816 North

April 22, 2014

These Kansas City music students will rock you with their skills

So you want to be a rock star? More accurately, your kid wants to be a rock star. Or maybe she’s just tired of taking lessons for that guitar she begged to get last Christmas. You’re in luck. Music studios offering rock band-based music lessons are experiencing a rapid expansion across the area.

So you want to be a rock star?

More accurately, your kid wants to be a rock star. Or maybe she’s just tired of taking lessons for that guitar she begged to get last Christmas.

You’re in luck. Music studios offering rock band-based music lessons are experiencing a rapid expansion across the area. The idea has been around for a number of years, but the last year has seen the opening of at least three new schools that offer rock-style music instruction for kids.

For example: Rock School KC has been working with Olathe Parks and Recreation Department for several years and recently expanded to a location at the Great Mall of the Great Plains. Soon it will be linking with the Gardner and Johnson County parks and recreation departments and is working on a Rock in the Schools program.

The School of Rock franchise, which has had a strong presence in Parkville for several years, saw a second location open in Lee’s Summit last fall and is slated to open a third location in Overland Park in May.

Smaller schools like KC Rock Band Guitar are popping up as well, adding rock band and group lesson experiences to a traditional repertoire in an effort to engage musicians in a new way.

The schools all sell the idea that learning in a group — playing popular music — is more effective, more fun and can keep kids more engaged in music. It is a belief that one-on-one instruction has a place, but learning really happens in application.

Each school has its own approach. But in the end, the result is similar: Kids rocking out. Together.

In the Northland, the renovated split-level home that houses School of Rock’s Parkville location screams rock ’n’ roll from the moment students enter the door. Posters from rock concerts and bands cover the walls. Small hallways lead to practice rooms and studios where music emerges through the doors.

In the basement, kids hang out, waiting for their set. Those kids already have been here once this week for an individual lesson. They come another night for a three-hour session to work on their rock show.

The Parkville location run by Mark Ballard is the grand-daddy of rock ’n’ roll music schools for kids in the area. The school has been around since 2007 and has about 120 students. Ballard says he often sees kids with a few years of private lessons and waning interest turned back to playing with an infusion of rock ’n’ roll.

Ballard was a pioneer in the Kansas City rock scene for kids. Before getting into the rock school business, he worked for Radio Disney. There, he developed a concept for every market to have its own band. He worked with vocal talent and helped cities around the country find kids to fit the bill.

Several years ago, Ballard saw a review about a documentary featuring Paul Green, the man responsible for the now-internationally successful School of Rock brand in Philadelphia. Ballard didn’t even see the documentary but was so convinced that a rock-style music school for kids was a good idea that he opened up his own shop in October 2007 called Rock U. He had success, but School of Rock came calling about two years later and bought him out. He has been managing the Parkville location under their model ever since.

Music students at School of Rock commit to a 45-minute weekly private lesson and a three-hour rock band practice each week.

At the beginning of each semester, students audition for one of three or four themed shows. This spring, the shows are: The Wall, Jimi Hendrix and One Hit Wonders. Kids are cast into the show for several songs and learn over the course of several weeks to seamlessly transition on and off stage for the performance night — which is generally held in a local club or concert venue.

They also offer the House Band. The House Band is not for slouches. Students have to audition three times a year. Sixteen of the more than 100 students make the cut and get the opportunity to do big gigs around town. They play at places like Kauffman Stadium and Starlight Theatre. They get to open for names like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steve Miller Band, Journey, Ted Nugent and Pat Benatar.

In the next several months, the School of Rock House Band, which is currently only available to students at the Parkville location, has 26 one-night performances scheduled. If they stick with it, by the time students leave School of Rock, Ballard says, not only will they be seasoned performers, they will also be able to put a band together, write songs and have some recording experience. Those kinds of opportunities are what Ballard believes sets School of Rock apart from the newer competition in town. “They just don’t get to do it at the level we do it,” Ballard said.

