Piano faculty Jeffrey Lavner teaches students in the Conservatory, Music Academy, and Community School. He has been teaching at Colburn since 1981.
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.