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Chili Pepper's music school has kids hoppin', learning

By Denise Quan, CNN
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Flea's Music Conservatory
  • The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea set up a music school in L.A.
  • When he was a teen, Flea said, music education turned him around
  • With cuts in arts budgets, music education is limited
  • Flea's school has 900 students; a quarter are on scholarship

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- The Silverlake Conservatory of Music is a quaint storefront nestled in a hipster block of Los Angeles called Sunset Junction. Just before 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, kids stream through the front door toting drumsticks, violins and guitar cases, the latter taller than they are.

They're here to learn the traditional fundamentals of playing an instrument.

In the corner, a wiry man with tattooed knuckles is playing the piano. It's Flea, the bass guitarist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He founded the nonprofit music school in 2001 with his childhood friend, Tree, aka Keith Barry, who teaches and serves as the Conservatory's dean. The two were band geeks together in junior high and high school.

"In high school and after high school, I was heading for disaster," recalled Flea, who was then known by his given name, Michael Peter Balzary. "I was on drugs; I was robbing people's houses; I was wild on the street.

"But lucky enough, through the public school system, I had been able to have some music education, and that gave me something to focus on, and discipline -- like a family to feel part of. There was a healthy family."

Around the time of the Chili Peppers' "Californication" tour, Flea took in a basketball game and happened to sit next to a woman who introduced herself as the music teacher at his alma mater in L.A., Fairfax High. She invited him for a visit.

"I went there, and it was just barren. No funding, no instruments, nothin'. It made me feel empty inside. That's when I thought, 'I need to start a music school -- a nonprofit music school. Anyone who wants to go can go.' I was lucky enough to have the dough, and this place is flourishing."

After an initial investment of a few hundred thousand dollars from Flea's own pocket, the doors of the Silverlake Conservatory of Music opened to the public.

Of the school's 900 students, 25 percent are on scholarship. (Those who can afford it pay $25 per half-hour lesson.) Flea and Tree hope to expand that number to 50 percent as the budget for music education shrinks in public schools.

"For us to just be OK and do what we're doing -- in terms of the amount of kids that come for free -- we have to raise a million a year to break even," Flea confided. "I don't believe that we've gotten one penny from the government."

There's a big tree painted on a wall in the lobby. Hanging from it -- like a second-grade art project -- are red apples bearing names like Metallica, Warner Bros. and Andy Summers, the guitarist from the Police. They're some of the Conservatory's benefactors.

Summers wrote a hefty check and donated a vintage Mercedes that was auctioned off for a total donation of $40,000. Metallica headlined one of the school's annual "Hullabaloo" benefit concerts. Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Ben Harper and, of course, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have also lent their talents.

But make no mistake; this is no School of Rock.

"It's not about being famous. It's not about being a rock star or anything like that. We're just teaching fundamentals and technique of playing music," Flea said.

One of those students is 10-year-old Leo Decter, who sits in the lobby, demonstrating his guitar skills.

"My mom recently played me some Red Hot Chili Peppers around the house. I liked some of it, but some of it I didn't like so much," he admitted with a sheepish smile.