It’s hard to believe that South Pasadena Arts & Music Academy is going into their 10th year here in South Pasadena. In some ways it feels like yesterday that they opened the doors of their beautiful Craftsman studios to our community but it also feels like they’ve always been here. “We got lucky,” says founder Manuel Lozano, “we found an incredible community that appreciates the arts, appreciates music and arts education.” From day one, SPAMA connected with South Pasadena Education Fund and has been one of its biggest and most consistent donors. “Our partnership with SPEF is incredible – we love supporting their programs and we have some teachers who have taught some of their classes. Everything we’ve all gone through the past two years has helped us all appreciate the simple things in life – going and taking a piano lesson, doing a group singing class. All in all, lucky and grateful that we landed in South Pasadena – what a great city.”
Like all schools, SPAMA of course pivoted to online learning during the pandemic. They took advantage of that time to upgrade the facility and installed a garden in the back and while they still offer online options, Lozano says, “people were just so excited to come back – our instructors are super excited to be working more. We’ve hired a few more teachers who are just fantastic. Everybody has a passion for music, a passion for sharing it and I think that has always been a big factor for us. If you go into our school between the hours of 3 and 8pm, it’s super busy, the energy is very positive, everyone’s excited to come in and learn and go home and practice. We have teenagers, adults and a ton of kids – we teach from age 4 all the way to adults, we have some 60-70 year-old students. Everyone’s jamming and having such a great time! I’m so grateful for what we have and I’m so thankful for the musicians that I get to work with every day.”
One of those passionate musician teachers is now the school’s new director, Rebecca Ward. She was one of Lozano’s first two hires at his first school in Santa Monica and the first teacher to come with him when he opened the school in South Pasadena. “Rebecca is a perfect example of a teacher who is a working professional musician,” explains Lozano, “she works with the likes of Fresno Philharmonic, Moby, Michael Bublé, and the list goes on – she has made a living as a musician and educator as long as I’ve known her. She teaches violin and piano and she understands curriculum and teaches a number of ensemble classes. She understands teachers, what they need, the support that’s necessary. I knew I wanted a director who was a professional musician who also teaches. I will go out on a limb here to say that every one of our teachers plans on teaching forever in some capacity because they are so good at it – and Becky is so good at it and because she has taught so many students, she understands a variety of situations – the way you educate, the way you communicate, the way you structure rehearsals and classes. Having her be a part of the school at a higher level is just going to benefit not only the students but also the other educators. One of our teachers, Alexandra Domingo, who teachers voice, piano, and flute, is now our general manager – with Becky focusing on curriculum, hiring and helping our teachers and the school grow – together they’re the dream team.”
Having been with SPAMA from the beginning, Ward says, “I have seen how special it is and what a remarkable place Manuel has created. I think what we have here is what a music school should aspire to be; we certainly celebrate excellence, and we encourage a commitment to excellence, but at the same time, we’re not setting out to create prodigies. Our goal is creative thinkers, critical problem solvers, empathetic humans. And I don’t think there’s a better way to do that than a really strong musical education. I think it organically and inherently teaches all of those things. And the fact that we can celebrate every genre of music as we do it, I think creates a very special place.” She can barely contain her excitement as she goes on to explain, “I love walking through the halls and hearing Beethoven coming out of one room, and Zeppelin coming out of another and knowing that both of those students are getting a foundation in music theory. And the way they’re thinking about music that is so valuable. And there are life skills that go with that, that I think we should all have. I think that’s something everybody benefits from – I think it makes for better citizens.”
Ward has long advised and assisted with hiring, especially the string faculty and says, “Manuel has hired exceptional people and has done a remarkable job assembling a team of people who are just brilliant educators, in addition to being very, very good musicians. And those two things are often hard to find in the same person. But he has found that time and again – people who are very good musicians and also very good at imparting that knowledge.” Ward says this became clearly illuminated during distance learning as she, along with all the other teachers, had to find new ways to be clear, interesting and engaging. “I think it taught us all how to be even more effective educators – it certainly did for me. When I got back into the classroom I felt this enormous surge of energy from what I had learned from that.”
We’re speaking in the lovely carriage house located behind the main house, which has become the studio where they offer group classes, something Ward is very passionate about. “I can tell you that I am someone who worships at the altar of chamber music – I believe in playing with other people. And that is an enormous lesson for our students that you can’t duplicate any other way. Once you are learning to listen to what someone else is doing and hear your own part and put those together – that’s invaluable and that makes you better at everything else.”
Currently they have a string ensemble for more advanced string players who will be playing at a friends and family show on August 14th. They also have a beginning strings class, a beginning violin class and their Little Stars program, which is their young singers choral group.
Ward also points to the multitude of disciplines offered as another highlight of their school – from classical musicians to jazz, blues, rock and singer/songwriters, who, as mentioned before, all work professionally in their field. “Everyone here performs and sometimes tours and we make that work. You want someone who understands working in their field and can bring to their students real, practical, professional knowledge. Again, that’s invaluable,” says Ward emphatically.
For Ward, music was a family affair with a mother who is a choral director and a long line of musicians in her family. She “became friends with the violin” at age four and attended the Wilmington Music School in Delaware until she was 18. She went on to study at SMU in Dallas, took lessons at the Paris Conservatory during a semester abroad, and got a master’s degree in violin performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “I always knew I wanted teaching to be a part of my life. It was something I felt really strongly about,” Ward tells us. “I have a performing career. But I always come back to my students. It allows for that balance we’re always trying to strike between teachers who are also performers, and we try to cater to that so that it is beneficial to both the teacher and the student. Because if the teachers are able to do what they do, they’re better teachers. And then we make sure that the teachers are also still available for their students so that it really is a great symbiotic relationship.”
When you get Ward talking about teaching, it’s obvious how passionate she is about it and about music. “I believe in this place very much. And I’m excited to lead it into the future. I’ve had a home here for a long time. So I get a little excited when I talk about it!”
Ward lives in Hollywood and cherishes her time in South Pasadena saying, “every time I drive out here, as soon as I get on the 110 and there are the hills and the mountains, I just breathe a little easier. As soon as I get here, it is such a warm and wonderful and inviting community. At the end of August, we’re having our $10 lesson week. And what that means is that anybody can register for a lesson that will cost them only $10. And they can try that in any discipline that we offer. And we do this twice a year because it allows people to try out teachers and try out instruments and things they might have had a hesitancy about – to see how they feel about it. We take all the proceeds from that and we donate them to the South Pasadena Educational Foundation. As educators we are all in this together and being a part of the educational community in South Pasadena is an enormous priority for us.”
Carrying on the legacy of what has been established here for the past ten years is something Ward wants to continue and build on. “There’s a real magic here and I love being a part of that. I am enormously excited about the new group opportunities we have. I think, as we as we move forward, there’s so much that we can do with that. And I’m excited about what that means for early childhood music education – we’re very excited to offer more programs that also get parents involved, where you’re learning along with your child, and then you can take those tools home. So that’s our first goal. Eventually I would love to see us expand. I mean, I never want to leave this space. I love this space – but an annex where we could have even larger ensembles – a string orchestra. I want to make sure everybody who wants to be here has the opportunity to be here. And we want to make sure we can provide for the community exactly what it wants and needs. This is a wonderful sort of small town community inside of a big city. What could be better than that? For the past ten years, the school and this community have felt very much like home – I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”