accommodating; there being no faculty per se -- the instructors are all independent contractors, who kick back to the school a quarter of what they make, a better-than-usual arrangement -- it will try to find someone to show you how to play whatever you want to play, whether it be sitar, theremin or pennywhistle. "A whole variety of instruments, approaches, chemistries," says Keith Barry, the dean of education.

All atmosphere and possibility:
Cameron Johnson, left, and Fish

In the beginning there were three: Flea, Keith and Pete. Flea -- who also answers to the name of Michael Balzary, plays bass in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and sometimes acts in movies -- provided the means; Keith, who is also called Tree, and has known Flea since junior high school, brought the music-educational expertise, chose teachers, established procedures; and Pete Weiss, who as far as I know is only called Pete Weiss, put in the practical work that made the idea a physical reality.

It happened that the day I first visited the conservatory was the day Pete Weiss took his leave as its director. Not long after the school opened late last year, Keith Barry quit; not long after Weiss left, Barry returned. The principals are all circumspect regarding the particulars of this administrative do-si-do, but the old music-world term "creative differences" seems to apply, and each gives credit where credit is due. In any case, Weiss was ready to go. His job there, as they say in the moving pictures, was done; the school was permitted and outfitted and up and running, and there was no longer much for him to do. "I was starting to feel guilty about burdening the school with my salary," he said, as we sat in the front room, the big picture window giving a fine view of the Rough Trade emporium -- "Sex, Leather & Spurs" -- across the street. "Because the point is, we want to make a profit so that we can give free lessons." Leaving, said Weiss, "is only sad in the way that it's sad when a mom takes her kid to kindergarten and drops him off for the first day . . . It's just so nice to be in here in the afternoon when there's parents and kids and so many people just in the neighborhood, you know -- 'I've been meaning to take piano all these years.' We've always been looking for that kind of community where you walk down the street and see people you know, and you go to a store and everyone recognizes you -- and I think that's what's been created over here. And, see, there's Rodney walkin' by" -- and there was Rodney walking by -- "and we'll wave" -- they waved -- "and it's a small town now in this big metropolis."

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