Meet the New Instructors in the Community School

We are thrilled to announce that the Colburn School has hired four new outstanding instructors! Learn more about their musical backgrounds and what they plan to contribute to the Community School of Performing Arts in the coming years.

Dominic Cheli
Opening my students’ eyes to new possibilities and empowering them to become strong individuals with their own unique voice is my ultimate goal. Dominic Cheli

A native of St. Louis, pianist Dominic Cheli has performed with orchestras across the country and is the LIVE Director of Tonebase Piano.

Can you describe your teaching philosophy?

My mission is to discover, nurture, and promote my students in ways that allow them to be artistically independent, imaginative, and knowledgeable so that they can develop healthy, sustainable relationships with their instruments. I believe in being an advocate of all types of music: traditional, unconventional, contemporary, and multi-stylistic. Opening my students’ eyes to new possibilities and empowering them to become strong individuals with their own unique voice is my ultimate goal.

What lessons did you take from your mentors that you still carry with you today?

Some vital things I learned from my past teachers include having an obligation to honor the music through educated and courageous performances infused with a person’s individual expression as well as having a technique that is always at the service of the music!

What are you looking forward to most as a new member of the Colburn Community School?

I am looking forward to being a part of a community that has the well-being and advancement of the students as their primary focus!

Sofia Kim
While strong technique is necessary and important, I believe that the real goal is to have a flexible technique that will best facilitate expressivity and artistry. Sofia Kim

Korean-American, Los Angeles native Sofia Kim joins our violin faculty with a varied and diverse performing career as a soloist and chamber musician.

Can you describe your teaching philosophy?

My teaching philosophy aims to nurture my students into becoming exceptional whole beings who can express themselves freely and generously share music with joy, compassion, and empathy. While strong technique is necessary and important, I believe that the real goal is to have a flexible technique that will best facilitate expressivity and artistry. As a teacher, I take a deep interest and responsibility in the entire well-being of my students, not just musically, but intellectually and emotionally. Taking into account the unique qualities, learning styles, and temperaments of each student, I strive to keep my teaching approach fluid and adaptable so that I can develop each student mindfully and empower them as musicians.

What lessons did you take from your mentors that you still carry with you today?

During the many years I was studying with Almita Vamos, what struck me was how she was always learning, even after decades of impressive and impactful teaching. She never claimed to have all the answers and took so much joy and pride in learning and adapting. Her eagerness to improve and expand is something that inspires me every day.

What are you looking forward to most as a new member of the Colburn Community School?

So many things! I spent so much time here as a young violinist and look forward to experiencing this space and community as an adult. I hope to get to know my colleagues better and lastly, I am really excited to start working with my students here.

Ivana Malo
My piano teachers had a great influence on my life and love for music, and I hope to inspire the same in my students and help them reach their full potential. Ivana Malo

Croatian pianist Ivana Grubelic Malo has performed throughout Europe and the United States and is dedicated to inspiring a lifelong love of music within her students.

Can you describe your teaching philosophy?

I strive to inspire a lifelong love of music in my students, building on a solid foundation of healthy technique and musicality. In my mind, every one of my students is an individual so I shape my teaching to their unique needs – from psychology and motivation to the development of their technique. I take great care in finding the right repertoire for each student at every stage of their development so that they can not only develop and improve their technique, but also play music that resonates with them and helps them unlock their artistic sensibilities.

What lessons did you take from your mentors that you still carry with you today?

It was through my teachers that I developed my deep love of music.

The enthusiasm they showed when teaching me new pieces and revealing all the nuances that made each one so special heightened my excitement in practicing and strengthened my joy in discovering new material. They revealed a world of subtlety that I had not imagined, which made me realize that it’s when you reach beyond the surface that you can find your own unique expression and interpretation.

From a young age, my teachers taught me the importance of producing a beautiful tone and the use of arm weight in playing the piano, demonstrating that technique and musicality must always go together.

They emphasized the importance of playing without tension, which deepened my interest in the physical and psychological wellness of performers. Studying with Carola Grindea while assisting her at the International Society for Study of Tension in Performance in London is something that I still carry with me to this day.

My piano teachers had a great influence on my life and love for music, and I hope to inspire the same in my students and help them reach their full potential.

Dimitry Olevsky
My teaching principles are based on outlining the advantageous mental and physical practice techniques revealed through research in Sports Psychology. Dimitry Olevsky

Violinist Dimitry Olevsky blends classical technique with his own research in Sport Psychology to fine-tune the body and mind for performance.

Can you describe your teaching philosophy?

My teaching principles are based on outlining the advantageous mental and physical practice techniques revealed through research in Sports Psychology. These methods help my students strategically overcome the numerous psychological obstacles in order to develop a consistently high level of performance. High-level performance under pressure is the common goal among many students, and I apply my teaching methods to develop and increase control of muscular and mental functions, accuracy, precision, discipline, mental awareness, and overall coordination in violin performance.

Musicians ‘play’ music as athletes ‘play’ sports. Therefore, like sports, a musical performance is a physical activity with extreme demands on technical facility, training ethics, discipline, deliberate practice, structure, dedication, determination, motivation and inspiration.

What are you looking forward to most as a new member of the Colburn Community School?
I am looking forward to collaborating with other faculty as a violinist, and also for my students to have performance opportunities where they showcase their talent and be inspired by their peers.

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Faculty Spotlight: Jeffrey Lavner

This interview has been lightly edited for style, content, and clarity.

How long have you been at Colburn?
I first started at Colburn in 1981. I left for some years in the middle there, from around 1990 until I came back in 1999. We used to be in an old warehouse on the USC campus.

