Isabel Canning, 12, brough the Triple Door to tears last june with her rendition of Joni Mitchell's "River." Gabriel Zahn, 11, is a three-year veteran of School of Rock Seattle.
Does rock ‘n’ roll build better human beings? Maybe that explains Seattle’s obsession with all-ages music.
Under the fluorescent lights of a basement classroom, in an anonymous building on an anonymous stretch of Lake City Way, an instructor is teaching a class of eight kids, ages 8 to 16. The lesson is “Come See about Me,” the Supremes’ 1964 hit.
“I’m calling vibe rule on y’all!” the instructor says, his tone more big bro than schoolmarm. “You’re all in your own world. This was one of the peppiest bands in Motown. I wanna feel that pep all the way through the song and I’m gonna stop you if I don’t.”
A half-hour into the class, the students appear listless. A tweenage girl in purple Nikes hangs on a microphone stand. Two more girls sag beneath the weight of shoulder-strapped electric guitars. A boy with spiked hair noodles on a keyboard with one hand, his other buried in the pocket of his cargo pants. Another boy in a Slipknot t-shirt is dwarfed beneath an immense, purple bass guitar. A lanky, wide-smiling teen with Bieber hair swept over his face sits behind a drum kit on a riser near the door. Three more kids sit side-by-side on a thrift-store couch against the far wall, absorbed in the screens on their cell phones.
A little after 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in March, the spring session of School of Rock Seattle plays “Come See about Me” for the fourth time in their lives.
It’s a rough go. The instructor—a 39-year-old lifelong musician named Aaron Samuels with earplugs dangling from a lanyard around his neck—bobs his head, impassive. Eventually the band wobbles to a stop.
“You did a good job of faking this time, but you all look so emo,” Samuels says. “Eye contact! With the other members of the band! Everybody should make eye contact once during the song. You guys are a band and you gotta be connected on a subtle level. Get out of your heads and communicate with each other.”
They start the song again.
Flash-forward three months and a dozen rehearsals. It’s a damp Friday evening in June and a couple hundred people are inside Columbia City Theatre for School of Rock’s Motown vs. Stax performance. This night is both final exam and graduation ceremony, during which 21 students will play 24 songs, two sets in two separate shows. The crowd is almost exclusively parents and grandparents, excited in the unconditional, unabashed way of parents and grandparents.
Kids shuffle on- and off-stage, rotating band members with each song. Song number three is “Come See About Me,” and the eight kids who stumbled their way through the song in March take the stage. Something is different about them: confidence gleaned from practice, for sure, but also an understanding of the material, a familiarity. They don’t just recite the song, they perform it.
The bassist, Max, nimbles his hands around his instrument. The girls who seemed so laden with their guitars, Osa and Bella, are buoyant (a few songs later, during the set’s highlight, “Mess Around” by Ray Charles, Bella roars on saxophone). The unconsciousness Nate showed on the keys months ago translates to natural ability. Mila, the singer, does an admirable, 11-year-old version of Diana Ross with a pair of tweenage Supremes on backup. They play tightly as a group. There’s eye contact, vibe, pep.
The whole hour-long concert is a window into the past and the future simultaneously. These songs were written when these teenage performers’ grandparents were teenagers. Several of the kids shine with genuine charisma, suggesting that even at this malleable state, certain people are born for the stage. It’s all very cute in a Mini-Me-Motown kinda way. It’s also—just a little bit—badass.
Alaine Medjo, 12, followed her borther's footsteps to School of Rock but chose bass instead of drums.
Some regions are breeding grounds for athletes; Seattle is a breeding ground for musicians.
Witness the city’s all-ages musical infrastructure. A slew of toddler-pop bands appeal to the Thomas the Tank Engine demo. Performance-based music schools like School of Rock, Rock School and Rain City Rock Camp for Girls train elementary- to high-school kids for the stage, augmented by countless conventional music schools, private classes and teachers. All-ages music venues like Healthy Times Fun Club, Cairo, the Vera Project, the Black Lodge and the Josephine provide places for teen bands to play and peers to gather. This ad-hoc Little League gives young people the tools and motivation to make music more than a hobby.
It also arms them with the vocabulary for art appreciation. If a fledgling music student doesn’t become a musician, she’ll certainly become a music listener.
“It’s harder than ever to get people to appreciate music on any level,” says Eli Anderson, who books bands—including School of Rock student concerts—at Belltown concert venue the Crocodile. “It’s such a disposable commodity that getting kids involved in the playing and writing of music is super important.”
