ROCK N ROLL JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOLby Dave Mandl
Rock camps and rock schools for kids are a very recent phenomenon, but the idea is already so established, and seems so natural, that it feels like they’ve been around forever. Rail Music Editor Dave Mandl recently spoke to the proprietors of two such schools in his Brooklyn neighborhood—Jason Domnarski, founder of Park Slope Rock School, and Peira Moinester, founder and director of Brooklyn Kids Rock—about their approach to teaching kids how to rock in a more formal environment than the traditional garage or bedroom.
Dave Mandl (Rail): “Rock schools” didn’t exist at all ten years ago, but now they seem to be everywhere. What has changed? Or is mostly the influence of films like School of Rock?
Jason Domnarski: I think the popularity of [Park Slope Rock School] is partly a result of the movie, but can also be seen as a response to dwindling arts programs at schools. With music and art departments being slashed from curriculums left and right, there is now a void that needs to be filled by independent organizations like us. I think the rock programs are particularly successful because parents are taking more direction from their children’s interests. It also helps that parents identify with the type of music we teach.
Peira Moinester: For me, the idea to do a rock school came out of teaching at local elementary school P.S. 321. Over the past few years I had begun to notice that the kids’ musical interests were changing. They went from requesting Peter, Paul & Mary to requesting the Flaming Lips and the Ramones. I would ask them where they heard of these bands and 99% of the time it was their parents. I realized that this generation of parents is raising a generation of kids that are excited by rock ’n’ roll. There was a need for programs that tapped into that, and so I started Brooklyn Kids Rock.
Rail: What are the most common reasons for these kids to be there? For the boys, I get the impression that it’s more “to play rock star” as an end in itself than the traditional “to get chicks.” And do even the very young kids want to play rock star, or is what you do more of a traditional music class (albeit a hipper one) for them?
Domnarski: There are so many kids that have an interest in music but aren’t sure where to start. They’re really attracted to our program because the music is exciting and energetic and very relatable. There’s nothing more fun than learning how to play your favorite songs from your favorite bands and, while I structure my program to focus more on classic rock initially, they can hear the similarities very easily. They’re a little too young to know that playing rock music can get you chicks—they just genuinely want to be there and play music with other kids. There can be an element of “playing rock star,” but this isn’t dress-up. The students learn about theory, songwriting, chord progressions—all the tools you need to understand how to play this music.
Moinester: While the rock-star thing is part of it, personally, I try to make it more about making music. I want these kids to feel what it feels like when you’ve been working hard and rehearsing and all of a sudden the song just clicks. I want them to express themselves musically by not only playing covers, but by expressing themselves through writing songs. I want them to feel the boost of confidence that you get when you are on stage and you’ve got a crowd cheering you on and all your hard work has paid off. The kids might come in thinking it’s about being a rock star, but in the end I want them to go home inspired to make music.
Rail: How do the kids’ parents feel? Do they support what the kids are doing—or are they the ones who are actually pushing it? (The music seems more of the parents’ generation than the kids’, so there may be a certain amount of nostalgia or living-through-their-kids at work.) I assume that kids don’t usually have to be dragged there, since what you do is cooler than, say, classical piano lessons.
Domnarski: The parents really love this program. There is definitely a sense of nostalgia when they watch their kids perform songs from their youth, and many take the opportunity to use the music as a way to connect with their kids on a fun level. Many of them show them old videos of the bands on YouTube or break out their old vinyl records. Some beginners might need to be dragged to the first class, but once I give them an electric guitar, crank the amp, and show them a simple chord, they’re hooked.
Moinester: Brooklyn Kids Rock is a relatively new program, but I haven’t had a kid yet who has been pushed into it. I make a point of creating a warm environment where there is a balance between hard work and fun. As a result, the kids are excited to come to rehearsal every week. As far as the music goes, Brooklyn Kids Rock is unique in that it does not only focus on music of the parent’s generation. I want the kids to be inspired by the music they are playing so if that means playing Taylor Swift then we are gonna rock that Taylor Swift song! In my mind, the kids need to love what they are doing in order to do it well.
Rail: Why are there so many girls? (Seems like around 50% to me.) Do you make an effort to make your schools girl-friendly, or at least tone down the traditional macho rockist elements—or has this happened naturally as rock music in general has become less of a boys’ club?
Domnarski: I’m also a little surprised at how many girls have joined the program. I think it’s great. [But] I’ve never made an effort to make the program more girl-friendly. I’ll sometimes be sure to play some Joan Jett or Blondie to show them a rocking front-woman. And some of my best students are girls. But I don’t really think about the ratio too much.
Moinester: As a female musician myself, I am thrilled to have discovered that girls playing rock ’n’ roll is not even an issue for these kids. They are growing up in a world where it is not unusual to be a female rocker and it’s not questioned. That said, I definitely make a point of doing songs by female artists. For example, [at a recent showcase at Southpaw] we did “Kids in America,” a great song by Kim Wilde.
Rail: From my limited exposure, it seems like there’s already a canon developing for these schools, things like the Ramones, and older classics that are punk-friendly like Neil Young and “Born to Be Wild”—not traditionally family-friendly bands like the Beatles. Are these the kinds of songs these kids are telling you they want to play, or is this the curriculum you’ve designed to create a particular vibe in your classes? Are the kids already developing a feel for what’s cool (Ramones) and not (say, Billy Joel)?
Domnarski: I choose all the songs the students perform. For those who have been with the school for a few semesters, I start working on writing original music and taking a few more cues from them for song selection. In general, I pick music that represents key themes in rock music and that follow a natural projection of difficulty. A beginner band might learn a Tom Petty or Neil Young song to understand great songwriting with minimal chord movement, then move on to AC/DC for energy and improvisation, and then graduate to David Bowie for more advanced harmonic ideas. I like to think these song choices are giving them a good overview of the rock canon as well as influencing their taste.
Moinester: I start my semester by giving each child a mix CD with everything from the Ramones and the Beatles to contemporary artists like the Flaming Lips and Green Day. (The collection also varies [by age group] according to song difficulty.) As I said earlier, I want the kids to be excited by what they are playing, and so I want to know what songs appeal to them. Often the kids come in with their own suggestions, and if the songs are appropriate and at their level musically, we go ahead and give it a whirl.
Rail: How interested do the kids tend to be in “non-musical” elements like how to hold their guitars, rather than just how to play an A-major chord? They are there to do more than just learn how to play the chords to “Born to Be Wild,” after all. Do you focus on rock attitude or “posing” as much as getting the notes right?
Domnarski: The “rock attitude” and stage presence seem to come naturally. This music is made to be performed with swagger and it’s fun to see the kids naturally feel that in the music. I spend time talking about band cues and making sure to be connected both aurally and visually with your bandmates. I do give them tips on how to comfortably hold a guitar while moving around, but so much of stage presence is personal and I try not to get in the way of that. I use David Byrne as a great example of someone whose stage movement is bizarre and not traditionally “cool” but still engaging and exciting.
Moinester: I definitely like to give the kids the full rock-band experience. We name each band, we have a photo shoot, and have a final show in an NYC venue. However, as far as the attitude goes, there is no teaching required! That part often comes naturally given what they see on TV on a regular basis. It’s reminding them to keep their hand in the chord position while they do it that’s the real trick. And if there’s a kid that is a little more shy, then that’s okay. Making music is about expressing yourself, whoever you are.
DAVE MANDL was the Rail's former music editor. He is a freelance writer/journalist.