How have you seen Colburn change over the years?
The improvements to the facilities have been amazing. They are truly world-class now!

The funny thing that hasn’t changed is the level of the students. Some of the most accomplished students to date actually came through in those timeframes, in the early to mid-’80s. There was a big influx of immigration in the early ’80s—we got so many great students coming into LA, in addition to our existing student population.

How did you get started teaching?
I was getting my master’s in piano performance at USC with Danny Pollack. I was on a teaching assistantship there and got hired to teach at what was called the USC Community School at the time before it was the Colburn School. I actually started teaching privately when I was an undergrad.

What do you love about teaching?
We get to deal with music all day. It’s always fun, and always special to talk about music. It’s great to see students in person! We get committed students and parents at Colburn. We’ve always had fantastic students, and it’s really something special to see the level of kids that are coming through. Really, they’re like sponges, absorbing everything the school has to offer.

You teach in the Conservatory, Community School, and Music Academy. What’s it like having students across those three units?
I like it because they’re just such different personalities, and such different levels of musicianship. The Conservatory is at an incredible level. Anyone that gets accepted there is already an exceptional musician, but to just see the whole range of student development throughout the entire school is amazing.

The Academy is Conservatory-in-training, so they’re kids that are getting to that level. And the Community School is everything. It’s a little bit of that level. You still get some of the incredibly talented kids, but then you get a lot of kids that are playing for fun too, for the pure joy of music.

It keeps the day interesting. I’m not teaching the same type of student all day, so it’s always a lot of variety, which is just great for the teacher and student! You don’t get bored, and every student brings something different to the table. One of the great things to see is the professional levels students attain after leaving here. It makes me very proud to see that so many of my students have become top-notch professionals in the world with CDs and tours all over the globe, making their mark in the field.

It’s very funny because I have some of their practice tapes from when they were 12 years old, and they weren’t so famous then. I stumble across them all the time downstairs. “Oh, I forgot I had this tape.” They were cassette tapes back then.

What are your students working towards right now?
In this environment, it’s always a challenge. Last year we did a lot of online competitions because that was the only way to go. This year, it’s a little bit of a mix. I have one young man that just recorded From the Top for a broadcast in the next couple of weeks. He’s getting ready to play a concerto with orchestra, the Saint-Saëns Concerto. Hopefully, it goes on as a live performance.

And then we still have a lot of smaller things we work toward, like the Bach Festival and the contemporary competitions that are out there. I like to give my students performance goals.

At Colburn, the Friday Night Recitals are a great performance opportunity for kids that are ready. That’s the immediate first goal for most kids. I’ll say, “Okay, you’re going to play on a Friday Night Recital in three weeks.” It’s amazing how much more they practice getting ready for that because those are always special events.

So, competitions, concertos, and Friday Night Recitals are really the goals to keep everyone motivated. Music itself is enough to get everyone motivated, just to play for fun. External ones don’t hurt and get their focus going at an ever-higher level.

What’s your philosophy behind teaching?
It’s different for every level. For the younger ones, it’s really to try and keep it fun, but with definite expectations—at the same time, to give them a solid background so that if they choose to excel in music, they have all the tools. That usually means a good physical approach, a good technique, reading literacy, etc. But it should be really fun at an early age.

By the time you’re in high school, it’s a different world. There are the kids that might be music majors, and the kids that are going to be doctors, or lawyers, or whatever else they’re striving for. I prepare everyone as if they might be a music major, even if they’re telling me, “Oh no, I’m going to be an engineer.” You never know. I have gotten many emails from students late in December suddenly informing me they want to be a music major!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I also used to teach jazz piano at Colburn, and I’m proud of the fact that I have about a half dozen students out there that are pretty world-famous right now. We have a great jazz program at Colburn now with Lee Secard directing it, and Liz Kinnon teaching jazz piano. I love all music and playing the piano, so being at Colburn is about as special as it can get.

Central to the Colburn School’s commitment to providing equitable access to excellence, students in Mr. Lavner’s studio are generously offered scholarship support funded by our community of donors through their annual and endowment gifts. Such scholarships include the Herbert Zipper Scholarship program which offers highly motivated, deserving students the opportunity to engage in comprehensive music education at Colburn. Herbert Zipper Scholars receive instruction in music theory, private lessons, and ensemble participation, among many other academic and performance opportunities. The School would also like to show special appreciation for donors who offer students support through other avenues, such as instrument donations. Donors who give the gift of an instrument equip students with the resources they need to become thriving artists with access to the highest quality music education.

Michael Roberts Shares Highlights from a Life in the Performing Arts

Michael Roberts, Trudl Zipper Dance Institute’s Music and Technical Coordinator, began working at Colburn in 2005. A former London West End production stage manager, he has drawn from his background to help make performances a noteworthy part of the Colburn Dance student experience. We sat down with Michael to discuss the beginnings of the dance program, the importance of live music for dancers, and highlights from his 16 years here.

This interview has been edited for style, content, and clarity.

What is your background and how did you start working at Colburn?
I’m towards the very end of my second career. My first career was in England and I was production stage manager for Harold Prince, who you might recognize from the Phantom of the Opera. I did the original Broadway productions of Fiddler on the Roof, Steven Sondheim’s Company, and a lot of plays in London for the first 10 years of my career.

During the time in England, I was also trained as an accompanist for dance at the Royal Ballet School. And so I used that as an opportunity to come over here in 1975. I was very lucky and landed a job with the school called the Stanley Holden Dance Center in LA.

I stayed with him for almost 14 years and got to work with some of the greatest dancers in the world, including Baryshnikov, Anthony Dowell, Juliet Prowse, Margot Fonteyn, and that’s how this current career started.

