Rockers team up at BandWorks


Published March 29, 2005 — by Quynh Tran

Among her roles as mother, dentist, and hip-hop aerobics instructor at the Oakland Hills Tennis Club, Jessie Nakamura, 37, is also a rocker. After watching a drummer play at a New Orleans club five years ago, Nakamura decided to pick up the sticks herself and join a rock band. (Could you leave in this paragraph and then add the link to the pop-out?)

“It’s exciting and good stress relief,” said the Montclair resident. “The good thing about playing the drums is that you’re never off key or play the wrong note.”

Rockers are no longer the stereotypical long-haired, knee-holed Levi’s-clad young men who make head banging music in a rundown garage. Today, anyone from dentists to teen girls can be a rocker. They can play every style of rock, from classic to punk, and perform in a respectable community arts center.

“Playing in a band has opened my eyes to other types of music I wasn’t interested in before,” said Nakamura, who studied guitar and piano as a youngster. She enjoys playing hard rock these days.

With a bass guitarist, vocalist, and two guitarists, Nakamura’s band is one of 14 that descend on a large warehouse in East Oakland for two hours every week to practice and learn how to become a rock band. Their sessions are organized by BandWorks, an Oakland-based amateur school of rock.

“Rock and roll is more accessible today,” said BandWorks founder Jeremy Steinkoler. “It’s only three chords after all.”

On Wednesday nights, Oakland teenagers Alyssa Diamond, Austin Zumbro, Jason Reeder, Mike Ruby, and Andrew Harris practice in Studio A with their instructor Matt Heulitt, a professional guitarist who will be in a band opening for Carlos Santana.

Their sound-insulated room is adorned with snapshots of the group’s previous performances. String red lights and eclectic music posters from White Stripes to Los Lobos turn the space into a rocker hangout.

The teenagers don’t know each other from school or family. They met through music. Last week was the band’s last practice session before their performance at the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center in Berkeley.

Their set included favorites like “Rock the Casbah,” a punk rock piece by the Clash and “When the Levy Breaks,” a classic number by Led Zeppelin. Yet their least favorite song, “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” will most likely best showcase their talent.

BandWorks directors Steinkoler and Steve Gibson selected the song to broaden the students’ range in music. The 1953 Yardbird’s version is a blues number, said Harris, but band members didn’t like it.

Zumbro, a senior at Oakland Tech and the group’s keyboard player and vocalist, called the opening verse “I caught the train, I met a dame. She was a hipster, well and a real cool dame” a bit lame. He decided to recite the lyrics with a poet rhythm.

The group eventually transformed the song into a compilation of beatnik spoken words, head-banging hard rock drumming and slow blues chords.

“This class is so directed and unique,” Heulitt said. “The thing I notice the most is their growing confidence and how they build rapport with each other.”

New bands need to get to know each other before they can sound good, he said, that’s more important than memorizing a song or other technical abilities. Each BandWorks student is grouped with similar age and musically experienced band members for the eight-week sessions.

Guitarists Reeder and Harris, a sophomore at the Head-Royce School and a senior at Berkeley High School, respectively, have played together for more than three years in a BandWorks band. Drummer Ruby, a sophomore at Piedmont High, and Harris have also formed a band outside BandWorks. This particular grouping has played together for three eight-week sessions.

Finding other committed band members, a space to practice, agreement on music, and musical guidance are typical band challenges, said Steinholer. That’s what his and Gibson’s students faced until they created BandWorks. Teaching drum and guitar lessons privately, their respective students couldn’t grow as musicians because they didn’t have others to play with. Ten years later, the duo created a community of amateur musicians.

“It’s giving kids the chance to grow up playing music,” said Steinkoler, “and adults the chance remain kids.”

Some like Harris, who already has five guitar students, aspire to play and teach music. Others like Diamond, a bass guitarist and junior at Bishop O’Dowd High School, plays in a band because of her love of music.

“The music I play is about being creative,” she said.

And yet others, it’s all about being in a band, “When you bang the drums,” Nakamura said, “it doesn’t sound like music until you play with other people.”