March 28, 2005, San Francisco Chronicle
Jason Reeder quietly rocked back and forth while pounding out visceral licks on his guitar during a solo at a band practice at Shark Bite Recording Studios in Oakland's waterfront warehouse district.
Fine-tuning the acoustic version of Eric Clapton's rock standard "Layla, '' Jason jammed with fellow students Mike Ruby on drums, Alyssa Diamond on bass guitar, Austin Zumbro on keyboards and vocals, and teacher Matt Hulett, who filled in for guitarist Andrew Harris, who was home sick.
No member of the band, save for their teacher, is older than 17.
They are students at BandWorks, which could more accurately be described as the Bay Area's School of Rock.
For the past 12 years, the program has offered aspiring musicians with little formal training a chance to do something that just about everyone has dreamed of at one time or another -- to be a part of the band, man.
Jason, 15, has been in the program since he was 10 years old. He's taken private guitar lessons since age 6 and is also learning to play the drums. Outside the program, he plays in four bands.
His handwork on the chords is a blur, and the band is tight, making seamless breaks from one musical section to another, a skill that professionals struggle to smooth out. The thing is, Jason is just as good -- or even a little better -- on the drums.
"When I play with these guys, it's like practicing with the guys I play with,'' said Hulett, the teacher. That's high praise considering that he will play in the band that opens for Carlos Santana in an East Coast tour planned for this summer.
The program's creators, Jeremy Steinkoler and Steve Gibson, are also professional musicians, each with a long list of impressive credentials.
Steinkoler, a drummer, has performed all over the country, including a performance at Lincoln Center. Gibson, a guitarist, has performed at the popular High Sierra Music Festival, served as a music director in London and contributed to Guitar Player magazine. Both men also teach music privately.
"This isn't a music factory turning out clones of popular recording artists,'' Steinkoler said. "It's a chance to have fun with other people who want to play music."
The group Jason plays with is one of just 16 bands formed during the current eight-week session whose final exam will be performances at Ashkenaz in Berkeley on April 3 and April 5. And while the youngsters' band is considered the tightest in this session, everyone comes away with a little more knowledge about their own talents and what it takes to play with a group.
"Sometimes, the end result of the music is greater than the sum of the parts, and they're able to exceed their individual talents,'' Steinkoler said. There are no age limits in the program, and students range in age from 10 to 60 years old. Instructors estimate their student body is about 70 percent kids and 30 percent adults.
Teens often play with adults, but Steinkoler and Gibson make a point to keep the youngsters in the same group. Bands usually have five or six members and include two guitars, a bass guitar, drums, keyboards -- and sometimes a vocalist.
"We don't put folkies in the same band with a metalhead,'' he added.
When the bands are formed, the instructors ask students to pick a few songs they'd like to play. They take the responses and come up with a song from a library of 450 songs the instructors have transcribed to music for the students.
Once a song is elected, the band spends the next eight weeks honing its skills in preparation for the final concert. Sessions cost $300, plus $30 for equipment. Everything is provided -- drums, guitars, amps and the sound studio.
Wednesday, the last practice before their performance, Jason, Mike, Alyssa and Austin ran through the six-song set they would be performing at Ashkenaz in about two weeks. The list includes songs by Led Zeppelin, the Clash, Jimmy Cliff and, of course, Clapton.
The band is solid and plays as a unit. They don't sweat the small stuff and can communicate with a nod or a look that conveys their feelings.
"At our last performance, we totally screwed up and left out an entire section of a song, but we all knew it instantly and looked at each other because you can't hear on stage,'' Jason said. "Then someone yelled chorus, and we went to the chorus and the crowd never knew it. Someone who hasn't played in a band -- or in BandWorks -- wouldn't know how to do that.''
Jason has been working on playing the guitar behind his head -- a la Jimi Hendrix -- and will unveil his new skill at the Ashkenaz concert.
In the coming year, Steinkoler and Gibson want to take the program to Contra Costa County, San Francisco and the South Bay.
For Fran Wickner and her son Andrew Harris, the program transcends the boundaries of age, creating a common bond with her teenage son, something any parent knows can be tough to accomplish.
"We like the same music, '60s rock,'' said Wickner, as she picked up a guitar and placed the strap across her shoulders.
"He thinks the teachers are the coolest guys in the world, and playing music has given him self-esteem," the mother said. "If these kids want to spend time playing music, it focuses their attention and keeps them from getting into trouble."