From there I joined CalArts where I started out as an accompanist, and then became music coordinator and faculty member there for 22 years. And then right after that, I came to Colburn.

What makes the Colburn Dance program stand out to you?
The chance to collaborate [with other genres and music departments and guest artists], which I see here more so than at most schools. And the caliber of the musicians that we get to work with—they’re all phenomenal.

Also, the chance to perform in the venues that we do, like Walt Disney Concert Hall. Our dancers have been able to perform there, plus all the other major theaters. In the early days, we would do a collaboration with the Norton Simon Museum, and we did performances at MOCA.

Live music is a special aspect of the dance program at Colburn. How have you seen this important and unique component influence the programs in your time here at Colburn?
Many dance programs, schools, and studios are not able to afford live musicians for their classes, which is nice for me as many use my recordings for their classes.

There is a huge difference between live and recorded music in classes. Live accompaniment allows the musician to have a relationship with both the teacher and the student/dancer.

I always emphasize in my music for dancer classes that music is a dancer’s best friend. There should be a closeness between the two. The dancer should try to absorb the music letting it surround and flow through their bodies. A dancer can be a brilliant technician but if they are not musical and have little musicality then they are not fulfilling their full potential.

It is so important that the music and musicality is incorporated in all classes. Discussing the different meter and rhythms and then executing them with the music.

You’re the Music Coordinator. What does that involve?
I manage the musicians. We have eleven accompanists, nine pianists and two percussionists. I also co-produce and stage manage all the productions that we do, both on campus and off campus, and work very closely with our great production people, Victor [Pineda] and Francesco [Perlangeli]. I also accompany classes and rehearsals and organize all the music for the program, whether it’s live or whether it’s recorded.

Accompanying has been very different this year; can you talk about that?
Yes, it certainly has. The week after lockdown started, we began experimenting with me playing from my living room at home in Glendale and Jenifer Ringer giving instruction from her home in South Pasadena.

It was challenging due to the time lag with Zoom but we were able to adapt. When looking at the screen, you have the dancers all doing movement at slightly different times.

Some of our accompanists were not able to play their acoustic pianos in their homes due to noise/neighbor issues so we were able to supply them with keyboards from the Colburn piano lab.

It has also been challenging for our Tap program due to the live percussionist sound blocking the sounds of the tap dancer’s feet, but with perseverance, we have been able to modify and adapt.

You’re planning to retire this year. What have been some highlights of your time at Colburn?
Very recently, I heard Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist who came over from England, play this piece of music. It was actually a Christmas carol, and I loved it and thought, wow that could be such a neat piece for one of our students to maybe dance to one day. We staged it, I did an arrangement of the piece of cello and piano, and we performed it.

And then the following year, I heard that somebody was coming to Colburn to give a master class and it was him. So I got a hold of his manager, and I said, “What do you think the chances are of he and his sister performing this piece with our dancer?” By this time the dancer had already left and was in Indiana, I believe at the university. Long story short, James got involved and we made it happen.

That was a real highlight to have been able to make that actually happen at the School. I was very, very proud of that. It was a really special performance for our dancer and for Sheku and his sister [Isata]. They were just blown away because they’d never done anything like that before.

What has a life in the performing arts meant to you?
From my years in the West End, London working with such amazing performers like Topol, Elaine Stritch, Trevor Howard, and Dame Edith Evans to all the wonderful dancers, both well-known and students just starting out, a life in the performing arts has given me the means to perfect my craft and my playing. I have been inspired by all of these wonderful talents, along with all the amazing teachers I have had the privilege of working with at Colburn and all the other great schools and studios. I feel truly blessed.

And finally, after 16 years with Colburn, what’s your next chapter look like?
I have been working pretty much nonstop for the last 55 years, so it is time to slow down. I have been dealing with a debilitating disease of the hands called Dyputrans contraction for many years, having had many surgeries to keep me playing. It is time to rest my hands and enjoy the time have left. I hope to still play for master classes sometimes both at the Music Center and Colburn.

Faculty Spotlight: Benjamin Lash

This interview has been lightly edited for content, length, and clarity.

How long have you been on faculty at Colburn?
I’ve been on the faculty since the school year began.

So it’s your first semester? How’s it going so far?
Yeah, it’s been great! I really enjoy working with my students.

You were a Conservatory student here. When did you graduate and what was your path to becoming a faculty member?
I graduated in May 2013. I became more interested in teaching in my second year of undergrad when I started teaching a grade school student who was in YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles). This was my first exposure to teaching and I found it to be exceptionally gratifying.

I also participated in the Colburn Teaching Fellows Program, led by Robert Duke. As a part of the program, we learned about different methods and philosophies of teaching. For this class, we videotaped the lessons which we taught and in class, we would review and analyze these videos in great detail. This was a very inspiring experience and gave me a much deeper insight into my approach to teaching.

During grad school at USC, I had a few private students and also taught non-music major students at USC. I particularly enjoy teaching kids because I think you can make such a big impact on their playing and hopefully, on other aspects of their lives. I was very excited when I noticed the open teaching position at Colburn!

What’s it like being back here on faculty after a few years?
Of course the perspective of being a faculty member is completely new, but returning brings back many great memories of being a student here. Colburn is such a warm and supportive school. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to study with Ron Leonard, and to have chamber coachings with other great faculty members. It’s such a small school, but it has everything you could ever want. It is wonderful to return to Colburn!

