Abigail Smith, 6, gets an earful from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, who founded L.A.'s Silverlake Conservatory of Music to fill a void left by public school cutbacks.
Abigail Smith, 6, gets an earful from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, who founded L.A.'s Silverlake Conservatory of Music to fill a void left by public school cutbacks.
Jonathan Alcorn for The Washington Post

School Rocks!

Wills Guggenheim, 7, drums home a point at Silverlake Conservatory of Music. The school's founder, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, says a music education
Wills Guggenheim, 7, drums home a point at Silverlake Conservatory of Music. The school's founder, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, says a music education "gave me a focus, a structure and consistency" when growing up. (By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)

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By Melinda Newman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 27, 2007

LOS ANGELES

Four years ago, Maya Ramos couldn't find middle C on a keyboard. Now she's finding her way to first place in international piano competitions.

In a tiny rehearsal studio in a storefront music school, the slender 11-year-old bends over an upright piano and lovingly tucks into Manuel Ponce's "Scherzino Mexicano," her wrists high, her fingers caressing the keys lightly, then heavier as the tone of the piece shifts. It's among the works she will perform in at a recital in Mexico City this fall.

Taking piano lessons wasn't her idea, she says, but her mother insisted and managed to find a place that would nurture Maya's interest and talent: the Silverlake Conservatory of Music on the city's east side. It was co-founded by a rock musician known more for his onstage antics than his appreciation of classical composers. That would be Flea, the frequently shirtless, frenetic bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He's one of a handful of pop stars, including soul singer Macy Gray and hip-hop's Black Eyed Peas, who have established nonprofit music schools for children. The artists initially bankrolled the projects and now rely primarily on donations and fundraisers to subsidize operations.

Such schools help fill a void left by deep state and federal budget cuts that have severely diminished arts programs in public schools. Maya, for example, cannot take piano at her charter public school; the only music electives are for violin and cello. Other students at Silverlake talk about having no music programs at their schools at all.

Flea (born Michael Balzary) launched Silverlake in 2001, in part because of such cutbacks. He says the music program at Los Angeles's Fairfax High School was his salvation in the late 1970s. "I was a troubled kid. I was on the street. I was doing drugs. I was breaking into people's houses. I was bad news," he recalled in an interview.

"Having music in school was the one thing that I really believed in. [It] gave me a focus, a structure and consistency." He took full advantage of a menu of offerings including orchestra, jazz and marching band, choir and musical productions.

After sitting by chance beside Fairfax's music teacher at a Knicks game in New York several years ago, the rocker decided to revisit his alma mater -- and found its music program decimated by budget cuts: "Everything was gone. I couldn't believe it," he says. "When I went, you could pick any instrument. You want to play in an orchestra? No problem. When I went back, it was a volunteer teacher, a couple of acoustic guitars. It was this shell of this thing that was still alive while I was there."

Flea says he put up "a few hundred thousand dollars" to open the Silverlake Conservatory with high school friend-turned-music teacher Keith Barry, who is the school's dean.

On a busy afternoon last week, students lugged their instruments, sometimes in music cases as tall as they are, into the lobby and sat under photos of Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The sounds of piano, trumpet and guitar wafted from the six rehearsal rooms. The school has swelled to 25 part-time teachers tutoring 700 students (ages 4 and up), seven days a week. When his schedule permits, Flea teaches bass and trumpet.


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