Fifteen years ago, Kirk Nebel was a working musician who was teaching guitar lessons in his apartment at the corner of Franklin and Gower in Hollywood. Great location, super-convenient, but, “It was starting to get old. I wanted to get out of my apartment,” he remembers.
“I always loved Melrose…the artist community,” he continues. “I thought it would be a cool place to have people learn music.” In 2004, he hired a couple of part-time teachers and set up shop in a small studio suite above what was then Café Luna (now Vinoteque). It became the first location for the Hollywood Academy of Music.
Kirk grew up in Portland, Oregon. He started violin lessons at age 7. He studied for a few years, but the teacher “wasn’t very encouraging.” In hindsight, he says, “It was good to have that negative experience to know what we don’t want and what we do want out of the people that are teaching here.” His musical path, like a lot of kids’ choices, was shaped by his peers. “When I was 7, I saw friends toting their violins back and forth from school so I was like, ‘hey, that looks cool. I’ll do that.’”
Guitars start to look a lot cooler than violins when you’re a teenager, and that’s when he picked up an axe and got into playing with bands in high school.
Having parental support was another experience that filtered into the Academy concept. “My mom would sit in the room during violin lessons. Not so much during guitar because at that point I didn’t want to have anything to do with her – I was a teenager!” Kirk jokes. Mom was a “recreational” singer (church choir), and had a good voice and ear. She helped him practice at home. “That was huge! The kids that get supported like that tend to do better. Music is like homework.”
Kirk’s homework took a different form in college. He studied political science and business at the University of Oregon. “I was into more corporate stuff. I’m glad I was, but eventually it got to a point where I didn’t enjoy it and it was time to shift gears.”
Music was waiting.
Kirk moved to Los Angeles in 1999. “I wanted a change of scenery, a change of weather, and a more vibrant arts scene.” He enrolled in the Musician’s Institute’s prestigious Guitar Institute of Technology. “Great school, great teachers, great environment. Probably the best years of my life.” He played in rock bands, including gigs with Gabby Moreno, and had that apartment-based business that was about to move to Melrose.
“Part of my personality prefers to be structured and deliberate, and that was the initial draw. I saw friends who had gigs here and there, and they were struggling. I wanted something that was enjoyable in my field and steady,” says Kirk.
It was 2004, so the Yellow Pages, flyers, and word-of-mouth were driving business to the new Hollywood Academy of Music and the student base grew steadily. Every couple of years, the Academy would take over another little suite in the building, then eventually expand to locations in North Hollywood and West L.A.
Kirk is humble about its success. “Once I got into it, I enjoyed the entire thing: being an educator and running my own enterprise. Seeing a kid grow and prosper and blossom, that’s a cool experience.” He mostly credits his staff. “We made good decisions on teachers. It’s an education, but it’s also an activity; it has to be enjoyable. Students want to be engaged.”
His own teaching style starts with the needs of the student. “It depends on the age. Then I customize and make it fun, get them playing something they enjoy, like something they hear on the radio. I give them a piece of that to play.” When Kirk started playing guitar, it was learning Def Leppard or Scorpions (because you could hear metal on the radio back then). Reading and theory come later. “If you tell a kid you’re going to spend the first eight classes reading notes, they’re going to quit.”
The choices are abundant. “We have teachers for advanced classical, from piano to violin, and others that can teach rock or metal or jazz.” Brass, woodwind, string, voice – the common and no-so-common instruments are all covered. “We’re a hybrid of a conservatory and the School of Rock!” says Kirk.
The student population is also diverse. About 60% are kids and teens. Some are studying for a career, but the majority are enjoying a hobby. For the adults, some want to be rock stars, some are honing a skill. But the majority took music as kids and want to revisit something they gave up. The youngest students are just 18 months old, and the oldest, in his early 80s.
There are 30 teachers on staff, and all classes are offered at each location, except for one: the new performing arts program is exclusive to the Melrose location. Right now, the kids are preparing “Sleeping Beauty” for a recital performance.
There are two recitals each year. Any student can participate, with no fee for stage time and no admission fee for the public. Family, friends, and the community can all enjoy the performance. The next recital is in May.
While there are many pricing options and scheduling flexibility, in general, a once weekly private 30-minute class is $144 per month for any instrument (including voice). Wanna try it out? The Academy offers one free trial lesson!
The generosity extends further by offering scholarships to families “to help foster the growth of the arts.” They also offer free quarterly workshops to students and the public. “We just had a free 90-minute songwriting workshop and there’s a free music business workshop coming up.”
In an industry city, having fun while learning a skill is often underestimated. And great teaching – even if it’s for a hobby – can go underappreciated. At the Hollywood Academy of Music, great teachers are providing exceptional opportunities to master a musical art in a charming, no-pressure environment. Whether your goal is a jam night in Burbank or the stage of Disney Hall, the Academy is the best place to start.