Sometimes summer school rocks, like the Summer School of Rock.
School of Rock students will strut what they’ve learned in a concert Saturday with a couple local rock bands. It’s a benefit for local elementary school music programs, sponsored by The Education Foundation of Eagle County.
Jake Wolf teaches music at Avon Elementary School and did a School of Rock Camp in July for 30 kids, mostly to keep them practicing.
You’ll love this part. It’s called Youth-A-Lay-Lee because the kids get ukuleles instead of recorders, those tonette looking plastic things kids blow into and make loud squeaking noises. Wolf’s reasoning is unquestionable.
“You can’t sing and play the recorder,” Wolf says. “You can do that with the ukulele.”
Playing the ukulele creates dexterity and a sense of rhythm, he said.
“No one ever asked to sit in with a jazz combo, and then pulled out a recorder,’ Wolf explained.
So, the Youth-A-Lay-Lee it is.
The rock’s gonna roll
The kids won’t be on stage alone. The Turntable Review will be part of the show. So will be members of the Darkstar Orchestra, the Grateful Dead tribute band Wolf plays with. Scott Loss is also part of the show. He runs the First Notes program for the Vail Valley Foundation’s Youth Foundation.
Wolf spent a week or so with some of these kids, teaching them to play during sessions at Minturn’s Little Beach Park. They’re not Jimi Hendrix, but no one else is either, and they can play.
“I wasn’t sure they’d be able to do this, but they’re playing,” Wolf said.
Wolf’s is the only School of Rock in a public school in the country, and it’s free for the kids who want to do it.
“It starts with the young kids. If they have a bad experience they get turned off. If they have the freedom to do what I do, what (Avon elementary school principal) Melisa Rewold-Thuon gives me, you can get great results,” Wolf said. “My philosophy is like this; a football player can be a hero throughout school. A music kid has a tougher time early in school, but if they make it big they become a hero. What changed? They should be proud to make music from the time they’re young.”
School of Rock is in session
A friend asked Wolf to teach music at Avon Elementary.
“I thought, ‘Am I being punked?’” Wolf recalled. “I had zero teaching background whatsoever.”
At the time, Wolf was on the road, drumming for a pair of Grateful Dead tribute bands. For the better part of a decade, he had toured with Shakedown Street and the Rocky Mountain Grateful Dead Revue, among other rock bands.
Skeptical, Wolf stopped by the school to meet with the staff.
“If you’re looking for Mr. Holland’s Opus, that’s not me,” he told them. “But if you want Jack Black’s ‘School of Rock’ — that I can do.”
As it turned out, Wolf was exactly what Rewold-Thuon had been searching for.
“I wanted a real musician to inspire kids to play music,” she said. “In the past, we always had teachers who taught music, but they weren’t musicians.”
Like Jack Black’s character in the movie “School of Rock,” Wolf is an unlikely candidate for a teacher. But unlike his silver screen counterpart — who gets in trouble for posing as a teacher, then redeems himself when his students wow audiences at a battle of the bands — Wolf actually got his teaching certification.
“So here I am in this classroom with these kids, and looking at them like they were looking at me: ‘What’s going on here? What do I do?’ And it all just kind of popped into my head.”
Because the older kids were acting up, he calmed them down by having them meditate, chanting along with musical tones. He asked them which instruments they wanted to learn and told them to bring in music they liked (kids were into Michael Jackson, Wolf said).
Things were going well until the kindergarten class arrived.
“They come in here and within two minutes of them getting in here, one starts to cry, like panicking,” Wolf recalled. “And all of a sudden, within about two minutes, I have 18 kindergartners screaming.”
A nurse tried to help calm them down, but the students wouldn’t stop screaming until a Spanish-speaking teacher came in and figured out the problem (most of the kids spoke Spanish as their first language). As it turned out, the kids had been terrified by Wolf’s classroom mascot — a large doll likeness of Animal, the rocking Muppet.
“They were panicking because, they saw Animal, they totally freaked out,” Wolf recalled “They thought it was chupacabra. That’s the Mexican boogie man.”
With a little explanation, and a showing of the Muppets movie, the kids warmed up to Animal.
They also warmed up to Wolf.
On the second day, Wolf set out to teach a lesson from the curriculum book on “call and response.” He was supposed to clap out a rhythm and have the kids clap it back, but Wolf decided to improvise. He sang verses of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” and had the kids echo them back.
“When I had 18 of those kindergartners looking up at me, singing ‘Three Little Birds,’ I just teared up,” Wolf said. “It was so powerful. That was the moment I was like, ‘Ah, I can do a lot of good with this.’”
Teaching music three days a week to kindergartners through fifth-graders, Wolf related everything he could to rock n’ roll.
He invited real musicians to play in his classroom — the singer from local reggae band Bonfire Dub, the pianist from Leftover Salmon. Just about every other week, one of Wolf’s musician friends would swing by the school for a private show.
Though he had been wary of teaching, Wolf said the school gig has been a blessing.
“I’m here, strictly because I want to be here,” he said. “I felt like it was time to give back.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and email@example.com.