The school of hard rocks educates the future rock and roll star


Published April 16, 2005 — by Keith Axline

SITTING IN A rehearsal space in Oakland, it’s difficult not to be impressed by Lunchbox’s rendition of Modest Mouse’s “All Night Diner.” The instrumentation is partially stripped down to bass (Connor O’Brien, age 14), guitar (Lexi Visco, 17), and drums (Steven Hendricks, 17) but spot-on nonetheless. And although 17-year-old Caitlin O’Brien’s choir-cultivated voice is a far cry from Isaac Brock’s creepily layered rant, it captures the essence of the original song surprisingly well.

Lunchbox are practicing their set for their final performance for BandWorks (, a program for rock upstarts of all ages that was started in 1993 by Jeremy Steinkoler and Steve Gibson as a way for students to get some real band experience.

It’s week six of the eight-week program at the school for aspiring musicians, where you can select your own songs (including originals), meet like-minded musicians, and make use of compassionate and skilled teachers who also play in the local music scene. While most of the 16 BandWorks bands are putting the finishing touches on their performances, Lunchbox have come down with a case of indecisiveness and have completely changed their set list from a few weeks ago. And who can blame them? With more than 400 songs –including titles by Weezer, the Pixies, and the Arcade Fire –tabulated from scratch by the program’s founders, it’s difficult to choose a relative few for the final show at the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center in Berkeley.

“We’re usually really nervous,” Visco admits when asked about their confidence before the show, but, like seasoned performers, they seem able to use that nervous energy to their advantage. “It always goes better than we think it will.” O’Brien adds, “Steven’s usually freaking out up until we go on, and then afterwards he’s like, ‘That was awesome.’ ”

It took me seven years to work up to my first performance with a band, but to these kids, it’s old news. Training to be a rock star used to mean practicing for hours by yourself in your room. Today there are three far better options in the Bay Area that allow you to bypass the daunting tasks of finding other musicians, locating a practice space, and booking shows, and instead skip straight to rehearsals and a payoff performance.

Steinkoler and Gibson require BandWorks’ teachers to be experienced and well trained. Only those with real-world chops, they feel, can handle the confidence and frustration issues that boil to the surface from the heightened emotions of band dynamics. Teachers must be managers, instructors, and counselors, often all at the same time.

Many former BandWorks students have gone on to play in regularly gigging bands in the area, including Free Time, Jam Planet, Copper Dome Bodhi, and Two Time Blues Band. One of the most important lessons the program strives to teach is that you can’t do everything on your own and that you’re going to need a lot of help to get anywhere, and BandWorks gives you that support. Stephen Clayton of Two Time Blues Band and Copper Dome Bodhi and Fran Wickner of Free Time are former students and also parents of kids in the program. They agree that aside from the experience itself, the supportive and tight-knit community surrounding the program has contributed most to their music careers. “BandWorks introduces you to professional people, other people who are like you,” Wickner says, and it was this cohesion of personalities that kept her playing with other former students outside of the program.

The BandWorks campus is made up of three rehearsal rooms down the hall from Shark Bite Studios in Oakland, and while enrollment grows each year, Steinkoler and Gibson’s labor-of-love approach keeps the atmosphere personal and comfortable (and at $330, it’s kept somewhat affordable as well). BandWorks isn’t specifically geared toward preparing you for the music business, but plugging into such an expansive and knowledgeable community is something many musicians would kill for.