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Discord over key changes at Colburn

Parents worry that the music school's focus on professional training slights younger students.

September 04, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

As construction cranes swoop over the nearby skyline, promising an ever more vibrant cityscape, a long-held dream is already coming to fruition in downtown L.A.

The Colburn School, where thousands of Southern California children have learned to master a musical instrument, has expanded into a spiffy new facility -- a $120-million, 13-story structure adjacent to its Grand Avenue headquarters. The move more than doubles the school's size and marks a major step forward in its hopes of becoming the Juilliard of the West.

About 100 students at the Colburn Conservatory of Music -- recipients of a unique package offering free tuition, room and board -- have moved in and started classes. A new president is on board. Celebratory concerts are planned. The inaugural gala, Oct. 20 at the school's Herbert Zipper Concert Hall, will feature the Colburn Orchestra, the Janaki String Trio and the Calder Quartet, a rising ensemble whose members accounted for four of the five members of the conservatory's first graduating class last year.

Amid all this harmony, however, more than a few discordant notes are being heard. Parents of the 1,500-plus kids attending the Colburn's popular community-based School of Performing Arts division say they're being shortchanged as attention is shifting to professional training for the conservatory students.

"Maybe the new administration has decided that it does not need the commuter community anymore, thus the new policies may start driving them away," Richard Oyekan, who has three children studying at Colburn, wrote in an e-mail sent to the school and obtained by The Times.

Colburn's legacy

The Colburn School began in 1950 as the preparatory division of the USC School of Music. In 1980, however, Richard D. Colburn, a local music benefactor, reorganized it as an independent nonprofit institution. Remembering the pain he felt growing up because of never receiving the music lessons he longed for, Colburn wanted to give succeeding generations a chance at arts instruction from early childhood through professional preparation. The school was renamed for him in 1986.

When he died in 2004 at age 92, he left a $20-million endowment to the school, whose yearly budget is now about $17 million.

The Colburn moved to its original 55,000-square-foot home on Grand Avenue in 1998. But as downtown has become denser and traffic throughout the city has worsened, the challenges of getting to and from the school and of parking while there have worsened as well. That accounts for many of the angry parents' complaints.

Until this summer, students could park for free in the 92 spaces at the Grand Avenue building. Even those spaces quickly filled up, and the overflow was directed to a lot across the street where the cost was $2 after a school validation worth $4.

But, the parents say, not only is parking being limited but the available lots are proving expensive and inconvenient. The parents say they can use only 60 spaces in the old building, they are not allowed to park at all in the 165 spots in the new building, and overflow is directed to the California Plaza garage, where the school has negotiated a $3 rate (actually $8, with a school validation worth $5) but only after 5 p.m. weekdays and all day Saturdays and Sundays. Otherwise, they must pay the usual rate of $4 for every 12 minutes ($38 maximum).

"Parking is a big issue," said John Green, whose wife and two children take Colburn classes in piano and other instruments and who said he just paid more than $3,000 for the fall semester. "If you don't have parking, you don't have a school. They must remember, while they're a nonprofit, they are also a business, and any successful business has to provide service to their clients who pay."

"Cal Plaza's parking fee is $4 every 12 minutes," Connie Paik, mother of two children who attend four classes weekly, wrote in an e-mail sent to the administration and copied to The Times. (Paik said the family has paid about $3,500 for private lessons this coming semester.) "When a car is entered and 'clocked in' at 4:45 p.m. (or even 1 minute before 5 p.m.), we don't get a parking fee break because we parked before 5 p.m. It will [also] be a hardship for parents to park in a remote parking lot like California Plaza because we have so much to carry. Consider the young student of the cello, for example, whose parents must carry a cello, cello stool and books."

In an interview, Paik added that a 5% early-enrollment discount -- for those who pay an entire semester's tuition in advance -- is being eliminated (although so is a once-a-year $50 registration fee). She and other parents also have gripes about fewer available practice rooms and performance opportunities. Colburn's dream, they imply, is being betrayed.

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