Charlie Zhang and Doug Freeman faced the music like many executives did in March when the coronavirus struck here.
The founders of Orange County Music & Dance (OCMD) closed the doors to the Irvine-based nonprofit performing arts center that was teaching music and dance to 400 kids, half of whom were on scholarships because their parents couldn’t afford the tuition. And they went remote.
When the school moved to online learning, only about half the students continued their lessons virtually.
As the virus dragged on from weeks to months, the pair along with the school’s nearly 40 instructors developed plans to safely bring back the students to their facility for in-class learning.
The school implemented strict cleaning procedures, installed new HEPA air filters, enacted strict cleaning guides for instruments and built 6-foot tall plexiglass screens for vocal students—singing in large groups indoors has been cited as an easy way to spread the virus.
What’s more, the school thought about ways to bring its services to others in the community.
OCMD “is not sitting quietly by as the arts, artists, and institutions endure the pandemic,” officials said.
“When things are tough, it’s up to everyone to share,” Zhang told the Business Journal.
New Practices, Focuses
In July, with mandatory guidelines in place, OCMD reopened its doors at its 21,000-square-foot facility near the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway and MacArthur Boulevard.
Teachers and students wear masks when they aren’t singing or playing wind instruments.
There is a new outdoor venue, where students (socially distanced) practice under canopies.
Parents are still cautious about sending their children back in person, as enrollment remains about half of what it was previously.
Zhang and Freeman are not discouraged.
They said the COVID-19 crisis has expanded opportunities for the school to reach more people. Performances and recitals are being livestreamed, enabling more people to “attend” than ever before, even though no one is physically allowed in the audience. Master piano classes are shared online. Theoretically, people from all over the world can participate.
Children who’ve not been able attend their own schools’ arts programs are being offered online opportunities and instruction from OCMD’s instructors, at no cost. It’s one of several new programs the nonprofit has established.
For those arts and music lovers, “these activities were the high points in their school days,” and their absence is likely to contribute “to long lasting emotional damage” if organizations like OCMD don’t step up, officials said.
“Our mission is about enriching the quality of life in our community. We owe it to each other,” Zhang said.
Zhang knows personally about overcoming tough circumstances.
A native of Shanghai, the Chinese Communist Party forced him to work in a labor camp for seven years before he was able to come to the U.S. in 1980. He eventually began the well-known Chinese fast-food chain, Pick Up Stix, which he built to 85 stores before selling it in 2001.
“I came to America with $20 and they gave me $50 million!” he wrote in a 2019 Leader Board for the Business Journal. A second food and beverage business he started after Pick Up Stix with his wife Ling, Aseptic Solutions, would end up selling for even more.
Nowadays, he runs Zion Enterprises to develop and run shopping centers, medical buildings, and office and apartment complexes. Zhang made the Business Journal’s most recent list of the wealthiest in Orange County, with an estimated $600 million fortune.
Zhang originally came to America to study music. However, a knifing accident to his finger while cutting a chicken at the restaurant where he worked meant he wouldn’t be able to master the clarinet.
Still, music was never far from Zhang’s mind. He joined the Pacific Symphony’s board of directors; both he and Ling gave generously to the arts.
Zhang wanted to make music and art more accessible. What better way, he reasoned, than giving people—children specifically—the opportunity to immerse themselves through a dedicated conservancy?
Zhang decided to start a nonprofit community performing arts school. Any student with a passion for music and dance would be welcome including those who couldn’t afford tuition.
“Helping the kids in Orange County is a reflection of my dream,” Zhang said. “I wanted give them an opportunity that many of them could never realize.”
Building the Dream
When Zhang heard Freeman had retired from corporate life a few years ago, the two went to lunch to discuss philanthropy. Freeman is a well-known OC banker, tax attorney and businessman whose most recent corporate position was as an executive vice president and board member at First Foundation Inc. (Nasdaq: FFWM).
Freeman — chairman of the board of trustees for the University of California, Irvine Foundation from 2005 to 2008, and then chair of UCI’s $1 billion fundraising campaign until 2018 — is also known as the founder of National Philanthropy Day. The event, held annually on Nov. 15, recognizes the contribution philanthropy makes to society, and honors businesses, individuals and support organizations.
The result of that lunch was Freeman becoming chief executive of the performing arts school and Zhang buying an Irvine facility to house it as well as the Pacific Symphony. Records show Zhang paid $8.2 million for the facility in 2016; it opened the next year.
“That turned out to be a very expensive lunch!” Zhang said, laughing.
Zhang and Freeman reached out to several well-heeled individual donors for financial support to turn the dream into a reality.
“We never had to ask twice,” Freeman said.
Freeman hired instructors from top conservatories, following Zhang’s mandate to get the “best of the best.”
The pair outfitted the school with top-of-the-line musical instruments and facilities such as sound studios. Every piano was either a Steinway or Steinway design—a differentiator that earned the school the coveted “Steinway Select School” designation. A 150-seat theater was installed and all the auditoriums were designed with particular care paid to acoustics.
Experts taught ballet, hip hop, contemporary, jazz, modern, lyrical, and dance conditioning. Music instructors cultivated students’ talent in everything from trombone to piano. Vocal coaches helped would-be singers perfect their craft. They worked toward building a $10 million endowment for future students.
The school has launched an assortment of initiatives for the new academic year.
For performing arts students, OCMD launched two pre-college programs: one for music and one for dance. The programs are intended for students who are preparing for their college auditions, school concerts and competitions. These classes are training them to pursue their talent at the collegiate level.
Other initiatives include resources for the broader community.
Among these are a program called Operation Gig for active-duty military and veterans and their families. The school will build multiple small ensembles with four to 10 musicians or dancers who will be given the resources to rehearse and perform to either a live or livestreamed audience.
Project Beat teams law enforcement officers and their families together in small bands, one or more from each department, precinct or station. At the end of an eight-week program, the bands are invited to a “battle of the bands”-style competition, with a $1,000 cash prize.
As with veterans, first responders, including law enforcement, are taking a disproportionate level of stress as well as physical and emotional risks, the school says. “Music and dance decreases anxiety and agitation, reduces depression, and provides a safe emotional release.”
It’s also reaching out to schools and students who’ve seen their normal performing arts offerings come to a halt amid the pandemic.
The Support Our Schools initiative partners OCMD teachers with local K-12 teachers who may need assistance, through supplemental online instruction for their students and, when requested, through 1-to-1 in-person and small group coaching on OCMD’s campus.
The initiatives are launching this month, and go through at least December.
“We felt we needed to do this,” Freeman said.
“Our mission is about enriching the quality of life in our community.”