School of Rock student Bryce Loewenstein, 15, is a member of the House Band. He enjoys the push to learn new material and do things he normally wouldn’t try as a guitar player and vocalist. The experience expands his horizons in more ways than one, he says.

“You get to really know the people you play with. You get to build connections,” Bryce said.

Those connections are an important part of the equation for School of Rock. Their motto is: We teach kids how to rock on stage and in life. Ballard says apart from the music, the school gives kids a safe place to be themselves.

During band practice nights, the kids have a lot of down time to just hang out and get to know one another. They bond over a shared love of the music, practicing, talking, doing schoolwork and waiting for their turn to play. Ballard often sees kids come in shy and leave as confident performers.

“Not every kid — in fact, hardly any of the kids here — will become rock stars, but they will all come out of it better players and better musicians and more socialized,” Ballard said.

Over at KC Rock Band Guitar in south Kansas City, the environment is a bit lower key, but the idea is the same.

The school operates out of the youth center at Evangel Temple on 103rd Street east of Holmes Road in Kansas City.

The large open space could easily house a worship service. The sound from efforts of private-lesson students pretty much permeates the space.

That is, until Monday night, when rock class convenes and things get loud.

Thirteen-year-old drummer Kathryne Stites is one of four students on the stage in the front of the room. The small group is learning how to work together, be responsible for their parts and become performers. Kathryne has played percussion for four years and studied drum set privately with one of the school’s owners. The band gives the 13-year-old an entirely different experience.

“Different people play differently, and it’s good to know how they play so you can be better at your playing, and understand them better,” she said.

Her only other opportunity to work with other musicians was in worship music at church, but the music there was slower and less challenging. In the rock band, they play classic rock, which is faster-paced and has improved her overall skills.

KC Rock Band Guitar owners Laura Lee and Matt Crandall want to get kids playing together — and playing music they really connect to. Most often that is rock.

“It’s the language this generation speaks. They can really identify with it. That’s a good entry point,” said Laura Lee Crandall. “I really want them to identify with what they are playing and enjoy it and to have it really be meaningful for them.”

The Crandalls’ vision to create a music experience for kids including group and private lessons as well as the opportunity to be a part of a rock band became reality last summer. The couple teach nine different instruments and are looking at creating introductory group lessons for certain instruments like keyboard and guitar. Their school is still small, currently with fewer than 20 students.

Both Crandalls are classically trained musicians. She has a degree in percussion performance and he in music education from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.

They believe students can learn more by playing in groups. The problem with private lessons, they say, is that students often do not have a place to apply what they are learning.

“In order to move to the next level, you have to perform and you have to work with other musicians,” said Laura Lee Crandall.

The rock band program at KC Rock Band Guitar works on a semester system. Students are encouraged to think like a band and take a lot of ownership of their final performance. They work on songs for several weeks as a team, make suggestions about music they would like to play, learn a little bit about rock styles and have a performance. The Crandalls coach the kids on song choices, how to interact with one another and the other performance issues involved in being in a rock band.

Laura Lee Crandall believes the best thing about a rock band-style experience is the motivation and personal responsibility.

“You lose motivation as a student if you are just playing by yourself alone in a room, so the real application is to be in a band,” she said.

Unlike other ensemble experiences where several instruments might play the same part, each player in a rock band is the only one with that role. Students have to step up and know their parts while they learn how to interact with one another. After a few weeks of learning the music, the Crandalls also teach stage presence and soloing. By the performance, the students run the whole show themselves.

For beginners not ready for a rock band, the group experience can still be helpful for lessons. Certain instruments, like guitar, piano and voice, are perfect for starting in a group.

After the students learn the basics, Laura Lee Crandall says private lessons can help a student fine-tune playing skills.

“It’s motivating to play with peers,” she said. “They learn from each other. They also get that kind of performance feel immediately. So, you aren’t just in isolation by yourself. You’re playing with your friends.”

