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April 09, 2006|Chris Pasles

AS the number of music school graduates grows while the pool of available jobs shrinks, one conservatory stands out for its 100% placement rate. And it's in Los Angeles. It's the Colburn School Conservatory of Music, an outgrowth of the downtown performing arts school.

Admittedly, it's had only one class graduate, and that was small, just five people. What's more, four are members of a single group, the Calder Quartet. Still, all five are working. In addition to giving performances, the Calder is in residence at the Juilliard School, and the fifth grad, violinist Hannah Kim, landed with the Charleston (S.C.) Symphony, a "step-up" orchestra known for feeding musicians into more prestigious organizations.

"I don't think we will always maintain a 100% success rate in terms of our graduates," says Colburn Executive Director Joseph Thayer. But, he adds, "not all of the students really want to be 100% performing musicians."

The Colburn School was formed in 1950 as the preparatory division of the USC School of Music. It was reorganized in 1980 as an independent, nonprofit institution thanks to the support of Richard D. Colburn, a local music benefactor who died in 2004. (The school was renamed for him in 1986.) It moved to its 55,000-square-foot home on Grand Avenue in 1998 and is building an adjacent $120-million, 13-story structure scheduled to open in fall 2007. The expansion will provide more teaching, rehearsal, performance, library and administrative space, residential housing and a cafeteria that will be open to the public.

Even before the conservatory opened in 2003, Colburn alumni included conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, violinist Leila Josefowicz, New York Philharmonic principal associate concertmaster Sheryl Staples and Chicago Symphony concertmaster Robert Chen. But the expansion will enable the school to realize Richard Colburn's dream of providing performing arts instruction from early childhood through professional preparation.

The conservatory began with 15 students and now has 43. It will probably top out at about 130, says the Colburn School's dean, Deborah Berman, slightly beyond what would be needed for a full-sized orchestra. It offers three degrees: a four-year bachelor of music; a two- to four-year artist's diploma, with more emphasis on performance; and a professional studies certificate for musicians already involved in careers.

Oh, and students receive free tuition and housing, plus a food allowance. No other U.S. conservatory offers such a generous package, which school officials say draws some of the best applicants from around the world.

Andrew Bulbrook, second violinist of the Calder Quartet, appreciated that support, which let him and his colleagues concentrate solely on music. Beyond that, he credits famed violin teacher Robert Lipsett for helping him prepare for a career.

"Mr. Lipsett really boiled down what it takes to make it professionally," he says. "There are steps, a way to break it down, to go from point A to point B. It takes a ton of work, but you can do it."

Lipsett, for his part, is unfazed by complaints that job opportunities for classical musicians are limited. "I've been hearing these stories since the time I was a student," he says. "But we have a competitive world, in every field."

Also, Lipsett says, from what he's observed, "students are kind of tuned in to that. You see them carving out their own niches, making their own careers in unusual ways."

In fact, Berman and Thayer work closely with students on career planning.

"There are some major symphony positions out there, and some of these students will get them," Berman says. "But I believe that 99% of them one day, in some fashion, will teach. They will play chamber music. They will learn that no matter how talented the musician is, they need to be as versatile and communicative with the community and audiences as they possibly can be.

"The days of winning a major international competition and having an instant career and doing nothing but that for the rest of your life are gone. And I don't think that's a bad thing. The notion of a career has changed."

-- Chris Pasles

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