Why did you originally decide to study at Colburn?
I was drawn to Colburn by the opportunity to study with Ron Leonard. My teacher prior to college had studied with Ron Leonard when he taught at Eastman. She had lots of wonderful stories about his teaching and artistry. I came out to LA for a couple trial lessons and it immediately felt like we would work well together. As a student, he challenged me to think outside the box and to learn lots of repertoire.

Besides what you’ve mentioned so far, how do you think the education you got here played a role in your musical development and career?
In addition to the great experience I had studying with Ron Leonard, there were many fantastic chamber music opportunities. As a Colburn student, I was able to perform alongside faculty and guest artists. I was a serious musician before I came to Colburn, but the high standards of the faculty and my fellow students inspired me to develop to another level.

How do you approach working with your students and figuring out what to teach them?
I try to focus on two major objectives in approaching an individual student. First, I personalize my teaching style to fit the student’s needs and learning style. Second, I strive to create a learning environment in which the student has fun while achieving their goals.

To accomplish this, I try to use strategies that develop both technical skills and artistry. I guide my students to become experts at practicing by actively teaching them healthy approaches to practice and encouraging them to look for their own creative solutions. Specifically, I emphasize breaking down problems into small, manageable components, creating a clear path to improvement.

To foster artistic development, I encourage my students to become comfortable expressing their musical opinions and often ask them to sing, which provides invaluable insights into phrasing and interpretation. Supporting students in the development of their own thought processes greatly improves the quality of their musicianship.

What else do you do besides teach here?
I sub with a few different orchestras, including the LA Phil and LA Chamber Orchestra. I also do some studio sessions for movie and TV music. Chamber music is an important part of my musical life. I am a member of the Sakura Cello Quintet. We arrange most of our own music and try to present it in a creative manner.

What’s it like building a musical career in LA?
LA is an exciting place for building a musical career and provides wide range of opportunities for orchestral playing, chamber music, studio work, and teaching.

What kind of advice would you give to students that want to do something similar?
My advice would be to focus on mastering their craft as much as they can and to really know what they want to say with their playing. In addition to mastering their instrument, it is equally important to develop strong interpersonal skills and to learn how to communicate and work effectively with others. Finally, I would emphasize the importance of maintaining balance in their life and learning to focus on fulfilling activities outside of music.

What’s something your students might not know about you?
I really like to play ping pong and during my college years, I participated in [Robert] Lipsett’s tournaments. I’m a big Chicago Cubs fan. Sorry about that Dodger fans!

Benjamin Lash Performs Bach's Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012

The monthly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding students, faculty, and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.


Faculty Spotlight: Lee Secard

This interview has been lightly edited for length, clarity, and style.

How did you come to teach here?
I taught for a couple of years when I was just out of college, and then I started touring. I went on the road, and I did that for about eleven years.

So, when that ended, there happened to be an opening for a saxophone teacher. So I applied and auditioned, and I was fortunate to get that position. And so that’s how I started; I started with one student.

I had an idea about what the school could be, and my timing was impeccable because those years were when Joe Thayer [former Executive Director and Dean Emeritus] and Toby Mayman [Founding Executive Director] had the idea to [build the school into what it is today.] I was very fortunate in that the deans that I worked with, Joe Thayer, and then Bob McAllister, were really supportive of our ideas.

What was your plan for the school?
I had the idea that we could be a center for jazz education in Los Angeles. So, starting with one class and four students at the old school on Figueroa, my thought was that we needed to diversify and add classes. I tried to proceed with a plan and some basic values.

The basic values of the jazz program, as I saw it, were the encouragement of original music, composing, an emphasis on aural hearing, aural skills, and aural acquisition of the music. This is a heard art form, and it’s imagined through rhythm and creativity that happens in real time.

What has it been like teaching here?
The first thing about my experience here is that I am always stunned and inspired by the talent of our students. I’m very, very fortunate. I can’t imagine a teacher more fortunate than me in terms of who I get to work with. So, I’m very aware of that.

The other thing is, I’m very aware of who they’re going to be. One of the things I have said to parents quite often is, “I feel like I know these guys, I know who they’re going to be.” They’re incredibly talented, and they’re going to be amazingly accomplished, and that’s proven out.

How did you get into jazz?
By the time I noticed it, I was already in it. My memories from very early in life are of wanting to be a musician. It was a difficult process to make it happen, I have a bit of an unusual early history. But, I think like most musicians, it’s what I always wanted.

In those days, Columbia Records was selling duplicate quarter-inch masters of recording sessions, so these things had an unbelievable sound coming off the tape; it was one generation removed from a master recording. I heard Paul Desmond’s E-natural on his alto, basically the way he sounded in the studio, and that changed everything. I had that sound in my ear from when I was nine years old. From that point forward, I didn’t really ever consider anything else.

What was your journey like from finishing school to building a career?
When I was in school, I wanted to play. I had the idea that I wanted to be a performer. It was a struggle, of course, but I was fortunate when I was out of school for about a year to start playing with a really great jazz big band, the Bill Watrous Big Band, that has become significant by virtue of who came out of it. I did that for three years, and then I started touring.

When I started touring, I had a lot of different experiences along the way. I think if you’re going to be a professional player in Los Angeles, you’re going to be doing a lot of different things, and so in my playing career I’ve done studio work, I’ve done theater, of course I’ve done jazz performance, but my big ambition during the years when I was traveling was to compose.

So at the time that I started teaching here, I studied composition as a graduate student. I had some wonderful teachers doing that. My composition teachers were Stephen Hartke and Don Crockett. Along the way earlier, I had some amazing teachers. I was able to study with Warne Marsh and Charlie Shoemake who were both master jazz teachers. At a certain point around 2000, I became part of the Luckman Jazz Orchestra and I wrote a lot of music for them, every concert for five years.

