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The Colburn Conservatory of Music Turns 20

The 2023-24 academic year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Colburn Conservatory of Music. To celebrate, we look back at how the Conservatory came to be the school it is today. Pictured left to right: Yehuda Gilad, Toby Mayman, Joseph Thayer, Robert Lipsett, and Ron Leonard with the Conservatory of Music Founders Awards, presented on April 25, 2024.

The Business of Dreams

Richard D. Colburn, the School’s benefactor, had long dreamed of a small, tuition-free conservatory where young artists pursued music at the highest level. For this conservatory to succeed and become the West Coast’s answer to schools like Curtis and Juilliard, Mr. Colburn believed faculty must lead the way. Three faculty currently teaching at the С槼ֱ were on his radar: Yehuda Gilad (clarinet), Ron Leonard (cello), and Robert Lipsett (violin). Their students were engaging with music at an extraordinarily high level, which profoundly moved Mr. Colburn, who had never experienced this depth of teaching when he was a young violist. “He melted,” Gilad says, reflecting on Mr. Colburn’s reaction whenever he, Leonard, and Lipsett talked about their students. “He would literally be reduced to tears hearing about my students’ successes and challenges,” says Lipsett. “I just saw that deep connection with wanting students to study great music if that was what they wanted.”

However, Mr. Colburn wasn’t ready to bank on what his heart wanted; he was a businessman and needed to be convinced he was making the right investment. Enter Executive Director Toby Mayman who fought tirelessly alongside Dean Joseph Thayer to convince Mr. Colburn that his concept for a conservatory aligned with the School’s, and that it would be done in the best way possible. When it came to closing the deal, Gilad calls Mayman “the architect” and Thayer “the engineer.”

Shortly after the С槼ֱ moved to Grand Avenue, Mr. Colburn pledged $165 million to endow a future conservatory and the Board directed Thayer to prepare a strategic plan. In fall 1998, the Board approved Thayer’s plan, whose title captured the program’s vision in simple, vivid terms: “The Colburn Conservatory: A Community of Musicians.” Thayer then assembled the Conservatory Planning Group, which included Gilad, Lipsett, Leonard, and theory faculty Warren Spaeth. The five met weekly to discuss their vision for the Colburn Conservatory of Music. “There was a common purpose between all of us who were working to put it together,” Leonard shares.

Founding faculty member Yehuda Gilad with MstislavRostropovich.

Mission and Philosophy

The foundational principles of the Conservatory fall into the following four categories.

1. Faculty

Faculty are the nucleus of the Conservatory’s teaching model: they are directly responsible for their students’ artistic growth. Their dedication to teaching is paramount, as is their consistent presence on campus, which brings the opportunity to understand their students holistically, not just how they are in lessons and performances. By establishing resident faculty as the standard, the Conservatory diverges from teaching models common to other conservatories, where faculty jump from school to school, often week to week, to teach students.

With few exceptions, there is only one faculty member per instrument, so it is crucial faculty work well in a small team and believe in the Conservatory’s mission. “It is important,” Leonard recalls, “that they really want to be a member of the faculty of this particular school.”

About the faculty, Mayman adds: “They are devoted to the wellbeing of the Conservatory as a whole. The faculty are treasures as teachers and human beings.”

2. Full Scholarships

Conservatory students receive free tuition, room, and board—the goal being to remove financial barriers and increase accessibility. The endowed gift from Mr. Colburn, with additional support from the School’s community, allows students to focus on their education, not school bills.

The Conservatory’s independence from tuition income directly affects other aspects of the program. As Thayer explains, “Most music schools in the U.S. admit far more students than Colburn, in part to generate tuition. The Colburn Conservatory is based on a non-tuition revenue concept, which allows maximum performance opportunities for all students, a great deal of flexibility in everything that we do, and extraordinary selectivity in terms of standards for acceptance.”  

3. Student Population and Size

The target size of the Conservatory is small: keeping studio numbers tight creates more performance and learning opportunities for students across the board. For example, as Thayer mentions earlier, orchestral students routinely play in each concert cycle.

The residence hall, a huge draw for recruiting students, had always been on the table, but it wasn’t a reality until funds were secured for the Olive Street Building. Anecdotally, what convinced Mr. Colburn to support a residence hall in the new building was hearing that students would lose precious practice time commuting to/from campus.

4. Performance Curriculum

The Conservatory curriculum is designed to prepare students for careers as working musicians. “We cater to the needs of young performers,” Gilad shares, “without overburdening them with classes unrelated to their music studies.” Performance opportunities—including orchestra concerts, chamber forums, and masterclasses—therefore take center stage. Performance Forum, the weekly recital series where Conservatory students perform solo and chamber works for the School’s community, has been around since the very beginning. The inspiration for Performance Forum came from Lipsett, who spent summers as a young violinist at Meadowmount, where Ivan Galamian curated weekly concerts. “I saw how powerful and motivating it was for students to hear their colleagues,” Lipsett says.

Founding faculty member Bob Lipsett in a lesson with 2013 Conservatory graduate Elicia Silverstein.

When Lipsett brought the idea of Performance Forum to the faculty, they all recognized that if the concert were to become a mainstay of the Conservatory, the level of playing on stage would consistently need to be at a high level. “For those who perform,” Lipsett explains, “it is as daunting as it gets because you’re playing for an audience who are all musicians. Their experience in Forum really prepares them for performing in the outside world.”

A Conservatory is Born

In fall 2003, the Colburn Conservatory of Music was official. “There was a pretty big buzz about this new school,” Thayer remembers.

Although hundreds auditioned in the early years, the plan was to enroll small and grow gradually. In 2003, 15 students were offered a spot and all 15 accepted. There were 33 students in the second year and then 56 in the third. By 2006, the Conservatory had a full orchestra, which debuted at Walt Disney Concert Hall. In 2007, the new Olive Street Building was up and running, and became the locus of Conservatory activities. Boasting Thayer Hall, the Café, a twelve-story dormitory, and sixty practice rooms and teaching studios, everything about the Olive Street Building was designed with acoustics, aesthetics, and function in mind. Reflecting on teaching in the new building, Leonard says: “All the years I was there, it felt good to be there.”

Present Day

Twenty years in, the Conservatory still operates with a mission to provide exceptional instruction and performance opportunities to young artists. The teaching model and rigorous criteria for the faculty remain the backbone of the program.

Founding faculty member Ron Leonard with students on campus.

Many of the classes that existed in 2003 are part of the curriculum today. Importantly, however, the Conservatory has grown a larger footprint in the community. With 2018’s creation of the Center for Innovation and Community Impact, Conservatory students have greater outreach and advocacy opportunities. Colburn’s robust Philanthropy department provides pathways for students and supporters of the School to share their love of music. Most recently, construction began on a Frank Gehry-designed campus expansion to include five dance studios and the 1,000-seat concert hall named for Terri and Jerry Kohl, which will provide a home for the Conservatory’s orchestra and encourage collaboration and interdisciplinary educational partnerships.

Perhaps Lipsett sums up the founding and development of the Conservatory best: “It’s a great school because of the faculty, the students, and the administration. And, in the end, that’s what Richard Colburn understood.”