The boys (and girls) in the band just got a whole lot younger.
Three years after the School of Rock started, Jeffrey Levin, a local school band and choral director, founded the East Coast Music Production Camp in Bethesda. Levin later teamed up with David Levy, former head of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and changed the school’s name to Bach to Rock in 2007. Classes at both schools are taught by professional musicians.
“This is something that traditionally you had to be serious about,” says Bach to Rock’s Bhula. “What we’ve done is simplify it. You’re not going to be the next Bruce Springsteen—it’s really about having fun.”
But in an area where high achievement is so often the focus, some parents view rock music lessons as another way to help their kids stand out.
“Lots of parents push kids to do this as an activity,” Bhula says. “They want to bulk up résumés for college. I’ve had parents call me and say they want trumpet lessons for a 5-year-old.”
Bach to Rock and the School of Rock both advise starting lessons no earlier than age 7, though they offer introductory classes for younger kids. Most students are between 7 and 18. Adults also take lessons.
At both Bach to Rock and the School of Rock, students are placed in bands as soon as instructors think they’re ready. Students with comparable skills are usually put together, and the group picks its own name. In addition to a 45-minute lesson, band members at the School of Rock are expected to attend a three-hour rehearsal each week. Bach to Rock band members rehearse for an hour each week.
Both schools expect the bands to perform a couple times a year. The School of Rock focuses on a particular genre or band, such as the Beatles, for its shows, while Bach to Rock holds its Battle of the Bands, in which groups compete in elementary, middle and high school categories. Top students at the School of Rock also may audition for its house band, which plays additional venues.
At the School of Rock, Behram says he stresses the importance of rehearsing and not letting down fellow band members. “That’s what I love about instruments. You can’t fake it,” he says.
And there are other character-building benefits, parents say.
“Andrew has no fear. It’s probably the best way to channel a kid like this. He loves being with the bigger boys,” says Amy Salfi of Bethesda, mother of The Black Sparks’ singer, who turned 10 in May, as well as the band’s drummer, Nathaniel. “I think it gives them all a lot of confidence.”
Robin Gonzales says she has noticed a difference in her 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, who is a singer with the Bach to Rock band Aces and Eights and also a member of the debate team at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. “She has no stage fright. I really attribute it to this,” Gonzales says.
It’s mid-morning at the 9:30 Club, and the place is rocking as bands competing in the elementary school division of the Battle of the Bands each take the stage. After their performances, they listen to critiques by a panel of judges, all local musicians, writers and producers.
Awaiting their turn to play, Tunnel’s band members line up along the polished wood bar, though only Andrew Gonzales’ shoulders reach above it. Sam Seymour and a couple others sport AC/DC T-shirts and hats. “It’s one of my favorite rocker shirts,” Sam says.
Like most of the boys, Sam has participated in the competition before. “I’m nervous,” he says, “but not as nervous as my first time when you’re playing in front of all of these people and you’re afraid you might make a mistake.”
But it is the first time for Evan Malkin, who joined the group last fall and says, “I’m worried I might mess up.”
Andrew Gonzales, however, is in the zone. He checks out the audience and “it feels great.”
“When you’re up on that stage, it’s the greatest thing in the world, knowing everybody is depending on you to do a great job,” he says.
When the band finally takes the stage, Tunnel rips through “Renegade” and “Song 2” by Blur, and the judges offer a slew of compliments. “You guys are absolutely solid, and you have a set of lungs on you,” one judge tells Andrew. “Best singing today.”
Minutes later, the group learns it has won first place in the elementary school division.
“Thank you, D.C.!” shouts guitarist Jake Hornyak as he and his band mates thrust their award plaques in the air.
Jake’s dad, Joe Hornyak, is both thrilled and wistful as he watches the band celebrate. “I’m as proud as I could possibly be. They worked really hard,” he says. But “I wish I would have had that opportunity when I was a kid.”
When it’s time for the middle school competition, The Black Sparks have to wait for 11 other bands to play before taking the stage. They’re decked out in black T-shirts with the band’s name emblazoned in yellow on the front. Andrew Salfi has added a tie and a fedora.
As they wait to head up the stage stairs, Andrew can barely contain himself. “We’re worried about him,” 12-year-old bass guitarist Ray Brown of Bethesda says. “He’s going crazy.”
And so he does as the band takes over the stage with its high-energy rock ’n’ roll.
“Front man, you’re cracking me up,” one judge says afterward. “So much energy. The stage presence is what stage presence should be, not for every band, but for most bands.”
When the winners are announced, The Black Sparks have won second place.
But for the irrepressible Andrew, winning is just part of the plan. “I wanted to let them have a show they wouldn’t forget,” he says.
Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, among other publications.