Thoughtful engagement in the arts also makes for thoughtful engagement in life. Collective creative endeavors give kids a chance to be vulnerable, to communicate, to work as a team—all of which teaches them empathy. In teaching kids music, we make better human beings.
“It’s on the individual to take responsibility in building the future, and it’s so easy for kids to get absorbed into what’s happening right now, in Facebook and Twitter updates,” Anderson continues. “If you wanna be in a band, you don’t just watch videos. You gotta do the work, you have to practice, you have to participate.”
Music in the Northwest lives by a code of participation. From the teen dances of the ‘50s, through Seattle’s garage rock, funk and grunge years, to today’s genre-spanning music scene, this place manufactures its own culture instead of just importing it. It’s a magnet for creative people from across the country. The passivity that’s bred into modern cultural consumption is anathema to the Northwest’s DIY sensibility. In a city defined by the music it makes, it’s only natural that parents encourage their kids to get involved in music.
Kids didn’t always have that opportunity. In 1985, the Seattle City Council’s infamous Teen Dance Ordinance virtually eliminated all-ages concerts by making permits for them prohibitively expensive. Throughout the ‘90s, the first-person experience of Seattle music’s move into the mainstream was virtually off-limits to anyone under 21. The Old Fire House in Redmond was the only place kids could participate in the regional scene that fostered Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. (Redmond!) That all changed nine years ago this summer with the repeal of the TDO.
“It was a gradual cultural shift over a decade,” says Shannon Roach, managing director of the Vera Project, an all-ages concert venue at Seattle Center founded in 2001 in opposition to the TDO. “There are concrete things that happened, changing laws that allowed access to young people, which brought about a cultural shift. Now you see young people creating a vibrant cultural community.”
Jenna Ashley signed up her son Owen in the School of Rock 101 course six months ago. She sees the school—a national, for-profit chain started in Philadelphia in 1998 and opened in Seattle in 2008—as an opportunity to impart the lessons of teamwork and collaboration that often come with organized sports, only with a creative bent and without the competitive drive.
“A lot of my friends are like, ‘So he’s learning how to play three chords over and over?’” she says. “No, that’s not what he’s learning at all. It’s a whole new way to communicate and relate to what’s around him. Music and the arts do that in a way sports doesn’t. Already at age 10 I see this in him.”
Kris Kierulff, School of Rock Seattle’s general manager, left his job as a booking agent to take what he calls his dream job. “The school is a catalyst for kids to be a part of the community,” he says. “These kids that would never meet each other because of a giant lake or the school district meet each other here and form their own bands.”
Whether or not these kids go on to be rock stars is not the point. Like alcoholics and Scientologists, once you identify as a musician, you’re always a musician. “I haven’t played an instrument in years,” Ashley says, “but the appreciation never goes away.” Not coincidentally, as King County and the rest of the country eliminate public school arts programs, music performance schools are more popular than ever.
Natalie Walker, president of Rain City Rock Camp for Girls, says the camp’s 120 spaces were full the first day she announced them. Now in its fourth year, RCRCG is modeled after the original Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls that launched in Portland 10 years ago. Both nonprofit camps belong to the International Girls’ Rock Camp Alliance, a group 29 strong, with members as far away as Sweden and Germany.
Rain City focuses on teaching girls original songwriting skills, not so much intensive music instruction but more a lesson in expression. “Rock for us is about the aesthetic and the philosophy of letting go, being allowed to be loud and say whatever you want. It’s not so much a genre of music,” Walker says. “We’re a self-esteem camp for girls, but if that’s what we ran as we’d have trouble filling spots. Because we’re a rock ‘n’ roll camp, we can’t have enough sessions.”
At 10 years old, Rock School—not to be confused with School of Rock—is Seattle’s longest-running performance-based school. It, too, is experiencing unprecedented popularity. Founder Wendy Simmons says that as a nonprofit, funding is the only barrier to endless expansion. She and a team of instructors run after-school classes for more than 100 students five days a week all year long in a half-dozen neighborhoods across the Seattle area. They offer free classes and scholarship programs to underprivileged kids and host frequent shows at venues like the Vera Project, the Old Fire House in Redmond, and the Youngstown Arts Center in West Seattle.
Simmons says Rock School caters to hyper-local neighborhood demographics in a way other performance schools don’t, citing a new hip-hop beat-making class at Cleveland High School in Beacon Hill. Like Rain City, writing original material is prioritized over technical proficiency. Equally important are interpersonal skills.
“We have goals for our students based on my experience as a high school counselor,” she says. “We have a higher mission than just teaching music.”
