Former Piano Prodigy Dies at 101. Her Young Musicians Foundation in Los Angeles Lives on

If you’re a classical musician between the ages of four and twenty five, live in Los Angeles, and need support for your career, a good place to start is the Young Musicians Foundation, which turns 60 this year. It was founded in 1955 by Sylvia Kunin and is credited with nurturing the careers of many classical musicians including conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, pianist Misha Dichter and guitarist Christopher Parkening.

Kunin died last month at the age of 101 in a Seattle retirement community where she had moved to be closer to her son and his family. She was more than a classical music fan. As a child she won piano competitions.   

Born July 14, 1913 in Detroit, she was three when her family moved to Los Angeles to open a furniture store. A graduate of Poly High School in the 1930s, she moved to Switzerland for three years to study with Artur Schnabel, the first pianist to record all of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Although she continued to play piano, she lost her taste for performing in public.

Instead, prior to establishing her foundation, she created TV talent shows beginning with Young Musical America shown on KLAC-TV (now KCOP). In her 1954 follow-up show, Debut, musicians competed for $1,000 scholarships. For 21 years, she produced the educational television series Musical Encounter.

Today, the classical music scene in Los Angeles is thriving as never before, as seen in the success of the LA Philharmonic Orchestra. The Young Musicians Foundation is a key part of the zeitgeist because it strives to extend classical music opportunities to all youth in the Los Angeles region no matter what their socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds. The foundation targets a musician’s formative years with programs that serve the needs of 750 musicians annually. They include the Debut Orchestra, Teaching Artist Program, Chamber Music Series, Scholarship Program, Music Director & Conductor-in-Residence, Music 360º, Debut Concerto Competition and the Artistic Management Training Program

Although many classically trained musicians will not be able to pursue music as a career, the long-term effects of exposure to the art form are beneficial. A 1997 UCLA study cited in Scientific American found that in a survey of 25,000 students, those who had spent time studying music tested higher on SATs and reading comprehension exams than those with no instruction in music.

As Oscar-winning composer John Williams put it, "My favorite part of YMF is the 'Y,' for young. Young musiciansit's a category that I don't fall into chronologically. Working with them is like a handshake across a generation or two."

Although just four feet, 11-inches tall, and 108 pounds, Kunin became a giant in LA classical music. Her legacy stretched across several generations and still benefits young LA musicians.