The Silverlake Conservatory of Music is nestled in between Intellegentsia Coffee and Dean's Leather Accessories at the heart of Los Angeles' historic Sunset Junction. Every week the small, non-profit school hosts over 700 students, most of them children or teenagers, instructing them in a range of musical pursuits. The school aims to provide tutelage to under-privileged Los Angeles youths in a time when California public schools are notoriously underfunded; many music programs are either suffering or have been slashed altogether. Michael "Flea" Balzary, co-founder of the Conservatory and bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, cites the decline of publically funded musical instruction as a driving force in his decision to start the school. "In public school at that time they supplied instruments, you could play in a group, they'd teach you whatever instrument you want," he summons from experience. "I mean it wasn't some like fancy instruction, but it was to get you going."
For Flea music, more than traditional academic instruction, kept him in school and away from delinquency. "I grew up in a pretty crazy situation. I was on the street, no one was really watching me, I was getting into trouble, I was breaking into houses, I was on drugs," he explains. "I was on a path that could've really led to disaster and the one thing for me that really kept me focused and gave me something to believe in and a sense of self-worth and a discipline was music. It was really the only reason I went to school. Otherwise I would've basically fucked the whole thing off." Extra-curricular instruction can play a similar role for many at-risk youths, and that service is what the conservatory hopes to provide.
Today many schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District do not enjoy the same benefits, for Flea a serendipitous discovery. "About fifteen years ago at a basketball game in New York, I was sitting next to this woman and it turned out that she was my music teacher at Fairfax High," he recalls. "We started talking and she asked me to come and speak to the kids about music. I showed up a couple of months later and it was such a trip walking through those same hallways. It really freaked me out because they had no instruments, a volunteer teacher, no orchestra, no band, nothing. All the things I kind of took for granted, it was just all gone. They had a boombox; basically, they just listened to music and talked about it. Maybe a couple of fishy guitars or something, it was so devastating to me. I could tell that the kids who were there really wanted to play, there was just no funding. They'd cut all the funding. I had the idea then to start a music school."
A book entitled "Songs of the Unsung" by Horace Tapscott also helped catalyze Flea's decision to start the Silverlake Conservatory of Music. Tapscott, a jazz musician, started the Pan African People's Arkestra in the sixties as an effort to constructively engage the South Central youth through musical instruction. Composed of local musicians, the Arkestra frequently performed in public schools, community centers, churches, hospitals, prisons, and parks. "I read that book and I so touched by it, I was determined at that point to start a school," says Flea. "I had a friend who had been teaching music for a long time and he knew a bunch of teachers, so I just put up the money and started a school. Ten years later it's just really flourishing."
Due to his musical celebrity, Flea is diligent to clear up any misconceptions about the school's agenda. "It's not about being famous or any celebrity or anything like that. People often say that because it's me it's about being a rockstar, but it's not that at all," he dismisses the notion calmly. "It's just about learning music. It's about fundamentals and technique. The only hard part about it is raising the money. So many kids come for free and they gotta pay the teachers, its just costs."
The Conservatory offers private music lessons and grants scholarships to children in need; they are currently providing free lessons and instruments to over 250 low-income students. The rest pay $25 dollars a week. "You'd be surprised how many people can't afford $25 dollars a week," Flea says with a weary sense of amazement. "Some families' budgets just can't handle that extra 25 bucks. We just try to keep everything as affordable as possible and get as many kids going there for free as possible and just keep raising money to do it. It's a constant thing." At its present size and volume the school costs one million dollars a year to run. As founder and public figure, the onus of fundraising often falls on Flea. "I'm always put in the unfortunate position of asking people to donate money, and people I know in bands to play benefit concerts and all this stuff," he half-jokingly complains. "My latest idea to make money was to run the marathon and getting people to sponsor me." Flea will be running the Honda LA marathon on March 20. Members of his team that raise over $1,000 will receive a meet and greet with Flea, a Conservatory T-shirt, and get to enjoy the Conservatory Inspiration spot at mile 7.5, where there will be live music and runner support. The first twenty-five people to raise $1,000 will also receive tickets to an upcoming Silverlake Conservatory musical event.
Raising social awareness for a charitable initiative like this proved challenging, though it was one area in which Flea's celebrity was vastly beneficial. In order to gather support for the marathon Flea has repaired to social media. "When I first heard about twittering I thought it was the most disgusting thing I'd ever heard of in my life," he laughs. "It's like the devil, the idea that your personal life is there for everybody. What's left? Is anything sacred?! But someone told me that the best way to raise money was to Twitter. So I've sold my soul to the Twitter, but actually the sad, pathetic truth is that I've kinda started liking it. I've done it to raise money for people and its been working." Flea has also tried to raise awareness through online fundraising website www.crowdwise.com, offering a chance to win a bass signed by the Red Hot Chili Peppers for anybody who makes a $25 donation.
However, the financial aspect of the marathon effort was not the only difficulty this fundraising initiative has presented. The bassist will have to run just over 26 consecutive miles for the Honda LA Marathon, a challenging proposition for most professional athletes. "I've been running like crazy man, I've been running my ass off! I just run and run," he declares emphatically. "I just ran nine miles this morning. I've just been training, I try to get on a good schedule. I'm just trying to take care of myself and have faith that I can rock this shit, you know?"
The marathon is but one of many events to raise money for the conservatory. The night before Flea runs the marathon, the school will host a benefit concert with Patti Smith at Café Stella. The money from the event will go directly to the school, which hopes to expand in the near future. "The school is really bursting at the seems as it is, we've got a community who really drives out for it and its so full. Our ultimate goal is to get our own building and to be able to handle more students and make it a bigger operation. Right now we're just inside this space that used to be a pet store or something."
The marathon, which is run on March 20, begins in Dodger Stadium and ends at the Santa Monica Pier.