Kids Rock

The boys (and girls) in the band just got a whole lot younger.

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Like a cheetah on the prowl, singer Andrew Salfi pounces on the microphone, grabs it with two hands, then pivots and leaps into the air as
his band, The Black Sparks, pumps out another song at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.

It’s a full house at the dimly lit club, and the crowd is electric, feeding off the Bethesda band’s energy as bassist Ray Brown peels off another riff, long black hair flying across his face. Barely taking a breath, the band rips through another original rocker before its two-song set ends.

As fans and friends surround the musicians, a young boy approaches Andrew. “Can we have a play date?” he asks.

It’s an odd request for a rock star—but not for a 9-year-old like Andrew. Not one of the five members of The Black Sparks is over 12. And none of the musicians is older than 16 among the more than 30 bands competing at the storied rock club on this January day in the Battle of the Bands sponsored by Bach to Rock, America’s Music School, in Bethesda. Most are middle-school age or younger.

A generation ago, high school buddies would rock out in somebody’s garage, endlessly practicing “Stairway to Heaven” and dreaming of becoming the next Rolling Stones—or at least scoring a gig at the neighborhood club.

These days, budding rock ’n’ rollers are more likely to have professional lessons under their belts and be jamming with their own bands before they hit middle school. Some have even released CDs and performed at such venues as the 9:30 Club, Growler’s Brew Pub in Gaithersburg, Santa Fe Cafe in College Park and Imagination Stage in Bethesda.

As with so many activities for children today, becoming a rock musician has become an organized process. Instead of taking private lessons and staring at sheet music at home, these young musicians flock to local music schools such as Bach to Rock, with branches in Bethesda and Gaithersburg, as well as four locations in Virginia. Or The Paul Green School of Rock Music, a Philadelphia-based chain with more than 70 locations across the country, including one in Silver Spring.

More than 1,700 students attend Bach to Rock’s six locations, with 150 participating in the rock band program and about 400 taking private lessons at the Bethesda school, according to site director Nayan Bhula. About 70 attend the School of Rock in Silver Spring. Boys make up the majority at both schools.

Singer Roger Daltrey of The Who famously sang that he’d “pick up my guitar and play just like yesterday.” But these kids sandwich weekly lessons and rehearsals between homework and other activities.

“There are those of us who grew up the old school way,” learning to play by listening to records, says Colin Behram, music director at the Silver Spring School of Rock. “This happens to speed up the process.”

But it doesn’t come cheap. At Bach to Rock, private lessons run $42 per half hour, while group lessons are $35 an hour. The School of Rock charges $250 a month for an average of 16 hours of lessons, rehearsals and performances.

Angela Malkin of Bethesda acknowledges she spends “a lot”—roughly $140 a week—for 11-year-old Jared and 9-year-old Evan to attend Bach to Rock. But their enthusiasm makes it worthwhile, she says.

“When I was young, I suffered through years of piano lessons that I hated,” she says. “If this method works, I’d love it.”

Susan Hornyak of Bethesda considers music to be her 11-year-old son’s team sport. Jake takes guitar at Bach to Rock in Bethesda and is a member of Tunnel, along with the Malkin brothers. “He loves the guys in the band,” Hornyak says. “He’s become close on a personal level. It’s kind of his way of being cool, and it’s given him an identity.”

Robin Gonzales of Bethesda also has an 11-year-old, Andrew, who sings for Tunnel. “It’s his favorite hour of the week,” she says. “If I could afford to do this every day, I would.”

A late afternoon in November finds Tunnel and The Black Sparks rehearsing in the warren of small studios that line the brightly painted corridors at Bach to Rock on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda. Huge posters of rock icons—Elvis, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Green Day—cover the walls at every turn.

Although the studio doors are closed, music pulses through to the parents sitting on benches outside as students lug instruments through the halls.

In a studio with bright purple walls, pint-size Andrew Salfi repeatedly leaps off a small stool as The Black Sparks run through an original song. The Battle of the Bands is nearly two months away. Hopping around in white athletic socks and no shoes, braces flashing, Salfi seems to swallow the microphone as he yells an occasional, “Yow!”

As a song ends, Bhula, the band’s instructor, compliments the 12-year-old drummer, Nathaniel Salfi, on his decision to shout “ha ha” several times. “I like it. It sounds cool,” Bhula tells Andrew’s older brother. “…If the crowd sees you start screaming, they’ll start screaming.”

Around the corner, the plaintive notes of Styx’s “Renegade” fill the hallway outside another small studio. “Oh momma I can hear you a’crying you’re so scared and all alone,” croons Andrew Gonzales, his brown, bowl-cut bangs obscuring his eyebrows. “Hangman is comin’ down from the gallows and I don’t have very long.”

As the band moves into “Renegade’s” pulsating refrain, the students kick into high gear, demonstrating the tight playing that energized the band’s audience at a performance last fall at Imagination Stage in Bethesda.

Andrew grins as he recalls it. “Thirteen-year-old girls were going crazy,” he says with the nonchalance of a rock star.

“It was creepy,” adds 10-year-old drummer Sam Seymour of Chevy Chase.

Founded in Pennsylvania in 1998 by musician Paul Green, the School of Rock early on took the approach that music lessons should be fun. Kids learn to play the songs they like through demonstration, rather than by studying sheet music. Along the way, teachers impart lessons on notes and simple musical theory. According to Behram, the school inspired the 2003 hit movie, School of Rock, starring Jack Black.

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