a New Door
Who's behind the Silverlake Conservatory of Music?
None other than Flea himself.
Times, Wednesday, October 3, 2001
By Susan Carpenter
is financially backing the Silverlake Conservatory
of Music, set to open Oct. 20. He also plans
to teach a few lessons a week in trumpet and bass.
LAWRENCE K. HO / Los Angeles Times
Rock star or headmaster? Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers'
impish bass player, will be both once his Silverlake
Conservatory of Music opens its doors this month.
"See that kid?" he asks, pointing
to a child running past the back door. "Future
Sandwiched between a carniceria and a storage area
on Sunset Boulevard, the school is another addition
to the ever-gentrifying hipster neighborhood of Silver
Lake. The former thrift shop is well on its way to
a full transformation. A storefront once crammed with
unwanted clothes and dusty knickknacks is now a beautifully
rendered practice studio with eight rooms, each named
after a tone in the diatonic scaledo, re, mi,
fa, so, la, ti and do.
"I've been teaching all these years ... in
boarded-up old bathrooms and closets," says
Keith Barry, a high school friend of Flea's who will
be the conservatory's dean of education, as well as
a music instructor. "That's your typical private
lesson space, and I'm happy to be there, but this
facility is going to be gorgeous."
Inside, the school has the feel of an Art Deco train
station, with retro ceiling lamps and two-tone green
Eventually those walls will be decorated with portraits
of iconoclastic musicians: John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix,
Igor Stravinsky and Fugazi's Ian MacKaye.
That gallery is symbolic not only of Flea's musical
taste and influences, but also of the school's overall
take on music instruction.
"I would want to teach a kid Germs songs as
much as I would want to teach them Bartok or Haydn,"
says Flea, whose real name is Michael Balzary. "When
I was a kid I played in symphony orchestras and I
played punk rock, and it's just as valid to me."
The conservatory will reflect "a diversity
of individuals, curriculums, approaches and personalities,"
he says. More than 20 teachers will rent space from
the school, offering classes on instruments that range
from clarinet and lap-steel guitar to electric bass
and vocals. Music supplies will be sold in the school's
Specific classes and times have not yet been set,
but the conservatory plans to offer 30-minute and
hourlong private lessons, costing $20 and $40, respectively.
"Master classes," lasting six to eight weeks,
will also be available in Afro-Cuban percussion, string
quartets and other disciplines.
Flea, who is financially backing the school, plans
to teach a few lessons a week in trumpet and bass.
He's "not real picky" about who his
students are, he says, though he'd prefer beginners.
He'll probably limit his commitment to two-month blocks
of lessons because of the Chili Peppers' tour and
recording schedulethe group will soon be in
the studio making the follow-up to its 1999 hit "Californication,"
which has sold more than 8 million copies.
Other members of the Chili Peppers may also teach
some clinics, says Flea, who will certainly rank
as the biggest rock star ever to engage in such a
face-to-face relationship with the public. Is there
any concern that some will sign up for lessons only
to bask in the glow of celebrity presence?
"If that's the initial thing that brings them
in, then that's fine. Whatever it takes to get a kid
interested in music," says Pete Weiss, 42,
the school's chief of operations. "Maybe at
that point they won't need to look to celebrities,
they'll be able to look at themselves and feel good."
The transformative power of music and the importance
of music education are the underlying principles of
the Silverlake Conservatory, which aims not only to
pick up the slack from public schools that have dropped
the ball on arts instruction, but also to expose kids
to something other than MTV.
"As our culture becomes more and more fast-food
... and more and more media becomes big brother, (they're)
less likely to seek out their own individual way of
being, artistically," says Flea, 39. "I'm
hoping to have this place expose kids to music and
hopefully inspire them to do cool stuff."
When Flea speaks about the conservatory, he is dead
seriousa bit of a disconnect from his goofball
image. Is this the same guy who once sported a sock
on his privates for an album cover? The guy who tattooed
his own name on his scalp?
Flea's earnestness about the school stems from his
own upbringing. The stepson of jazz bassist Walter
Urban Jr., he grew up in a house teeming with musicians
but strapped for cash. A gifted trumpet player, he
was able to take private lessons only because he won
"I was lucky, and I got it and I loved it.
For me, it was the greatest thing in the world,"
says Flea, who today sports a mustache and wears his
Eventually, he hopes to turn the conservatory into
a nonprofit and subsidize half of its students with
free lessons and instruments.
But until then, there are other decisions to be made:
Where should the bookshelves go? What day will the
"Oct. 1," Flea insisted.
"Do you see a toilet in that bathroom?"
Eventually, the two decide it will be Oct. 20. They
shake hands, then break into a spontaneous jig.
Flea says he started seriously considering opening
up the school a year ago after discussing it with
Barry. He wasn't inspired to action, however, until
he gave an informal performance at his L.A. alma mater,
"They had nothing. All they had was a vocal
group. They didn't have any instruments,"
says Flea, who graduated in 1980, two years after
Proposition 13 was passed and school arts programs
began getting the ax.
At Fairfax, Flea was a member of the jazz band, orchestra,
marching band and choir. If those programs hadn't
been there, "for me it would have been completely
devastating because that was the only reason I went
Performing at Fairfax 20 years later, he says he felt
"shaken up about it. There was just no music
for kids in public schools." Flea was also
inspired by the late L.A. jazz musician Horace Tapscott,
who set up a neighborhood musicians' union that taught
residents of the Crenshaw District to play instruments
and performed free concerts in Leimert Park.
Sitting in a corner where a small stage will be built,
he says he envisions the school as a creative community
center of sorts. The stage will be used primarily
for recitals"kids blowing clarinets
and teary-eyed parents and stuff," he saysbut
also for orchestra, jazz and vocal performances, and
Though the name Silverlake Conservatory of Music may
seem a little square for a guy whose band likes to
play in the buff, Flea says, "I wanted to
have a name that was serious because this is going
to be a serious academic school. It's not a place
to fool around."
The kids are not, he says with a smile, "gonna
be coming in cursing and acting like me."