Orange County Music & Dance and other nonprofits find new home in Cultural Terrace of Irvine’s Great Park

Rudy Xool plays the trumpet at the groundbreaking of the Orange County Music & Dance campus.
Inside Hangar 244 in Irvine’s Great Park, Rudy Xool plays the trumpet with other players during a ceremony for the groundbreaking of the Orange County Music & Dance campus at the Cultural Terrace in Irvine’s Great Park.
(Courtesy of O.C. Music & Dance)
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Orange County Music & Dance has made a big impact on Rudy Xool’s life. The 18-year-old trumpeter is now attending Cal State Fullerton on a full scholarship studying music.

Xool, who attended the nonprofit community music and dance school in Irvine for about eight years, said the program has helped prepare him for college.

“Being here at the school has given me and my parents a bigger perspective on what music is,” Xool said. “Also, in terms of opportunity getting me out there and into performance groups has shown me what it feels like to be in a bigger orchestra and to study and practice.


“They have pushed me beyond what I thought I could do so that I am prepared, way more than I thought I could.”

Doug Freeman, Larry Agran, Tammy Kim, Yulan Chung and Mike Carroll with shovels at Irvine’s Great Park.
Doug Freeman, Irvine Councilman Larry Agran, Councilwoman Tammy Kim, Executive Director of South Coast Chinese Cultural Center Yulan Chung and Councilman Mike Carroll join together in the groundbreaking of the new Orange County Music & Dance facilities at the Cultural Terrace of Irvine’s Great Park.
(Courtesy of O.C. Music & Dance)

OCMD recently celebrated a groundbreaking at the Cultural Terrace at Irvine’s Great Park. The site will be the new home to the school’s 70,000-square-foot campus and 15,000-square-foot performing arts center, which will help it double the number of people it serves to more than 500 K-12 students and veterans per week with arts education and performance programs. It’s part of a larger collaboration the city of Irvine has with nonprofits building new facilities in the Cultural Terrace, including Pretend City Children’s Museum and the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum.

“We opened the doors in 2017. Today we have a little bit under 300 students — 40% of them are on financial aid,” said Douglas Freeman, co-founder, executive chair and chief executive officer of OCMD. “I have a $3.6-million endowment restricted to scholarships. We’re raising another $1.4 million. We’re going to get to $5 million. And that will allow us when we move to the Great Park, we’re going to be a much bigger institution, to double our student body and to double the number of kids that receive financial assistance.”

Serving the community through music is at the heart of OCMD. Freeman said Charlie Zhang — founder of Pick Up Stix restaurant chain —founded OCMD in 2016.

“He’s a Chinese immigrant,” Freeman said. “He came here when he was about 23 years old. He had 20 bucks and a rusty clarinet, and all he wanted to really do was be a professional musician. He had spent seven years in a Chinese labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. And his father spent 20 years in a labor camp.”

Zhang worked as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant in the United States and moved his way up. After seven years he had enough money to buy his first restaurant.

“The thing that made him so special is that on his way up and once he had reached this enormous success, he felt so grateful to this country that he felt compelled to try to help other families and other kids,” Freeman said. “In 2016, he decided he wanted to start a music school for kids, who like himself, couldn’t afford to come.”

The move to the Great Park was approved in March 2024, with the city of Irvine giving OCMD a $1-per-year ground lease for its site for 50 years, with optional extensions totaling 75 years. Construction is set to begin in January 2025 and is expected to be finished in fall 2026.

Student Vivienne Follman-Otta performs as OCMD President David Dunford accompanies on the piano.
(Courtesy of O.C. Music & Dance)

“As a school, our focus is on ensuring that our kids are proficient with their art form, whether it’s music or dance or voice,” Freeman said. “And that they are creative. That is that they can interpret the music that they’re playing. That they can play a wide range of genres. So diversity is incredibly important. We want our kids then to be proficient, creative and diverse in their art forms. So you can learn classical music, but I know you like to play pop and maybe hip-hop. You need to be able to do all those things. That’s our goal.”

OCMD serves children ages 5 to 18, adults, veterans and those with neurological conditions like dementia. It also offers an early childhood program for children 18 months to 5 years old.

Freeman said when COVID-19 hit, both children and veterans suffered from isolation. OCMD created programs outside its building in a covered parking lot for the children. For veterans, OCMD got permission from Great Park Neighborhoods to have lessons and create bands at its different parks.

