By Stephanie Powell
The Colburn School is hard to miss—situated on Los Angeles’ Grand Avenue, its sleek architecture blends in effortlessly with its surrounding artistic allies—the Broad, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall. I’ve covered the Colburn School before—from interviewing faculty to assigning string staff articles in the magazine. But its grandeur is hard to grasp without stepping foot onto its campus.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of its Grand location, a huge feat considering the conservatory started out as a community music school. And like many other art schools, Colburn’s programs extend beyond music, and there is an emphasis on collaboration between disciplines, says Lee Cioppa, the dean of Colburn’s Conservatory of Music. Once a year, for example, chamber-music and dance-program students collaborate in Counterpoint, a combined performance.
That sense of collaboration is carried over beyond the conservatory and dance programs. Colburn also offers a Music Academy for pre-college students, which accepts both local applicants and international students. In the program, Music Academy students pair up and work with conservatory students as well. Cioppa adds, “having someone to look up to and then someone else to help” is a great lesson for students on both program tracks.
After a lively discussion with the dean about the future generation of music-makers, my editor and I head to a landmark housed on Colburn’s third floor: Jascha Heifetz‘ former studio. The structure formerly sat in the violinist’s backyard, was saved piece-by-piece from demolition, and was rebuilt with original furnishings intact at the Colburn School’s Grand location. Standing across from it at the top of the third floor staircase, the outside resembles an oddly placed sauna or cabin, but as we make our way through the door and the entry—a short wooden corridor lined with archival photos of Sergei Rachmaninoff diligently scoring at a desk and a series of action-shot photos of Heifetz playing—it’s evident that we’ve just been transported into the past.
The space is now occupied by Robert Lipsett, the Colburn faculty Jascha Heifetz Distinguished Violin Chair, and so far the only caretaker of this historic piece of property. Lipsett stands tall, proud, and still as he rattles off facts about the original owner—he’s even left his desk untouched. “I’ve never sat there,” he says, as we look at an empty black leather chair perched next to a desk that houses a photo of Heifetz and two glass cups, which both look to be stained with dark remnants of whisky from decades past.
The aura in the room is overwhelming—a few of Heifetz’ awards adorn a wall serving as the backdrop to a late-1940s’ turquoise couch, a fireplace displays a string of career highlights via various photographs, and the books scattered along the bookshelves that outline the perimeter look to have been frozen in the exact manner that Heifetz had left them. The air in the room seems to carry a sense of responsibility that is tangible. It is a true highlight to visit a living and breathing part of history.
As we make our exit and through the pristine halls on a Friday in late September, we learn of a last-minute master class with violinist Hilary Hahn. “Want to stop in?” Lillian Machett, marketing and public relations manager, and our tour guide for the day, asks us. It’s not really a question that requires feedback, as we instinctively make our way toward Zipper Hall. Hahn is offering advice to a skilled violinist Yu-Wen Lu on the Allegro moderato movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35.
As we sneak in, Hahn is offering typical master class feedback: from finding one’s own personality in the music to adjusting one’s playing to best match the orchestra’s interpretive choices. But it’s her next piece of advice that reveals how fortunate this student is to experience a master class with her: She offers advice on how to communicate what she needs musically, especially in a scenario where she might feel a bit overwhelmed.
In a situation where one can’t ask for too many adjustments, due to time restrictions or the nature of the ensemble you’re playing with, it’s critical, she says, to settle on the one most important thing you need from your musical counterparts, and to ask directly and effectively to ensure your needs are being met. (A lesson any young student could carry throughout life with several benefits, no doubt.) She asks Lu to practice. She meekly makes a request for a tempo change, her voice barely audible from where I sit in the theater. “If you ask like that,” Hahn responds, “it’s not going to happen. You have to be direct.” This lesson in confidence felt powerful, timely, and genuine. Hahn has Lu repeat her request. “Say it again, but now without making it sound like a question, and with a calmer voice,” she offers. Lu practices building her confidence, and her musical chops, as we exit the hall.
Next up we find ourselves outside faculty member and bassist Peter Lloyd’s office, as we stand in silence, he can be heard scatting along to the music of the Bottesini Double Bass Concerto. Inside, he sits across from Jo, a post-grad student who’s working on a portion of the concerto. After a warm welcome, the effortless dialogue between the two continues as if we aren’t even there. Lloyd offers direct and concise feedback, sometimes with his bass in hand, playing just enough to illustrate what he’s described, but no more. His approach works—there’s an audible difference in Jo’s technical performance as she interprets Lloyd’s feedback.
After sitting in for a few passes through the music, we weave our way back through the halls and staircases, stop to glance at a parcel of land where Colburn plans to house its extension within the next few years, and part ways. An afternoon well spent.