Aspen’s Rock and Roll Academy ready to rock the Wheeler
December 3, 2010
ASPEN – Among the students currently enrolled in the Aspen branch of the Rock and Roll Academy is an 8-year-old boy obsessed with the word “mojo.” When asked if he knows just what mojo is, it becomes clear that his understanding of the term comes more from the goofy, kid-friendly Austin Powers than from Muddy Waters, who wasn’t targeting the grade-school demographic when he sang “Got My Mojo Working.”
Perhaps the more important issue isn’t whether the boy has a firm grasp on the concept of mojo, or whether, at this tender age, he should, but the fact that he’s using his mojo to make music. Among the original songs in his repertoire is one that includes the lines, “I’m gonna get my mojo going/Gonna sing my songs.” And this is the point of the Rock and Roll Academy: to get kids to sing their songs. Their songs.
The Rock and Roll Academy, whose local arm opened last summer, is built on the idea that kids want to play certain songs – not tunes handed down to them by someone decades older than them. When the 22 students currently enrolled in the winter session take the stage at the Wheeler Opera House for a performance on Wednesday, Dec. 8, the set list will include songs by Green Day, AC/DC, and Taio Cruz, a 28-year-old British rapper who is popular with today’s kids. Nothing will be played simply because an adult thought it was a good song for kids to learn. If the show includes Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” (and it probably will), it is because the kids wanted to learn it.
“Traditionally in music education, it’s a one-on-one lesson with an adult who tells him what to do: ‘This is a chord, this is a scale; learn this and next week we’ll turn it into a song,” said Russell Cattaneo, who leads Aspen’s Rock and Roll Academy. “The kid is receiving information with no choice in the process. It’s a kid being told by another adult what to do. So we give them control over the process.”
Cattaneo’s opening sessions usually begin with the ultimate enticement (short of groupies waiting backstage). While Cattaneo gives the welcoming speech, behind him is the equipment – electric guitars, keyboards, amps, and, for kids, the ultimate in sparkly musical gear, the drum set. As Cattaneo speaks, the kids practically salivate. And then they are turned loose to put their fumbling, beginner’s hands on instruments capable of making one enormous racket.
“You turn things up a bit, let them hear a power E chord, playing together, just feeling that power – you know, loud,” said the 40-year-old Cattaneo, who has lived in Basalt the last three years. “And you see it in their faces: ‘Wow! That was cool. What just happened?’ And inevitably, they go, ‘Let’s do that again.’ Just feeling the power of electrified instruments, it’s a pretty defining moment for these kids.”
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Cattaneo would have considered himself lucky to get such an opportunity. As a kid in Arkansas, he got the standard variety music lessons, just him and a teacher with a notebook of songs he thought a kid should learn. Cattaneo lasted all of four lessons. Six years later, when he got an electric guitar, he was inspired to try again – with the same teacher and the same methods. Again, he lasted exactly four lessons.
“It wasn’t any fun,” he recalled. “I remember going off playing with my friends and my mom would say, ‘OK, time for guitar lessons,’ and I’d think, ‘What a drag.'”
At 14, Cattaneo found a way of playing music that was significantly more awesome. He started a band with his friends. No teacher, no curriculum, just a lot of trial-and-error while tackling Kiss songs. It took more than a year before they were good enough for a gig, in a church auditorium.
“It was fun. It was free,” Cattaneo recalled. “And at that age, 14, the world was very us and them – us being kids, them being adults. Anything you could facilitate on your own, without adults, was cool. Getting in a garage or someone’s backyard to play was a cool thing. It was a rock ‘n’ roll thing.”
At 18, he got confirmation that he was on the right path. Cattaneo went once again to his old guitar teacher. This time, he laid down the law: “I just want to play the music that’s in my head,” he told the teacher. The instructor laughed, and said, “I can’t teach you that. You learn that on your own.”
“The method was to hash these things out in a band,” Cattaneo concluded, “not with someone who’s not connected to the song.”
Cattaneo hasn’t spent much time as a teacher; he’s been a journeyman rocker playing in his own bands and backing other singers, from Dallas to Minneapolis to Mississippi. But he has quickly found that his early insight – that what young rockers need most is not a grown-up but other young rockers – was a valuable one. What he calls the whole child teaching method focuses not only on musicianship, but also social and emotional growth. The key to the program is putting kids together with kids; the Rock and Roll Academy thus puts the musicians together and teaches them as bands. This week’s Wheeler concert will feature five bands: Whiteout, the Burritos, the Dinosquirrels, Later and the Volcano Stars.
“They learn as a band, not as an individual,” Cattaneo, who began teaching in the original Rock and Roll Academy, in Telluride, a few years ago. “They choose their own band names, the songs they want to play, the instruments. And the thing I’ve noticed is, the most important thing to a kid is another kid.”
Cattaneo lets the kids discover boundaries for themselves. When one band wanted to play Rush’s “Working Man,” he didn’t tell them it was beyond them. He let them try it.
“They were like, ‘Wow, that’s got a lot of words and parts,'” he said. “It’s better to let them make the decision on their own.”
Cattaneo has also learned that adult intervention is necessary at times. With his youngest group, of 6-8-year-olds, he plays along and does a bit of conducting. “I play only if I’m invited and if it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.
And sometimes, he does have to lay down the law.
“One problem is that everyone wants to play drums,” he said. “I tell them I’ve been in bands, and very rarely do you have a band with four drummers. So you use the band process to let them look beyond themselves, see what’s best for the group.”