Couching music lessons—not to mention life lessons—in the free-spirited, studded-leather trimmings of a rock band lures in otherwise disinterested teens. Which speaks to savvy educators who use pop culture to their advantage as much as changing perceptions of rock ‘n’ roll. Once a wedge that divided parents and kids, it’s now a bridge that brings them together.
“I remember my mother telling me to turn down my music,” says Bridget Christian, whose son Jack played in the first-ever School of Rock Seattle performance three years ago. “Now it’s the opposite, where I’m asking Jack to listen to things and turn it up. The rebelliousness might’ve been lost, but that’s evolution.”
Or, as Jenna Ashley puts it, “Now that my son is playing Anthrax in the minivan, I pay attention to what I’m listening to.”
As a genre, rock music has recently withered beneath the onslaught of pop and hip-hop. Take a look at the current state of popular music: It’s hard to argue for rock’s continued relevance.
“The word ‘rock star’ doesn’t have the same meaning anymore,” says Rain City’s Natalie Walker. “Everyone’s a rock star. You find a parking spot, you’re a rock star. You find a good deal at the grocery store, you’re a rock star. Everyone rocks, everything rocks.”
Sixty years after Little Richard first dry-humped his piano, rock’s rebel iconography and liberation ethos are more alive in the American mindset than the music itself. Which is true no matter how old you are.
“I’m focusing on the zero- to five-year-old demographic,” says Chris Ballew, best known as leader of Grammy-nominated group Presidents of the United States of America. Since 2009, Ballew has played about 120 shows a year under the name Caspar Babypants and released three albums for kids. His fourth, Sing Along!, comes out this month.
The Presidents’ biggest hit, “Peaches,” was a rambunctious pop-rock anthem, but Ballew says that “ultimately the voice I wanted to use wasn’t ironic and wasn’t loud.” The music the Grammy nominee was seeking all his life is Caspar Babypants.
Rather than Barney’s migraine-inducing doofustry, Ballew takes inspiration from what he describes as the “high-quality, old ideas” of American folk music. An industrious musicologist could draw a line from Caspar Babypants’ breezy, infectious rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” to the breezy, infectious folk-pop of homegrown darlings the Head and the Heart. Both bands recognize folk as the foundation for all American music, from blues to country to rock to pop. Both bands encourage clapping and singing along. Both evoke the Northwest DIY aesthetic. Ballew just goes for a younger audience.
“There’s this whole realm of music that isn’t about the power of a song, but the power of music itself to bring people together in a social way, a cooperative way, and make them band together to make something happen,” Ballew says. “That’s why they call it a band.”
Several weeks after Motown vs. Stax, I make a final visit to School of Rock. This fall, the school will relocate from Lake City to Greenwood, closer to its constituents. Today, a group of about 20 kids in the summer camp program gather in the living room-like lounge outside Kierulff’s office to discuss the current theme: 21st Century Rock. In a new twist, Kierulff and Samuels are letting students select songs.
“Let’s make a rule,” one says. “No Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber!” Resounding assent.
“Was Rage Against the Machine 21st century?” another asks.
“You may have to do research,” Samuels responds with a smirk.
Most of the kids follow Samuels downstairs into the rehearsal room, but three—Isaac and Julian, both 15, and McKay, 14—stick around to talk to me.
“There’s definitely a community, family-type feeling when you join the School of Rock,” Isaac says. “You learn to work with not just your instrument but other people and the Seattle group of kids.” He sees School of Rock graduate bands Paved the Earth and Los Gentlemen at all-ages venues around Seattle as often as he can.
Performing has turned these kids into the kind of casual rock star Natalie Walker described. “I used to be really awkward and I wouldn’t talk to anyone I didn’t know, but since I started going here I’m a lot more outgoing,” Julian says. “A lot of that is I’ve played on stage four times now. It’s been cool.”
What’s the hardest part about playing shows? Messing up?
“People don’t notice your mistakes as much you do,” Juilan says. “You learn from your mistakes but it’s not that big of a deal if you mess up.”
The kids are so self-aware and articulate I wonder if they’ve been coached. I ask what they love the most about music.
“The sound, the experience, the community,” Isaac says.
“It’s being part of a group,” McKay says. “There’s a lot of teamwork going on. Music gets me out of trouble, I would say. Instead of walking around doing whatever, I’m practicing bass or drums.”
They leave to join the rest of the students in the downstairs studio classroom. The first notes of the first rehearsal song of the 21st Century Rock program thump through the floorboards into the lounge. The song is “Kids” by MGMT.
Photography by Andrew Waits