My goal was to be musical. I always had an ambition to be improvising, to be playing at a high level, and to be the fellow that showed up with all of the music under his arm that everybody was going to play. That was my wish. So, as a teacher, that’s the type of experience I want to create for my students.

How has that manifested with the jazz program here?
Fast forward through the years, we have wound up with eight bands. We have a Big Band, we have seven combos that serve different levels of development among our students, and to some degree they serve different ages. Over the last few years, we’ve gotten a lot of honors and awards.

I’ve been fortunate to be in a position to assemble a really fine faculty. We just hired a bass teacher, Katie Thiroux, who was our student here. We have two wonderful jazz drum teachers, Jerry Kalaf, who has been here as long as I have, and Ken McGrath. My assistant is Dr. Walter Simonsen, who is our jazz trumpet teacher and the Assistant Director of the Big Band. He’s a phenomenal teacher. Walter and I are both involved informally in advising students in composition and arranging. Our jazz piano teacher is Liz Kinnon, who also directs the adult ensembles.

Your students participate in the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival and the DownBeat awards every year. And this year, 11 of the 17 Music Center Spotlight Award jazz instrumental semifinalists are Colburn Jazz Workshop students.
Those are big efforts every year. We’ve been to Monterey for five years in a row with three bands. I don’t think that’s ever been done up there before, because it’s an invitational festival. Last year, our Thursday Night Band won Monterey Next Gen, and they played at Monterey Jazz Festival last fall.

Over the past however many years, we’ve won about 50 DownBeat awards, and that’s also a pretty phenomenal result. And this year, Dario Bizio, jazz bassist and composer, is one of two Spotlight Award finalists performing on the final concert at Disney Hall in June.

What’s the importance of having them participate in these festivals and competitions every year?
The culture needs to go on. This is our music. This is American culture, this is American music. It’s the best of what our culture is about. It’s not inherited from anywhere else, it happened here. So it absolutely needs to go on. We feel pride and ownership, and want to sustain it and make it grow.

How do you think the world of music has changed for students today?
It changes every five years completely. I recall something that Glenn Frey said, of the Eagles. He said, a few years ago, “I don’t even know what a record is, I don’t know what a hit record is anymore.”

Now it’s at the point where artists emerge from YouTube. They all know each all over the country because everybody posts their audition videos from everywhere.

When I started paying attention to music, there was still a pretty thriving club scene, people would tour, you’d have long tours of guys, different people would be on the road a lot. Now when people go out and tour, it’s for a few days here and there. A lot of our students still want to move to New York, now a lot of New York guys are moving here.

Music always changes. By the time our best students are in the 11th grade, they have the finger completely on that pulse, and they know exactly where it’s going.

The weekly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding students, faculty, and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.


Faculty Spotlight: Clive Greensmith

This interview has been lightly edited for length, clarity, and style.

How and why did you come to be at Colburn?
I played in a string quartet, the Tokyo Quartet, and in 2013 the more senior members decided they would retire. With Martin Beaver and myself being the younger members, we decided we might think about continuing the group, but before we could really formulate real plans, [President and CEO] Sel Kardan came to a presentation concert we were giving in New York City.

He invited us to come and give a couple of classes here in 2012. And then pretty much after we arrived and did a day of teaching, he and Richard Beene, who was the dean at that point, offered us newly created positions to co-direct the chamber music program. So, we then decided we close the shop down and retire, officially, the quartet and come here. And so that was in 2013, in the fall.

What has it been like teaching here in the last six years?
For me, it’s been a joy. There’s no other institution that I’ve worked for that has given me the support to teach at the highest possible level. Of course we have beautiful facilities, but it’s really all about the students here, and about the ability we have to bring in that top level of talent. It’s something you can really do here to influence the young people, to support them, and to see them flourish.

We are full-time faculty. I’m here all the time. Of course, I go away for concerts, but the school is the most important thing that I do in my life. Here, It’s a long-term commitment for the student’s development, over a long period of time, that will go on benefiting them in the future. It’s a contract you enter into with the student that you’ll be there for them at every point.

What do you hope your students gain from studying with you?
First and most important is that artistic expression, and to develop their whole, unique capabilities, their own voices. I don’t want clones. I don’t want them to sound and look like me when I play, but I want to develop whatever they have to offer, to open them up, to make them more inquisitive, to question why they do things, to give them confidence.

To make them musically alert enough so they’re totally absorbed in what they’re doing, to understand a wide variety of musical styles and expressions that give them the tools to be able to express that. You can’t just look at the cello and hope that the sound is going to come out the way you want. You have to know how to manipulate the instrument at a very, very high level, under the strain of lights and cameras and audience. Do all of that, and have the craft to be able to say what you want to say.

Why do you love teaching?
I come from a family of teachers, but that’s less relevant. Why I love teaching is that if I play a concert, if it’s a good night and people clap, you get taken out for a meal by the promoter, and people greet you and you feel like you’ve done a good deed for the composer—that’s great, but it’s over. And the next day you might have a concert again, or might not. You play a different piece. In a way, I feel like that’s a bit ephemeral.

But with a student, when you teach, it’s more meaningful to see them grow in confidence, and deepen their awareness of the music, and to become self-sufficient, and for that to keep going and lasting to support them in the years that ensues. So I feel like it’s more rewarding to teach, and it’s in a way more permanent. So I feel like I’ve given them something.