Chloe Zhao and Phoebe Lee pose in front of a vintage biplane.
Chloe Zhao and Phoebe Lee pose in front of a vintage biplane inside Hangar 244 in Irvine’s Great Park during a ceremony for the groundbreaking of the Orange County Music & Dance campus at the Cultural Terrace.
(Courtesy of O.C. Music & Dance)

“We brought the vets who wanted to play in a band to the Great Park, and we had our teachers as coaches,” Freeman said. “And they had eight weeks of free gigs. And then we did a concert at the end of it. … It was incredible, it was just incredible.”

Freeman said OCMD currently has 25 teachers in a 21,000-square-foot building it owns in Irvine. It also places its teachers in some area public schools to offer additional support to school music programs. They currently teach Western and Chinese music, but Freeman said OCMD plans to expand to become a world-music school.

Madison Nguyen, 12, has attended OCMD since 2023.

“I first started going to OCMD with very little music knowledge and no idea what I had coming,” Nguyen said. “However, in just a year, I learned how to read notes, play violin and singing techniques. Also, I’ve never performed on a stage before any of these lessons, so preparing and performing at recitals taught me how to be confident and gave me stage experience, too.”

Vivienne Follman-Otta, 14, has attended OCMD for one year as a singer and for some piano lessons.

“I have learned how to manage my nerves in front of an audience, overcome stage fright and improve my communication skills,” Follman-Otta said. “I am not sure if I will have a career in the arts, but I want to continue studying and participating in the performing arts throughout high school and college because it brings joy to my life.”

Orange County Music & Dance students Pearli Baehr, standing, and Izabella Jaimes and Zoey Jaimes playing the piano.
Orange County Music & Dance students Pearli Baehr, standing, and Izabella Jaimes and Zoey Jaimes playing the piano.
(Courtesy of O.C. Music & Dance)

The Cultural Terrace

Irvine Councilman and Great Park chairman Mike Carroll said the Cultural Terrace dates back to the master plan created in 2007 to form the municipal park that would become the Great Park.

He said the Cultural Terrace was envisioned as “a place that would have these vibrant museums and cultural attractions. And we had an aviation museum in the plans and then we had the Pretend City organization join us.”

More recently OCMD joined in.

A rendering of the future home of Orange County Music & Dance at the Cultural Terrace in Irvine.
A rendering of the future home of Orange County Music & Dance at the Cultural Terrace in Irvine.
(Courtesy of the city of Irvine)

“I think that it will provide a cultural hub. It’s a meeting place for people of all ages and all interests to explore history, science, technology and math,” he said. “We have benefits associated with everything from children’s development and early childhood education … and exposing residents and visitors to music and dance. Our aviation museum that we have there will have things like flight simulators and other interactive opportunities.”

Pretend City Children’s Museum Executive Director Ellen Pais said in an email the nonprofit has been working toward a permanent home since its founding more than 20 years ago.

“We have been in our current rented location 15 years — we will be celebrating in August — and we have outgrown our space. We have been planning a move to the Great Park, and now, with the city’s investment in the Cultural Terrace, we will be one of four inaugural and anchor tenants,” Pais wrote. “We are excited to share that we will be able to welcome many more families and field trips. We anticipate attendance to grow from our current number of 200,000 annually to over 325,000 annually. We also will grow our early childhood hub by expanding programming for all types of children and families and welcoming tenants including Beyond Blindness, Orange County Department of Education, O.C. Assn. for the Education of Young Children and Start Well. We will also have a new concept full-service restaurant open to the general public, led by restaurateurs Ed Lee, Carl Tong and Linda Nguyen.”

Retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael Aguilar.
Retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael Aguilar, executive director of the Flying Leathernecks Historical Foundation, stands in front of a historic WWII hangar at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine.
(File Photo)

Michael J. Aguilar, a retired U.S. Marine Corps general and president/chief executive of the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation, said in an email that plans to relocate the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum began in late 2020 when the FLHF was informed by the commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar that the museum, which was a USMC Command Museum, would be closing due to budgetary constraints. Aguilar said the city of Irvine approached the FLHF in January 2021 with the suggestion to partner in an effort to relocate the museum back to its original home at MCAS El Toro, now called Great Park.

“The FLHF plans to build a new facility that will house all but the largest aircraft in the collection along with thousands of artifacts,” he wrote. “The new museum will offer new and exciting exhibits and displays that tell the history of Marine Corps Aviation and the two air stations that helped build Orange County, MCAS El Toro and Tustin, honor the history and legacy of those that served, inspire a sense of patriotism and pride in America, and inspire our youth to pursue their education in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM).”