Pasadena Conservatory of Music is instrumental in making young musicians
By Brenda Gazzar and Catherine Gaugh
Photo by Walt Mancini
Veronica Mansour was 18 months old and her brother Alex was 3 ½ when they first expressed interest in playing a musical instrument.
That was when their mother, Laurie Mansour, a classically trained pianist and guitarist, started looking for “a place with a developmental approach, a whole child approach” for their music education. She said she found it at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music.
Now 13, Veronica is already an accomplished student musician, and has earned a Young Musicians Foundation Scholarship for both cello and piano. Alex, 15, won first place at the American String Teachers Association guitar competition this spring at USC and has played piano at Carnegie Hall.
“PCM is very special, and very family oriented,” said Laurie Mansour, a family therapist who jokes that her current full-time job is as chauffeur. She drives her teenagers twice a week from Valencia to the conservatory for private and group classes.
“It has integrity, creativity and versatility. The children learn leadership and collaboration skills.”
For nearly three decades, the conservatory has offered the gift of making music to children and adults in a collaborative environment. Founded by piano teachers Silke Sauppe and Wynne Stone, the nonprofit community music school began as a modest operation from a small church in 1984 with eight instructors and 40 students.
Today, the conservatory’s growing campus at a former mortuary site on North Hill Avenue has 60 faculty members and 1,300 students drawn from more than 200 public and private schools.
PCM’s mission includes education through a comprehensive music curriculum, whether a pupil wants to round out his or her musical education or is aiming to get into a top-drawer music school, such as Bard, Juilliard or the USC Thornton School of Music, said Stephen McCurry, PCM’s executive director for two decades.
Seventy-four percent of the students are 15 and younger while 80 percent are from Pasadena and San Gabriel Valley areas.
“We are a community music school,” McCurry said. “Community for us means that we are serving a broad spectrum of people out there, including an age range from infants to senior citizens.
Some students study music as a hobby, while others plan to be professional musicians.”
In 2008, the school received accreditation by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Precollegiate Arts Schools, one of 14 such schools in the country to receive this status. But it is the conservatory’s strong sense of community among its faculty, administrators and families that officials suggest best distinguishes the school.
The conservatory stages about 100 performances a year; parents are encouraged to attend their children’s music classes; and there is a great deal of collective music making at both the student and faculty level.
“Throughout the organization, everyone is focused on the same thing: the study, performance and enjoyment of music,” McCurry said.
With a nearly $1.9 million annual budget that has grown tenfold in the last decade, the conservatory offers classes in voice, chamber music, guitar, keyboard, strings, woodwinds and brass and now jazz.
The fast-growing Strings Department uses the Suzuki method for violin, viola and cello developed by Japanese violinist and pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki for the teaching of young children.
It takes the same step-by-step approach used by children learning their native language and adapting it to learning the violin and other instruments. Parents are considered a key component to the method’s success and their presence in lessons and group classes is strongly encouraged.
“We feel all children can learn to play a musical instrument given the proper approach,” said Rick Mooney, a Suzuki-certified cello teacher at the conservatory since its inception. “The idea that only talented ones can be successful at making music … we don’t believe it.”
Conservatory students are exposed to many genres of music as well as different instruments. No matter their skill level, they can attend and listen to a guitar Masters Teacher class or a lecture on theory or jazz at any time, said Mary Kelly, chairwoman of the Strings Department.
“They see the big picture of what music is about,” Kelly said. “They are not isolated and only studying their one instrument. They are in this community of musicians.”
Learning music gives students a sense of accomplishment and confidence and also teaches them the importance of cooperation, Kelly added. It also gives students an outlet to be creative and express themselves through their instruments.
“When learning an instrument, you learn to speak a language that upon hearing, everyone understands, but few actually know how to speak,” she said.
The conservatory started offering classes a couple of years ago from Master Teachers in guitar, violin, piano and cello for a small number of students angling to get into the best college and university music programs.
Among the teachers is Scott Tennant, a world-renowned performer and a founding member of the Grammy-winning ensemble Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. His classes are the only ones that require an audition by the instructor.
“It’s a very, very competitive environment to become a professional musician,” McCurry said. “This is an approach to really provide the highest possible level of training.”
The new jazz program is a way for the conservatory to expand beyond its traditional offerings, which are rooted in Western Classical music, he said.
“It’s a reflection of our aspiration to serve a wider constituency, to start providing programs for a broader spectrum of the community,” McCurry said.
Highly regarded jazz educator and saxophone player Ray Briggs of Pasadena — who is assistant director of jazz studies at California State University, Long Beach — is the chairman of the new jazz program.
Down the road, McCurry said he would also like to explore other kinds of world music, including traditions from Africa and Asia, he said.
The addition of jazz was made possible after the conservatory’s 10-year-old North Hill campus expanded by acquiring last year the property to its north. It added a second performance venue and additional classroom space. The conservatory is currently in the final stretch of a $7.5 million capital fundraising campaign to make improvements to the campus.
“The goal of the campaign is to serve the needs of the growing programs on this campus for the next 10 years, by adding additional classrooms, studios and performance venues and also by upgrading the infrastructure, such as the air conditioning systems,” said Cynthia Nickell, the conservatory’s development director.
The funds will also make the campus accessible for users of wheelchairs, strollers and cellos on wheels, Nickell said.
The conservatory’s Young Musicians program offers 30 age-appropriate classes a week to children ranging in age from infants to 11 years old.
From the earliest ages, young children move, sing and play instruments along with music recordings, said Rachael Doudrick, the chairwoman of the Young Musicians Department.
“We begin with play-oriented movement and songs, teaching ear training and early music literacy along the way,” she said. “We hope to provide children with the experiences they need, socially, intellectually and physically, to help them succeed in instrumental studies and become lifelong musicians.”
The conservatory also dedicates 10 percent of its budget to music education outreach programs, including scholarships, to provide access to those who wouldn’t normally have it.
For the last eight years, for example, it has provided weekly music lessons for all pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students at neighboring Jefferson Elementary School. With the sponsorship of the Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts, the Music Mobile introduces 3,000 local third graders from about 25 schools to the orchestra each year.
There is also a subsidized instrument rental program.
“Part of our mission is to educate, advocate, inspire and share; and part of that is to share without regard to socioeconomic background. ” said Amelia Firnstahl, the school’s operations manager and outreach department chairwoman. “Our outreach programs are one way to do that.”
Fees can range from $240 per quarter for the Young Musicians program to $660 per quarter for 30-minute private lessons to $840 per quarter for 60-minute lessons in various departments, although each program is distinct. The Master Teachers courses can range from $960 to $1,200 per quarter.
Pasadena Conservatory of Music, 100 N. Hill Ave. 626-683-3355