And also I love my subject. I find I discover more about cello music through teaching than I do often playing myself, because when you look at it and look at somebody else and their journey, you get drawn into them. There’s the psychological aspect, there’s the emotional aspect, there’s the leading a younger person, which is a great responsibility. And then there’s the discoveries that you make to get about music, in a way that might appeal or speak to them. We’re dealing with beautiful art here. There’s nothing better than to be sitting in a room here, in the studio.

What is it like balancing teaching with your active performance career?
It’s very hard. There are only so many hours in the day. But the relationship between my own performing career and the students here is very important. I feel I can bring the experiences that I have on stage to the studio here, and help them because I’ve been through it myself. And I’m still dealing with those challenges of being on stage. I think it helps me in my teaching. I can understand what they’re going through. I know the practical pitfalls of many of these pieces, because I’ve played them a lot.

How do you think the classical music world has changed since when you first started playing?
I was brought up in the UK, and I left 21 years ago to come here. It was a completely different world. There wasn’t the technology that we have now at our disposal to instantly share what we do. There was no YouTube. This instant access now has meant that what we do is on display. It means that music has become more visual. It used to be an aural experience, now it’s a visual experience.

There are less offers for you to have a 15 album contract with the major recording companies, because they don’t have the money now. There are less jobs now.

Open borders. You’ve got Eastern Europe coming west. China has opened hugely, of course. And countries like South Korea, you see that the level of teaching everywhere has become very, very high. So as a result, I think it’s way more competitive now than it was 30 years ago.

How should today’s young musicians deal with these changes?
The young musicians today have to be at the top of their game as instrumentalists. They have to be very sure of themselves, and they have to be very realistic about how competitive it is. I think it’s harder now to make it in the career than it probably ever has been.

Let’s take a young ensemble. I ask this of a young group: What is it that you think you do better than another group? What is it you stand for? Knowing what you stand for or who you are or what you can bring is, I think, very important, because then you can recognize that in the player. They’re striving for something. It’s not just another good player.

They actually have to have a sense of missionary zeal. A kind of belief in their role as a communicator and as an artist. That would make me want to choose them for whatever it would be. You can’t be nonchalant about that.

The weekly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding students, faculty, and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.


Faculty Spotlight: Tamsin Carlson

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

How did you start teaching at Colburn?
I began teaching at Colburn spring 2014, as a substitute for Sarah Swenson, who was the modern teacher and chair of modern then. She resigned at the beginning of that summer and I was offered and accepted the position.

How have you seen the dance program change over the years?
Over the past four years, we’ve had tremendous growth in the dance department. The summer I joined, there was growth in modern, I believe in part because I was a member of the local community. I owned a children’s shoe store and was also involved in the local schools, as I had children of my own.

Then Bob McAllister, who was the Dean of the Community School at that time, allowed the addition of several levels in the modern program to support that development. That summer also saw Jenifer Ringer and James Fayette launch the Dance Academy, to great success.

The following summer, Colburn restructured dance under the leadership of Dean Jenifer Ringer and Associate Dean James Fayette. With their support, the modern program expanded into a more serious program following the structure of the ballet program, under chair Kelly Ann Sloan. This is all very exciting, and the development and growth is still continuing.

What is different about Colburn from other places you’ve taught?
Most of the schools I have taught in are colleges and universities, as classical modern technique is rarely taught to younger students. I believe we’re the only afterschool program that offers that level of excellence in modern dance to students at this age.

The Collaboration Concert is coming up on March 31. What are you working on for that?
I have one piece on the program titled “Aerie” and it’s set to the Philip Glass piece “Company,” which is originally for a string quartet, but we have the [Colburn Chamber Orchestra] playing it. It sounds amazing.

For our spring concert on May 11, we will have a string quartet accompany the students for that piece. There is something incredibly special about performing to live music, which is becoming increasingly rare in the dance world. Our students are very blessed to have this experience, another example of what makes Colburn unique.

You teach Cunningham, a style of modern dance created by Merce Cunningham. How would you describe the technique?
I jokingly refer to it as physical Sudoku. It’s balletic, or maybe I should say classical, in that it has lines and creates positive and negative space. It’s grounded, and weighted in a way that is unique to modern dance. The back is just as important as the legs, and moves just as much.

But it is a technique and class that follows a similar pathway to ballet, in that we do tondues, plies, battements, etc. Then we have the addition of the back exercises and then combinations of movement that begin to incorporate it all.

Merce’s use of space was also very important. Any side could be used as front, and the upper right corner is just as important spatially as downstage left or center. Merce felt that the drama or story should not be imposed, but should come out of the relationship you have to the space and to the other dancers occupying that space. That was also one of the reasons he used chance procedures to create works; it removed the ego from the process.

We now have a partnership with the Cunningham Trust. What does that look like?
We’re still exploring how to maximize that relationship. We got to do official Cunningham repertory this year. Also, whenever a Cunningham guest artist is in town, they come in to teach the students’ class.

We’re also figuring out a curriculum for younger students as part of this partnership. Because typically they’ve not worked with younger students, whereas that is all I do here. I’ve found that more and more Cunningham’s finding its way into what I teach, because it’s my area of expertise and the technique in which I really found my strength and passion.

Right now everyone’s caught up in the [centennial celebration of Merce’s 100th birthday] this year. Which is exciting and also thrilling to see a new generation of young dancers intrigued by this wonderful choreographer.  Merce’s birthday is April 16, and CAP UCLA is hosting the Merce Cunningham’s “Night of 100 Solos” which I’m honored to be performing in. There are also two other “Night of 100 Solos” being performed the same evening in London and New York. It is a huge event.

What is it like having a career as a professional modern dancer?
It is an incredibly disciplined, demanding career that as a performer, can be short-lived. But I loved it. There was just nothing else. And even when I’d left teaching, dancing, and performing, I’ve always come back to it.

