Strains of the Electric Light Orchestra could be heard in the damp gray of the darkroom at the Corcoran School of Art on a Saturday morning. About a dozen pairs of hands ministered to the prints in trays of developer on the common table, keeping time with the music as the images appeared.

In another room, a teacher was critquing some students efforts. It would be, for some, an introduction to an art form, or a lifelong hobby and maybe they could make some money at it; for others, it wouldn't be what they'd expected and next time they'd take a course in something else.

There are countless corners around town these days, this being the season to start registering for them. Most universities have some sort of continuing education -- from basic real estate at the University of Maryland, to "Assertive Communication: A Key to Success" at George Washington, to "French for Fun and Travel" at American, and calligraphy at all three. And there are the community colleges, the local Ys and recreation departments, public schools, the Smithsonian, the Department of Agriculture, the Open University of Washington, the Botanic Garden -- the list is endless.

It's Personal Enrichment.The phone rings and it's your mother to say she's taking up archeology, that sort of thing. It's "a toe in the water," says Sandy Pinkus at GW's College of General Studies, for people who've always wanted to try a field.

Ten years ago, when Georgetown University started its continuing education program, "We offered eight courses and five ran," says Elizabeth Beall, the associate dean, who's been there since the beginning.

"We had 79 students then. We now have in the neighborhood of 7,000 students," she says, citing many factors: "People who are upwardly mobile want to improve their skills or learn about new things; there's a great increase in simply keeping up; people have more leisure time. . . " Retirees, Beall adds, often discover that "There are many things they still want to learn; learning keeps them alive and growing."

Georgetown has a class on writing science fiction, and one on Shakespeare, sessions in art appreciation and the performing arts, a course on math without fear, even one on selecting a mate. Beall teaches women's career development and a three-Saturday seminar on the mid-life crisis and career change. "It's a transistion for everyone, though not everyone sees it as a crisis . . ." One thing the course stresses is the importance of contracts in job-hunting. Says Beall, "80 percent of the jobs are never advertised anywhere."

Courses when you don't have to take them are often practical, such as one called "All About Antiques and Auctions," at Montgomery College. Beverly Lloyd has been teaching it for the last seven years and in that time, her students have ranged in the age from 17 to 80. They've included antique dealers, an auctioneer and one woman who "hated antiques" and was just there to get an appreciation. Lloyd shows them lots of slides of the real thing and of fakes, and runs through the basics of what the styles were in a particular period.

But perhaps the most practical advice she gives is how to act at a auction. "Some people have never been to one," she says. "They are really frightened."

She also tells them the best places to find what they're looking for. "Flea markets and house sales seem to be a good place to find Art Deco," she advises. "Even in secondhand stores right now, if you know what you're looking for. If you were raised in the time when people were using it you know a lot more about it."

Then there's the wildly impractical course, just for fun: "ballooning" at the Department of Agriculture Graduate School. (They've also got a course simply titled "Eight Good Books," and another, "Birds of Prey.") The ballooning teacher is Russell Parkinson, a commercial hot-air balloon pilot who is a military historian with the Marine Corps. He runs the class through the history of ballooning, talks about how to judge the weather, where to fly and how to maintain the balloon. The course is topped off with a tethered flight. His "graduates" often end up participating in races as crew members -- holding the balloon while it fills with air, driving after it in the chase vehicle on back roads, as in a car rally. There's a lot of camaraderie, and a lot of joking about the crew members' union: they don't often get to actually fly. "Every balloon flight is a party," says Parkinson.

He describes his students as "typical Washington singles -- active, dynamic, inner-city employees, with the government or white-collar agencies. A high number of single women. The sort of people who would try photography one year and motorcycles the next." They look at it as a hobby. They develop friendships: "This is not a place to find a husband," says Parkinson, "but I have one group of girls discovering they live near each other."

Evelyn Amuedo Wade, who teaches "Poetry Writing and Marketing" at AU, thinks that people getting together could be "the charm" of her course. Her students can meet with other poets, wheras before "They worked alone in the dark." She's taught poetry two other semesters, and both times the classes wanted to continue to meet when the course was over. Then, both groups joined forces. "They have Wade Workshops I and II at each other's homes," she says.

You can't discount the social aspects. Says Beall of Georgetown: "I will have to confess there are some people who come here because it's more interesting than watching TV by yourself. A small minority of people have this motovation. Any place where you are likely to meet kindred souls is worth trying, in an area that doesn't have a lot of community -- to go someplace where you can meet people with common interests."

You could almost say that people aren't taking their problems to a psychiatrist any more, they're sitting them out in the classroom. It's group therapy without a stigma: there's the class know-it-all, the shy one, the brain -- the confluence of stereotypes we had to live with while growing up -- sure, you can handle it; and the authority figure in the front of the room; how do you feel about that?

It costs less, too, especially at the Open University. Here's one from the catalogue: "Breaking In, $10. Do you find it difficult making the move to meet people? Are you self-conscious and uncomfortable because of fears of being rejected?Then, this workshop is for you. Learn how to take the first step (risk) and how to do it feeling confident . . . "

But they don't stop at pop psych. Besides offerings that range from "Basketry" to "Soft Shoe Dancing" to "How to Write Love Letters" to "Scarves, Scarves, Scarves!" there's "Juggling," "Stagefright," "Tempura" and a promising one on "What Makes Great People Great."