Colburn parents decry loss of piano program

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Suzuki method of music instruction, developed in the 1940s by Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki, offers an entry point into learning an instrument for children as young as 2 and calls for parents to attend lessons and be hands-on when it comes to at-home practice.

So it comes as no surprise that the highly involved parents of Suzuki piano students in the community-based School of Performing Arts at downtown’s Colburn School are loudly protesting the abrupt elimination of the school’s Suzuki piano program and the layoff of the two teachers, Rae Kate Shen and Kathleen Summerland, who had been offering Suzuki method piano lessons to more than 50 Colburn kids.

Although school officials insist the program was ended because it did not adequately prepare students to move on to advanced study with traditional piano instructors, some irate parents believe the move is instead further indication that the Colburn School is shortchanging the needs of its 1,500-plus community music students in favor of the increasing demands of the school’s elite Colburn Conservatory of Music, whose approximately 110 resident students receive free tuition, room and board.

Amid a storm of stern e-mails, lengthy letters and incensed interviews, parent Wilma Wong of Venice was perhaps the most succinct. “We’re not happy about it,” she said.

This is not the first time that Colburn School of Performing Arts parents have charged that recent changes at Colburn are a slap in the face to the community program. Last September, they were up in arms over parking limitations caused by the addition of a $120-million, 13-story structure adjacent to its downtown headquarters on Grand Avenue. The protesters complained that commuter families were forced to haul unwieldy musical instruments from expensive off-campus parking lots because the school was reserving space for conservatory students. The school later increased the number of available parking spaces for community school families.

Now the upset parents, who were notified of the termination of the Suzuki program in a July 25 letter, say finding out about the change so late in the summer left them scrambling to make other study arrangements for the fall -- to them, another indication that their needs are no longer an important part of the school’s mission.

Even though the school offered to help place the students with other teachers within Colburn, some parents felt that not enough time was left to identify a teacher who would be a good fit for each child.

Wong’s children, Finnegan Wong-Smith, 10, and Saskia Wong-Smith, 8, were both studying Suzuki piano with Summerland. Son Finnegan will continue to study piano and cello at Colburn, both instruments with non-Suzuki teachers; daughter Saskia will continue private Suzuki piano study outside Colburn with Summerland.

“There are only about 100 conservatory students, but how many little kids come through the Suzuki piano program?” said Wong, who also noted that non-Suzuki teachers often will not accept students younger than 5. “It feels like we are being overshadowed in many, many ways.”

In fact, despite their concerns about the conservatory and the abruptness of the teacher layoffs, many parents seem more distraught about the strong difference of opinion between themselves and the school faculty about the efficacy of Suzuki piano study. The school will continue its Suzuki strings program.

“I have come to the conclusion that the decision owes its origins to the prejudiced viewpoints of a few who, it seems, have had for some time a personal animosity both toward the very ideas embedded in the Suzuki methodology and, in tandem, the instructors,” wrote parent John Maurer of Pear Blossom in a letter to Colburn board members. He went on to describe the elimination as a “kicking to the curb of the program, the philosophy, the staff, the parents and their children.” Maurer’s daughter Olivia, 13, a 10-year Colburn student in Suzuki piano, will not return to the school.

Colburn School Dean Deborah Berman and President Miguel Angel Corzo say that, although the decision was painful and disruptive for students who had developed a bond with their teachers, the program’s elimination served students’ best interest. Neither Berman nor the teachers who were laid off would comment on specifics of the layoffs, citing a non-disparagement agreement.

“I’m not the least bit judgmental about the parents who are upset. It is an upsetting moment,” Berman said. “I wish it weren’t a change from something that has existed for a long time for some of these folks, but it hurts to hear them say that for us the kids don’t matter, because it is for the kids that we make these tough decisions.”

Berman added that it would not have been appropriate to notify parents of the layoffs months in advance because that would have left the teachers in a lame-duck position. “There are difficulties in phasing out a program. You have to make a break,” she said.

“I feel terrible about the children, but less terrible than I would about continuing to teach them that way.”

In terms of its mission, Corzo compares the School of Performing Arts to the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, the largest community music school in the country. It offers Suzuki instruction in several instruments, including piano, but the school’s executive director, Robert Capanna, described the Suzuki piano program as “the least likely to succeed of all the Suzuki programs” because very young children, under age 7, tend to learn better when group sessions are part of their program along with private lessons. “It’s tough to put a lot of pianists in a room,” he said.

Capanna said that music educators’ attitude toward Suzuki instruction, on any instrument, varies from school to school. “There is the extreme end, that it’s the only way to teach young kids, to maybe where we are, that it’s a very useful way to teach young kids who really want to start on a particular instrument,” he said. “The important thing about the method for us is that there is a clear message to parents that they must be involved in the musical education of the child.”

But, Capanna added, Colburn’s decision on the piano program was correctly made by the administrators, not the parents. “It’s a matter of opinion, of educational philosophy,” he said. “It’s a perfectly valid way to proceed.”

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