Silas Reiner, who was a member of the final Cunningham Company, said when he last taught a master class, “There is nothing harder, and there few rewards.” However, I believe dance is physically and mentally empowering, and gives our students abilities that will support them throughout their lives.

The weekly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding students, faculty, and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.


Faculty Spotlight: Charlie Hodges

This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and style.

How did you find yourself at Colburn?
Through James [Fayette] and Jenifer [Ringer]. James was the former general director at LA Dance Project, and he and Jenifer were tapped to lead the Colburn [Dance Academy]. We all knew of each other through the circles in which we ran, but LA Dance Project brought us into the same room, working for the same purpose.

James asked if I would help blur the line between ballet and contemporary dance, because the future of dance is going into a direction that is a little more universal. It’s helpful for young ballet dancers who want to be in ballet companies to learn how to do contemporary-based work.

How has your experience been working with the Dance Academy students?
The kids are great. I think they are all very eager and they never say no, which I think is a wonderful quality in a group. There’s a tendency in dance that if you focus in one area, you are less likely to consider movement styles and other areas.

In this case, these students are very focused on ballet. So all signs would indicate that they do not want to do contemporary work. In other situations, you run into a lot of conflict as a teacher, but here I’ve never encountered a student who said no or resisted. They all always try, which I think is really is a testament to the kind of environment or culture that they get here at Colburn.

What kind of environment is that?
It comes from trust, I think. I would say that Jenifer and James have always been incredibly transparent with what they expect of their students and how they will help their students. They don’t undermine their students’ growth or potential in any way. Their first priority is always what’s in the best interest of the student, at the expense of maybe losing a really great talent to a different school or to a new job. I think the students understand that intuitively.

Why do you think it’s important for students to be well-rounded or be comfortable in a wide variety of styles?
These days, everybody’s branding themselves, and is more proactive in their own journey and defining what it is. I think the dancer of the 21st century is this mix and amalgamation of all sorts of genres. They say in order to be in the right place at the right time, you have to be at all places all the time. So I think of that. Being a contemporary and modern teacher in a ballet program is helping these students understand how to be in all places at all times, so that they are in the right place at the right time.

How do you get students to think beyond ballet?
I like to go back to what’s universal. You could think of ballet as a grove of trees, each tree as a different choreographer and each branch is a different piece of repertory. You have your jazz tree grove and your modern tree, and contemporary, and a whole bunch of different groves of trees. I think that’s how people typically think of dance.

I like to go Avatar-style and think of one massive singular tree everybody prays to, and this is the tree of dance—only one. There’s a trunk on that tree that shoots off into the boughs of ballet and contemporary, and all those boughs break off into the branches for all the different choreographers and choreographies. But the question then is what is the trunk, what is universal about dance? And I think you could argue that every style of dance at some point is really just about throwing and catching body weight. That’s universal.

So I feel like in order to get a student to be able to go in any direction at any time, in order to be in the right place at the right time, they need to understand the universal truths at the root of all dance. Because if you can go back to the beginning, then you can take that foundation in any direction. If you only train at the bough, then you can never get back to the trunk in order to go down another path. It’s really like, what’s zero? How do you really get them to learn from zero and build from here, instead of from an assumed spot and just everything on the other side of that?

What other lessons do you hope to share with your students?
To me, so much of teaching is also psychology. As teachers, we’re teaching these kids how to perform a skill or craft, but we’re also preparing them for adulthood. Part of being an adult is coping with frustration, especially in art.

We’re always pushing to play faster, move faster, do better, be stronger. Everything is a push to an extreme. We break through one peak only to see that there’s another one, and another one. So to a degree where we live is a state of dissatisfaction, a state of incomplete, a state of unsuccess, whatever the word is. Years go by and you have never been good enough because you’re actually always working for the next thing.

So while you’ve made a lot of progress, we don’t moment-to-moment see that. So how can we as teachers best prepare the students to pause for a moment and recognize the big picture while at the same time, they’re really focusing on the tiniest picture? I think that balance is really critical and that’s not a given. We don’t intuitively as people understand this. I think this is just training. It’s like a muscle. If you don’t exercise it, you don’t have it be used.

The weekly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding faculty and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.


Faculty Spotlight: Henry Gronnier

This interview has been lightly edited for length, clarity, and style.

What brought you to Colburn?
I moved to LA in 1998 because of my string quartet, the Rossetti String Quartet. Members were living in LA, and I’ve loved Los Angeles since the first day I came when I was much younger. So I took the opportunity to come and I remember at the time one of our violinists who was a student of Mr. Lipsett, Michelle Kim, who is now assistant concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, told me about Colburn. I actually came to hear the young orchestra, and I was just blown away. At that time, the dean invited me to interview and I got the position so I was very, very happy, and it has been a long, happy ride.

You’re the new chair of the string department. What are your responsibilities?
I’m supervising 32 or 33 teachers, it’s the biggest division. I have to supervise, making sure that all the teachers, students, and parents are happy. I take care of new inquiries, when kids want to join. I listen to them first and try to find the appropriate teacher, the right match for them to continue at Colburn.

What are you performing on the Faculty Showcase this weekend?
I will be performing two things. The first movement of the Dvořák Piano Quintet with Micah Yui on piano, Aimée Kreston on violin, Andrew Picken on viola, and Vardan Gasparyan on cello. I will also play with Rina Dokshitsky the first movement of the G Major Brahms Sonata.

