A Crash Course in Rock ‘N’ Roll

Published January/February, 2006

by John Otis

MakingMusicIf you’re going to San Francisco…” Scott McKenzie’s 1967 song suggests, ”you’re gonna meet some gentle people there.” But don’t expect all the gentle musicians of the Bay Area to be playing flower power folk music these days. At BandWorks, an Oakland-based school of rock, amateur musicians are given a chance to get amped-up and satisfy their craving to rock, roll, and cut loose.

Music teachers Steve Gibson and Jeremy Steinkoler started BandWorks in 1993. “We realized that many of our students didn’t have the benefit of practice time with other musicians,” says Steinkoler. He and Gibson aimed to do something about that and created a program to provide amateur musicians like Lawr Michaels a chance to collaborate with fellow music makers.

“I always wanted to be a rocker!” exclaims Michaels, 54, of Berkeley, California, who joined BandWorks after being told he had the right amount of “promise and attitude” to join a band. By day, he’s a business manager at Southwestern Bell Corporation, and he also runs and contributes articles to his own sports website. At one time, he scored stats for MLB.com and served as a minor league columnist for CBS Sportsline.

“I have a busy brain,” Michaels says. “As a young kid, I was just floored by Buddy Holly. After I got a guitar one Christmas, I taught myself how to play.” Michaels doesn’t only express himself with strings and picks, but with lyrics. “I can also turn a phrase,” he says of his songwriting ability.

 All Are Welcomed

Beginning musicians are welcomed to the BandWorks program, as are the most accomplished amateur rockers. Musicians are placed in bands based on their skill level, so they can learn from each other more effectively and perfect their sound without pressure or stressful expectations. In addition, BandWorks teachers, who dedicate many hours to making the program tick, are happy to give special instruction to those who need it.

Amateur musicians’ motives for attending BandWorks are as varied as the experience levels of the participating musicians. “Some people see BandWorks as a stepping-stone to something bigger,” observes Steinkoler. “Others might just see this as an active hobby, an alternative to, say, playing softball.”

Each BandWorks session runs for eight weeks, ending with a live performance in front of 200-250 people. “This isn’t a recital,” Steinkoler says. “It’s like a real rock show.” The pace of the instruction, the ease of working with others of equal experience, and the excitement of the concert performance draw people back to BandWorks after their first session. “We have about an 80% return rate,” says Steinkoler.

 Rediscovering Their Love

“I’ve gone through the program about 13 or 14 times,” exclaims BandWorks veteran Stephen Clayton, 54, of Piedmont, California. He has played the bass off and on ever since he discovered it in high school. His hobby shares time with his career at Sun Microsoft, but being in BandWorks actually encourages him to play on a regular basis. “Just like at work, I’m fueled by deadlines,” he admits. “I get my best practice in when a gig is coming up. If I don’t have one looming, I find I don’t practice as much.”

For Clayton, the final concert performance is as valuable a learning experience as the weeks of practice leading up to it. “That’s what I really like about BandWorks,” he explains. “They take people who aren’t professionals, give them a crash course, and then put them on stage. Gradually, you learn how to act on stage, discover your mistakes, and deal with things as they go wrong.”

Clayton’s story is similar to those of other adults at BandWorks. Many took up an instrument—usually in high school—only to go on an extended hiatus from playing. That is, until they rediscovered their love for making music.

 Fun and Different

For some adults, however, the first time they even try to play is when they’re middle aged. Fran Wickner, an Albany, California, psychotherapist, says she never touched an instrument until she was 40, when her friends started learning how to play different instruments. “I was looking for more than just going to soccer games,” she confesses. “I wanted something fun and different.”

Wickner chose the electric guitar. “Once I began to play, I knew that there was no way I could practice or do this sort of thing alone,” she says, and luckily she didn’t have to. “BandWorks is community with a capital C. I give Steve and Jeremy a lot of credit for fostering such a great group.”

In fact, more often than not, people stay in touch with those they met at BandWorks, whether they return for another session or not. Some set up weekly practice sessions with their new friends and others take things a step further. Wickner and her fellow BandWorks peers developed such strong bonds that they formed their own band outside of BandWorks. Now the band gets regular gigs.

 Family Moments

BandWorks bridges generations and proves that a person can never be too old to pursue music making. “Some people find it hard to believe that people in their 40s play in an actual band. It’s like a rock and roll fantasy!” laughs Oakland, California, resident Linda Spencer, 46, who enrolled in BandWorks with her husband Bob and their two teenagers.

Sharing music making as a hobby is a great way for parents to connect with their kids, Linda explains. Typically, family members play in separate bands at BandWorks, but their shared interests usually cause them to try to find opportunities to play together. There is a fun challenge in trying to find a middle ground between the musical tastes of parents and the younger generation.

Linda believes that the family-oriented, all-ages BandWorks community provides unique collaborative experiences. “It gives you an opportunity to work with people of different ages,” she says. “If I did decide to join a band outside of the program, it would probably just be with other women my own age.”

BandWorks provides a great balance to the responsibilities of family and career. “It’s a great way to counterbalance the left-brain world,” Bob Spencer says. “You can look at a sheet of music and realize, I can do this! In a few sessions, you can hear a new song and realize that making music isn’t some Herculean task.”

The passionate sharing of experiences and camaraderie found at BandWorks makes it almost impossible not to make new friends and gain self-confidence from their support. “I can’t say enough about what good BandWorks has done for my son,” Wickner says. “Once he joined, his confidence went up. He made great friends and now he’s at college with a scholarship, pursuing music.”

 Regular Schedule

The program is designed to keep pace with the hurried lifestyle of the 21st century. “You just show up with your instrument and BandWorks takes away all the hassles of setting up,” explains Bob Spencer, a keyboard player. His job as a financial consultant requires him to travel a lot, but he always makes time for music, even after he left BandWorks. “I shoehorn it in. I make it a regularly scheduled commitment one night a week.” Bob meets regularity with his five-person band to jam in his basement.

Wickner also believes it’s important to fit music into her daily routine. “BandWorks lets me keep the same schedule every week,” she says. “I look forward to it and my family knows that every Wednesday night, I have BandWorks.”

They all believe that the program is a perfect way for them to stay active and even recapture some of their youth. “To be a housewife and play the bass is a really healthy mid-life thing to do,” Linda concludes.