That ability for music students to learn quickly in a group setting also is evident over at the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe, where Rock School KC recently opened.

Glass walls, temporary partitions and just a little bit of chaos greet students. The Great Mall of the Great Plains has plenty of life on Saturday afternoons as dozens of kids spread out their instruments and gather in groups to work on their style and musical skills.

Just behind one former storefront, 8-year-old Olivia Spoonemore is rocking on her purple guitar, one of about 10 girls in her group. They circle up in chairs, concentrating on music they already love, because it’s what they hear on the radio: the likes of Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, the soundtrack from “Frozen.”

Each student has a guitar and several have microphones to sing along while they figure out the chords and rhythms of their favorite tunes. A student teacher, just a couple years older than they are, leads the group and helps when they get stumped on the chords. Drummers are working on private lessons just a few feet away, and a group of older girls has gathered in the hallway in a similar fashion, strumming through music they’ve written themselves.

Olivia’s group of 6- to 10-year-olds is doing pretty well. It may seem like they all have a couple of years of playing under their belts, but most of them have only been at it a few weeks.

Olivia had played violin before in private lessons, but a music-loving grandpa decided to give her that purple guitar for Christmas. Her dad, Jeff Spoonemore, said they happened to get a flier for the rock music classes soon after and signed her up at the beginning of the year.

She is doing so well she now goes home and teaches Mom how to play her guitar.

“We don’t have to make her practice. She wants to,” Spoonemore said. “I think it’s just about making it fun. If it’s not fun, kids just don’t want to do it.”

Rock School KC owner Tony LoCascio says that kind of quick start and quick reward is exactly what he is going for with Rock School KC students.

“It’s about having fun with music, doing something with it,” said LoCascio.

LoCascio believes group lessons are the best approach for beginning learners. He starts kids on the first day with music they like. His technique is aimed at teaching students to play their first song within 10 to 15 minutes.

Rock School KC is a concept that started about 12 years ago when LoCascio and his son, Nicholas, watched the Jack Black movie “School of Rock.” They loved the idea of rock bands for kids. Nicholas LoCascio was just a kid back then, but he encouraged his musical father to try something similar.

Life and other work commitments got in the way of starting a full school for several years, but in the meantime, Tony LoCascio came up with a method to teach kids with no experience to play a song on the guitar in as little as 10 minutes.

He and his son polished that method and published six books together. While Nicholas LoCascio grew up, the idea of a rock band-style school steadily grew from concept to reality, going from teaching students here and there to opening the current location at the Great Mall on March 1.

Now the father and son are partners at the Great Mall location.

Immediate success is just one part of Tony LoCascio’s concept. He also encourages students to write their own music as soon as possible. He uses teachers who are near the students’ own age to encourage and lead them through the music rather than adults. Mostly, that’s because the student teachers understand and accept his quick-start methods.

“Traditional teachers absolutely hate it. It’s not academic enough,” said LoCascio.

LoCascio flips the idea of how to teach music on its head, starting students with playing complete songs and then returning to teach theory, harmony and composition as the student progresses. Kids get hooked in a hurry.

While younger kids love it, the 12- to 14-year-old set also gets a strong dose of confidence, music-writing and performance skills from the set-up. Thirteen-year-old Jasmine Gillis has been taking lessons on guitar for about seven months. She is now writing her own music and booking her own gigs in places like coffee shops.

“It’s helped me have more confidence in my singing and become a good musician. That’s what I’ve always really wanted to be, but I didn’t know how to do it,” she said.

LoCascio also gives students the chance to explore more than one instrument during lessons. He currently teaches six instruments but is working on four more. A student coming in for guitar lessons might also get a little instruction on percussion, banjo, mandolin or even ukulele.

For LoCascio, it is all about making good music. He wants kids to explore and find the right match for their musical interests.

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