Why do you think the faculty showcase is important for students to attend?
I think it’s important, first for respect. It’s also important to know that your teacher can perform and to hear what your teacher is doing. It’s a great opportunity to showcase all our faculty, to see the spectrum that we offer. I really wish that more kids would come to this concert to be inspired. It’s what we want to do, not just to teach them but to inspire them.

Why do you love chamber music?
Chamber music for me is probably the most extraordinary and magical music that a composer could write. They are basically love letters, so of course it’s very intimate. Actually, I was very happy that this time my faculty recital was in Thayer Hall. Zipper is wonderful, but you don’t get that intimate setting and the connection with the audience. You can really go very intimate with dynamics and be even more personal in what you do.

The quartet is the perform form of music, and when it’s great, it’s extraordinarily great. I’ve played string quartets for 25 years and unfortunately not anymore because our violist who was also my ex-partner passed away. It’s the best form of music. It’s also about relationships. You need to have very strong chemistry with four people, which is very hard to find, people who have the same goal.

What has your career path been, and what advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
I have a very unusual path. I don’t know if it was bad luck, but I had accidents twice in my life where I stopped my career. The first time I was quite young. I was 21, and I collapsed my lung when I was just starting my solo career. I had four different surgeries that actually left me paralyzed on my right side for a year and a half. For a year and a half, I couldn’t play.

I resumed my career, and in 1989, I broke my shoulder and my thumb, so I couldn’t play for six years. During that time, I became vice president of a big management company in New York where I actually started the career of many big people. I thought in a way that having many perspectives from being an artist, a teacher, and a manager, seeing all sides was very important to me.

My advice for young people is they should try to examine everything they do. Meaning, education is very important. The more educated you are, the better it will be for your artistry and for your future, because you never know what could happen. It’s always important to have choices and not to be cornered doing one thing.

Why did you start teaching?
That’s funny. When I was very young, my teacher and my mom told me that they thought that I would be a great teacher and I was like, absolutely not. The one thing that I don’t want to do is teaching. And I became the assistant to a teacher when I was 18, but I have to say it was a very rough time because I had 21 beginners on Suzuki. It was hard work. All my heart goes to the Suzuki teachers here because when you start someone, it’s so important. The first teacher is the most important one. I was not one of them because I had the worst teacher when I started. At age 17, I had to start from scratch again.

After a long period of not teaching, I started teaching adults, amateurs who wanted to play chamber music well. And I actually found it very interesting to be able to give some advice and demonstrate, and see people actually making progress. When that happens as a teacher it’s really amazing, to see your kids grow. Teaching is very, very interesting when you can make a difference. You’re not always teaching people to become professional, but to educate them, to understand music, to appreciate music. And we need to make sure we have an audience for the future.

The weekly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding faculty and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.


Faculty Spotlight: Scott St. John

This interview has been lightly edited for style, content, and clarity.

What brings you to Colburn?
My position, the Director of Chamber Music, is kind of a dream job for me. I am very passionate about chamber music. As a violinist myself, I’ve always kind of been involved in chamber music, including a professional string quartet for many years. So I guess the combination of the excellence of the Colburn School and a job that’s all about chamber music, which I love, felt unbelievably attractive.

What do you hope to achieve with the chamber music program?
I think the biggest achievement that I’m looking for is a more cohesive direction in the program and a chance to make students feel like chamber music is actually a viable professional direction, instead of just a side thing. The interesting thing about my position is that it straddles both the [Music] Academy and the Conservatory, so I think especially on the Academy side, my mission is to also provide a level of inspiration to make sure that everyone is participating to their maximum ability.

What do you think students can learn from chamber music in general?
I feel like chamber music is basically an analogy for life. To be a good chamber music player, of course you have to play well, but that’s actually not the most important part. You have to be able to work with people, be receptive to ideas, and be really open to opinions and solving things in a democratic way. I find that there can be personality clashes in chamber music groups—it happens all the time—and it really takes some serious diplomacy to make those situations work. It’s exactly an example of what students are going to need to do when they leave Colburn. The music world is all about connections and those bonds that you make, whether it’s here at school or in any part of your life. I think chamber music can really represent all those worldly things.

Why did you decide to pursue chamber music?
It’s basically what I’ve always loved doing. When I was in school myself, I gravitated towards chamber music because it was more social, and it allowed a lot of discussion about what one was doing musically. I always found that more gratifying than just sitting in the practice room working on your Paganini Caprice or whatever.

I also had teachers that were very involved in chamber music. One of my teachers was Arnold Steinhardt, who’s also here at Colburn. His quartet, the Guarneri Quartet, was a great inspiration for me because I saw how wonderfully they worked together and how they were ambassadors for music. I loved that idea, that chamber music is a way into interpreting ideas even from folks who don’t know very much about music. I think it’s a great entry point.

What is one piece of advice you’d share with students?
My advice to students would be to treat all of your fellow students as future colleagues. The folks that you’re working with now are the folks that you’re going to be working with professionally, probably way more than you expect. The music world is not that large and so I think it’s good to work on those skills. Not that you need to tell everyone that they’re fabulous, but you need to be aware of those contacts and how important your environment is to your future.

What are some of your interests outside music?
 First of all, I could say that I’m a huge Disney fan. I especially enjoy the history of Disney animation and the planning and imagineering of Disneyland and the parks. I’m also a runner; I like jogging. I’m a big fan of healthy eating. I do a quasi-paleo diet myself so I enjoy getting involved in that sort of lifestyle. Otherwise, family. I have a seven-year-old daughter, and it’s nice to spend time with her.

Favorite Disney movie?
Little Mermaid.

Weekly Saturday Spotlight stories highlight our outstanding faculty and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.