Music School Picks Up Tempo on ‘Common Ground’

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(Photo courtesy Pasadena Conservatory of Music) - A student jazz workshop is held at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music, which serves about 1,000 students on campus ranging in age from 4 months old to older adults. The music school is holding a campaign for its Common Ground project, which will expand and unify the campus with an outdoor amphitheater and new classrooms.

First published in the May 5 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.

The Pasadena Conservatory of Music has long held a special place in the hearts of music lovers as one of the only schools to specialize in classes for students from 4 months old to 90-plus years, and from the professional driven to the serious hobbyists.
PCM, as it’s fondly known, has a euphonious class for every music aficionado.
Founded in 1984, the Pasadena Conservatory of Music has headquartered at the welcoming white Spanish-style stucco compound on North Hill Avenue for about 20 years. But the music school is gearing up for a transformational development project called “Common Ground,” which will unite its four buildings into a streamlined campus with an outdoor amphitheater and gathering space to promote more musical learning, performing and enjoyment.
“We believe music provides common ground — it provides a subject and activity where all kinds of people can leave divisions behind and say ‘This, we can do together,’” said PCM Executive Director Stephen McCurry. “In this time when so much seems to divide us, the learning, performing and enjoying of music provides substantive opportunities to leave those divisions behind, to forge connections, to find common ground.”
To that end, PCM is embarking on a capital campaign to raise $9 million for the development, which will promote and facilitate the pursuit of new musical opportunities, while increasing capacity on campus to about 2,500 students.
The new build plan calls for ample and open space, as well as larger practice rooms to host ensemble groups, which will expand multicultural programming to include music traditions from around the world, develop intergenerational programming for the youngest and oldest students, and create state-of-the-art music technology programs.
“This project advances our mission and reflects our aspirations for music, while it’s also part of our fundamental strategic plan — the way the classrooms and amphitheater configure, it provides common ground and will be the hub and gathering place on the campus,” McCurry added, noting that the project is also in line with the school’s dedication to a diversity, equity and inclusion plan as it will create more access and opportunities for students of all ages and backgrounds.
Currently, PCM serves about 1,000 students on campus, representing about 200 schools from Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley, many of whom come from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic and racial backgrounds. Of those, about 25% are preschool age, 50% are school age and 25% are adults. In non-pandemic times, the school also serves about 3,000 students through its outreach programs to public schools.
Melissa Froehlich, PCM director of development, highlighted how proud the school is to have built such a diverse community of students, in more ways than one.
“No matter what someone’s aspirations are, whether it’s learning about a Beethoven sonata or learning how to play piano or just playing in a group recorder ensemble, we provide all students the tools to do all of that very well,” she added, noting that PCM has students who are accepted into top-tier music conservatories like Julliard, but also fosters novices of all ages. “Whatever their long-term aspirations are, whether it’s a career in music or just learning how to play well or to have fun, we provide all of the resources and opportunities.”

Photo courtesy Pasadena Conservatory of Music Pasadena Conservatory of Music Executive Director Stephen McCurry, who has led the school for 30 years, introduces a concert in PCM’s Barrett Hall. One of the school’s hallmarks is its dedication to live performances and recitals.

As an independent, nationally accredited nonprofit and music school, PCM has built a strong community of supporters through music being a human experience. Many of those supporters threw all their help behind the school during the pandemic, when it kept about 90% of its students in class by going into a creative virtual and online format.
Actress and nonprofit supporter Jane Kaczmarek, who has served on the PCM board for about 10 years, espoused her dedication and appreciation for the school.
“Few things in my life have kindled courage and comfort as much as classical music. When I moved to Pasadena in 2004 and discovered the Pasadena Conservatory of Music, I knew I’d found my way home,” she said. “PCM’s faculty, staff and students create a musical community where resolve and solace mingle with harmony and friendship, providing a refuge from the chaos of the world. I’m participating in PCM’s Common Ground campaign, because I believe in the life altering possibilities that music provides and I want everyone to experience that joy.”
At PCM on a recent spring morning, echoes of a piano wafted down a long hallway, where rooms filled with polished baby grands awaited the music rush hour after school. The dainty strumming of a ukulele class lilted through a doorway, with a clear voice accompanying to a rendition of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.”
The sound of music highlighted a triumphant return to on-campus classes after pandemic-related health measures shuttered the school, and like institutions around the world, it underwent a trying two years of unforeseen challenges.
McCurry praised the school’s 80 teachers, who adeptly went online to make sure students were supported in their studies during the coronavirus, when music and other artistic outlets proved to be so vital during isolation. Though the school’s older adult students struggled with the technology at first, the younger staff pivoted to offer tech support on an individual basis.
“Our teachers were absolutely amazing,” he said.
Another aspect of PCM is its dedication to live performance and recitals, of which there were about 150 just this past year. Students clamber to practice and record at Barrett Hall, a former chapel of the mortuary where the school is now located. The classically renovated concert hall has 18-inch walls and a cathedral ceiling, lending to superior sound.
If all goes according to plan, McCurry noted, construction will begin next summer and the new facility will launch in 2024, happily coinciding with the nonprofit’s 40th anniversary.
“We are going to have a vibrant, flourishing campus where students from age 4 months to those in their 90s can all be engaged in the single purpose of music making — the possibilities are tremendous and we expect not just enrollment growth but growth in the kinds of multicultural music we can offer; music is indeed common ground, and we will explore more ways to play together and have experiences together,” he said.
Board member June Li, also a supporter of area nonprofits, studies piano at PCM and attests to the important work being done at 100 N. Hill Ave.
“Music has the ability to bring people (young and old) and cultures (East and West) together,” she said. “From its humble founding in 1984, PCM has blossomed into a welcoming presence for music lovers in our community. Common Ground reminds us of the importance of creating common spaces that re-imagine how different generations with diverse cultural backgrounds can learn and grow together.”