After-school program helps hone kids' musical talents
Inside this west-side Salt Lake City cinderblock building on a school night, a bunch of children begin plugging in and tuning bass and electric guitars, then adjusting volume on amplifiers and monitors. One kid plays a note, and the whole place vibrates for a moment.
It's a typical Thursday evening at Steve Auerbach's MusicGarage.org, 389 W. 1700 South, where his so-called MusicGarage Kids are learning how to be in a rock band.
This rock-music training school is one of a handful of after-school programs in the Salt Lake valley designed to teach a variety of skills. About 9 percent of Utah students or about 45,286 kids in grades K-12 take part in such programs, according to a 2009 (the most recently released) report by the national nonprofit Afterschool Alliance. Some 15 million school-age children are left to their own devices after school in lieu of taking part in any organized activities, according to nonprofit officials.
"There is absolutely a need for after-school programs," said Ed Spitzberg, vice president of development for the Washington, D.C.-based alliance. The challenge has been a sagging economy, which has decreased budgets, while households with working parents have caused the need to increase.
Music classes can attract kids who might otherwise steer away from organized after-school activities. Music can help kids learn in a variety of skills, ranging from math to self-expression, from social skills to self-discipline, according to Spitzberg, who used to run an after-school program focusing on music and the arts.
Teaching the world to play • In Utah, youth programs offer classes in rock music, art or filmmaking. There's even a local franchise of Bricks 4 Kidz, which reinforces math, science, engineering and architecture concepts by employing Lego toy bricks.
Auerbach himself began music lessons as a high-school student in New York, inspired by a mentor who gave him keys to a practice room. "Every day that I go to work with these kids here, I'm reminded of my high-school experience. It only took one man to make that difference," he said.
By age 17, he was leading a band. At 19, he moved to Los Angeles to play and produce. Eventually, he enrolled at the University of Utah, where he studied with electronic composer Vladimir Ussachevsky and worked in the school's Electronic Music Laboratory. He went on to play in local bands and manage musical careers.
In 2005, he helped launch a School of Rock franchise in Utah, but his job was eliminated in 2008. He went on to launch MusicGarage in Park City in 2009; it later moved to the Salt Lake City warehouse, where it now houses after-school classes and serves as a musicians resource center.
MusicGarage belongs to the nonprofit Utah Arts Alliance, which recently launched a student scholarship program. Utah Arts Alliance executive director Derek Dyer said Auerbach has done a good job of getting a variety of gig opportunities that put kids in front of audiences, such as at the State Fair and smaller music festivals. "I think that's probably their greatest achievement," Dyer said.
"Weapons of mass distraction" • On a Thursday night in late November, Auerbach's MusicGarage Kids were rehearsing one last time before giving a concert in two days for family and friends on the garage's stage.
The mood is serious but relaxed, punctuated at times by a howl or hoot from Auerbach, who dubs musical instruments in the hands of kids as "weapons of mass distraction." "Steve works so well with the kids he's like a big kid himself," said Lisa Maddux, whose son, TJ, plays multiple instruments.
If he didn't play music, TJ Maddux, 17, admits he'd probably be playing video games. MusicGarage lends purpose and structure to the musical waters, which Auerbach helps students navigate. "He organizes this place incredibly well," TJ said. "He's really good at making speeches and motivating everyone."
As part of the program, TJ and his peers learn how to set up the equipment, how to use a microphone and interact with an audience. They learn how to conduct sound checks. They're taught about humility and how they fit in as a team. They learn about stage presence and how to transition between songs, and then, when the concert is over, how to break down the equipment. "The point is that kids can do this on their own," Auerbach said. "It's rock 'n' roll, not brain surgery. We train them how to be good bandmates. We are a band incubator."
Kyle Pollock's son, Riley, 15, started out playing the drums using a video game. "In two weeks he could beat every song in expert mode," Pollock said. "It was unbelievable watching him play it."
Based on Riley's interest, Pollock bought a drum kit for him, who had no prior musical experience. "He literally practiced every single day for hours," Pollock said. "That's when I started shopping around for something to do."
Pollock, who plays the guitar, didn't want his son to go the neighborhood band route like his old man, whose musical experiences as a youth led to "a bunch of mishap and trouble."
"If you have someone who is [musically] inclined and they want to be in a band, you have to get them into something like this," he said. He added that Riley used to seem more introverted, quiet and cautious. "I've seen his personality turn around in a lot of outgoing ways," Pollock said.
Riley Pollock likes what he considers the professional feel of MusicGarage programming. And he's a fan of Auerbach. "He's really dedicated to us," Riley said. "He's putting a lot of time into us."
Volume up: Amp, monitor and house • Since he founded MusicGarage three years ago, Auerbach estimates he's volunteered 4,000 hours of his time. He has a handful of students enrolled in his program, but he'd like to someday serve up to 200 kids.
For now, he takes the MusicGarage kids through their paces. Sometimes he yells, although he admits he tries to curse less than when he worked with children through School of Rock, which has a location in Sandy.
"He can get mad at you for not learning your part, or he can be encouraging to you," said bassist Calvin Roberts, 14. "He just makes it fun. He can be all hyper at once. He makes you want to jump around onstage with him."
Calvin and his sister, Emma, 18, started with Auerbach in May 2011, and each reports improvements in skill and confidence, sometimes through making mistakes or being "embarrassed" for not knowing a part.
"You can tell this is his thing," said Emma Roberts, who plays guitar and keyboards, about Auerbach. "He's very passionate about it, and he cares for the kids. He's intense. The fact that he does get on your case for stuff makes you better in the end. He gets mad for the right reason."
Tempering the atmosphere is guitar virtuoso Terrence Hansen, with several tours and CDs under his belt. "I like working with the kids. It helps me keep in touch with what it's all about," said Hansen, who is routinely amazed by the level of talent from his young students. "Quite often I get a kick in the butt."
At the end of the Thursday rehearsal, Hansen and Auerbach offered suggestions and answered questions. "Just be aware," Auerbach told the kids, "there are three volumes for every instrument amp, monitor and house."
Hansen chimed in. "You have to get used to the microphone," he said. "It takes a long, long time. It's kind of a beast, like you're trying to ride a wild horse that's going to buck you off if you don't sing right into it."
For a moment while the adults talked, the MusicGarage kids listened and learned, quietly.
Here's a short list of a few of national and local resources to help parents find training programs for their youth.
Afterschool Alliance • For specific information about after-school issues in Utah, find reports and information at afterschoolalliance.org.
Utah Afterschool Network • utahafterschool.org offers a variety of links to programs, websites and information about available classes and programs.
MusicGarage • Visit musicgarage.org for a video introduction to the program and upcoming events; 801-577-2263.
School of Rock • Visit sandy.schoolofrock.com for a video tour of programs; fill out a registration form under the "Contact us" link for more information.
Utah Arts Alliance • For a list of resources and programs, visit utaharts.org/programsandservices/servicesdirector; 801-651-3937.
Spy Hop Productions • Visit spyhop.org to learn more about after-school programs in film, music, audio and design; 801-532-7500.
Jewish Community Center • Visit slcjcc.org/youth-a-teen/afterschool for activities; 801-581-0098.
Bricks 4 Kidz • Visit bricks4kidz.com and click on the "Locations" link; 801-898-3000 or 801-209-2187.
Salt Lake City's YouthCity • Visit slcgov.com/youthcity for programs designed for youth ages 9-14 and 14-18. Click on the school your child attends for programs nearest you; 801-535-6129.
Salt Lake County's Youth Services • Visit youth.slco.org/programs/afterschool.html for information about a variety of youth activities; 385-468-4438.