School of rock

Forget crafts and cookies, this summer program teaches kids how to rock

Jesse Green 12, rocks out.

Jesse Green 12, rocks out.

Photo By David Robert

If there is one lesson that rock ‘n’ roll has taught us over and over again since the heyday of The Who, it’s this: The kids are “alright.” Maytan Music Center’s Step to the Stage is a new summer program that’s all about the all-right kids: Thirty-five students, ages 9 to 18, grouped into six bands, all amplified to rock.

The eight-week program consists of coached rehearsals and clinics on different aspects of being in a band, including equipment knowledge, recording techniques and the ever-important business aspects of music. The bands work with professional music teachers and musicians from bands like Keyser Soze, Darque Carnival and others. Each band gets to record a one-song demo at Big Water Studios at Lake Tahoe. It’s all building up to a Grand Finale Concert featuring all six student bands at Maytan Music Center on Aug. 18.

“It’s an opportunity to learn all the logistics of being in a band,” says Eric Stangeland, STTS executive director and guitarist for the band Audioboxxx.

“We teach some of the basics, like teamwork and showing up to practice on time,” adds Jesse Easter, Audioboxxx multi-instrumentalist and STTS coach. He sounds like the coach of a youth soccer league. It’s a parallel that makes sense. This program is an alternative for kids who tend to favor the creative over the athletic.

This is the first band for most of the students. Many of them have been playing for a year or two, but only leading the lonely life of solitary practicing and playing along to records. One advantage to this program is that it’s an easy way for young rockers to get out of their bedrooms to meet other young rockers and kick out the jams.

It’s all about the song
This is the sort of program most musicians wish was around when they first started out.

Baby Turcios plays bass while coach Marc Luperini belts out vocals.

Photo By David Robert

I learned to play guitar using the huff-some-paint, turn-the-amp-up-to-11 method—probably not the approach most parents want to encourage and not one conducive to meeting others. I finally connected with other musicians by going to all-ages underground punk rock shows, something I still wholeheartedly endorse. But I’m sure a lot of parents would rather drop their kids off at a respected, family-owned music store than at a show in some random dude’s basement.

“We just want to provide some guidance for young musicians,” says STTS founder Sean Caron.

The first STTS clinic was about collective improvisation and songwriting. It featured a performance and discussion with Audioboxxx. The members of Audioboxxx look like Wayne’s World extras and play that funky, jammy, noodley style of hard rock favored by guitar-shop employees. But they can obviously play their asses off.

Stangeland led the discussion, and he’s an amiable host. He stressed the importance of essential communication skills, like not playing when somebody’s talking. Stangeland talked about teamwork (“If you’re not a team player then you shouldn’t be in a band”) and having an open-minded, creative attitude (“We have a rule: It’s all about the song. The song is the most important thing.”). The band also covered musicianship basics like “tune your guitar” and “have the drummer count it off.”

Even though they were addressing a crowd about the size of an average high school class, the band members felt the need to make all their comments into their microphones. I guess if you have a state-of-the-art sound system, you want to use it.

Something new coming
Near the end of the clinic, the band opened up for additional questions. A young-looking rocker in a Primus T-shirt voiced the concerns of most of the audience by asking, “Can you play some Metallica?” The band obliged with a medley of Metallica and Pantera songs. Kids in the audience were playing air guitar and air drums.

The Metallica fan is Jesse Green, 12, singer and guitar player with Band Two (at the early rehearsals I attended, the bands had yet to choose names, which is probably a good thing since bands that choose names before writing songs tend not to last). Band Two has the crunchy sound of a bunch of kids who own all the AC/DC and Led Zeppelin records.

Green has already written his band’s first song. “It’s just a bunch of stuff mashed together,” he says with a shrug. “But it sounds good. I’m fine with songwriting. You just have to remember to play what you want to hear and sing what you want to say.”

Coach Brian Callahan helps Dustin Gallo, 15, on the keyboard for the Step to the Stage program.

Photo By David Robert

Deceptively simple wisdom, that.

The looser and cleaner Band Three do a version of “Don’t Stop Believing” that’s way better than Journey’s. At least I liked it more. Lead guitarist and vocalist Michelle Coleman does a rough take on the guitar solo that’s way cooler than the slick original. Coleman looks like a young, tousled Chrissie Hynde, wearing a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt and ZOSO written on her torn jeans.

When I tell her I like their version of the song better than Journey’s she says, “Well, good, because I hate Journey. Steve Perry is the ugliest man alive. Actually, I take that back. Steve Perry is the second ugliest man alive. Mick Mars is the ugliest. But I figured it was a good song for us to cover because everybody in the world knows it.”

She’s enthusiastic about the program. “I’ve played with people before, but it was mostly just jamming,” she says. “This is different because we’re actually writing songs. And it helps to have the coaches because they understand the different instruments and can help us talk to each other.”

Band Three are surprisingly confident and comfortable for a band that’s only been playing together for a few weeks and are still figuring out their sound.

“The thing about the best bands is that when somebody asks what genre it is, you can’t really describe it,” says Band Three guitarist Connor Ploeger. “We’re all building off of different influences, so it makes for a unique combination.”

Ploeger loves My Chemical Romance, as well as Queen and ’80s post-punk. Coleman is a hard-rocker, bassist Baby Turcios is into Latin styles like cumbia, and drummer McKenna Berdrow was still aglow from a weekend road trip to see Reliant K.

These kids are serious students of the music.

“Do you think everything’s already been done?” asks Coleman rhetorically. “So many songs are just the same three chords, but they still sound different. Like ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘He’s So Fine.’ They’re exactly the same, but they still sound totally different.”

“I think a movement like hair metal failed because everybody just took everybody else’s sound,” says Ploeger. “But we’re incredibly lucky to be able to do music right now, because we have 50 years of recorded rock ’n’ roll to draw from as influences, and we can do anything in the studio. And I definitely feel like there’s something new coming.”

“Yeah … me,” says Coleman. “We need a music revolution. I’m bringing heavy metal back. And in 20 years, people are going to say, ‘Remember what Michelle Coleman and those guys did back in the day? That was totally new music, let’s copy them.’”