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Banding Together

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A few years ago, when he was teaching music in schools throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, Biff Phillips was struck by the disparities from one music department to the next.

“George Weber, at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, had a music bungalow, a house, with a PA system hooked up and ready to go. It’s slick. The kids come in, tune up and start,” said Phillips. “And Roaring Fork High School was holding its drums together with duct tape, and had no amplifiers or microphones.”

Phillips flashed back to his own early music training. As an Aspen High School student in the mid-1970s, Phillips was privileged to take Sandy Munro’s highly regarded bluegrass class, offered as part of the curriculum. (Aspen High at the time offered a band class as well.) The classes would have a major impact: while a high school student, Phillips was a two-time winner of the Jefferson County (Colo.) Bluegrass Guitar Contest, and took second place – to Mark O’Connor, recognized as one of the world’s best string players – at the National Flatpicking Championships in Winfield, Kan. Phillips went on to study guitar at the University of Southern California and play in a series of bands and combos; he currently plays solo classical and Spanish guitar gigs.

Phillips decided to do something to expand the musical opportunities and education for local kids. Brainstorming with fellow local picker Dan Sadowsky, the two came up with the idea for a Battle of the Bands, inspired by the battles Sadowsky has witnessed in his native Rochester, N.Y. On a Saturday in May 1999, the first Basalt Battle of the Bands was held in Basalt’s Lions Park. A dozen student bands were complemented by a bunch of local professionals; through Phillips and Sadowsky’s nonprofit organization, now called the National Jam Foundation Inc., dollars were raised and distributed directly to the music departments of local schools.

The fifth annual Basalt Battle of the Bands, to be held Saturday, May 10, at noon in Lions Park, will feature no adult performers. Not that there isn’t interest from the contingent of local players. There’s just no room for them, since 33 student bands have signed up for the 10-minute slots. Phillips believes that the Battle itself has helped create some young musical combatants.

“I think it’s spawned a lot of interest,” he said. “They see their friends onstage and they want to be there too.”

Phillips said the Battle has elevated interest in giving younger musicians venues to perform. Carbondale’s Steve’s Guitars and Glenwood Springs’ Feral Cafe have both started presenting some student bands, and Carbondale’s Mountain Fair has added younger acts to its lineup.

The Battle is expanding beyond simply the number of student acts. This year brings the addition of the Scratch and Freestyle tent, a space with a full DJ setup where budding rappers and scratchers can throw down their rhymes and beats.

Tagging along will be the first Midland Avenue Arts Festival. Presented by the Basalt Arts Council, the Arts Festival will have local painters, weavers, furniture makers, photographers and more participating in interactive displays of their work along Midland Avenue and at the new Riverwalk complex. There will also be student artists demonstrating book-making, pottery and chalk-painting techniques.

The festival atmosphere will be capped by food stands, amusement booths, and a silent auction featuring vintage and new musical instruments.

Last year’s Battle raised some $5,200. Twelve schools divvied up the loot, with bands judged to be the best getting the largest shares for their schools. Some schools spent the money on equipment; Randi Kelly, the music teacher at the Aspen Community School, used her share to offer a four-week music elective. Phillips approves of the innovative uses of the money, but is mainly glad to see money channeled toward in-school music programs.

“Music is getting pushed into after-school slots, while jock programs are basically intact,” he said. “And even with the exorbitant tuition at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, they’re still begging for more funds for music.”

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CRMS may be in need of funds for music, but in the area of having someone to use those funds wisely, the school is covered.

While Phillips and Sadowsky are creators of the Battle of the Bands, George Weber is the undisputed victor of the Battle. For the last three years Weber, the head of CRMS’ music department, has seen his school’s bands walk away with the top prize. This year, five CRMS bands, from beginning to advanced, will compete.

Weber, who has been teaching music at CRMS for seven years – and before that, for 12 years at the September School, an alternative school in Boulder – says the success of the CRMS bands is generated by the students. He gives the music students – 50 out of a school enrollment of 170 take Weber’s classes – intensive instruction at the beginning of the school year. The kids get schooled in chords, vocal harmonies and more. And once they have a handle on the basics, Weber encourages them to practice on their own, individually and in groups. By the time the Battle of the bands rolls around each year, the CRMS bands are ready to rumble.

“The projects generated by the students,” said Weber, a 52-year-old Denver native who was playing drums professionally at the age of 12, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in percussion performance at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “The kids bring in what they want to learn, and I try to teach it to them. They’re like self-contained units. They’re like real bands, and I’m a guitar tech and roadie. They have ownership of the group.”

Giving them the opportunity to handle themselves like professional musicians allows the students to learn more than minor-seventh chords and 5/4 time. “They learn self-reliance: how to get the instrument to the gig, the music arrangements,” said Weber, who plays vibes in the Colorado Dixieland/bluegrass band, Pete Wernick’s Live Five. “And they have to depend on each other as a group. The growth process is in the music, but also in them as people. They mature a lot.”

The five CRMS bands range in size from seven to 12 members, and the repertoire goes from the Gipsy Kings to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” to the hip-hop song “Pass the Vibe.” With the size of the bands and the range of material, Weber says the groups get a broad musical background.

“It’s beyond garage band,” he said. “But it’s not typical big band like you might think. You can hear the differences between the groups.”

For all his groups, the Battle of the Bands is a big event. “It’s one of the most exciting things they do,” he said. “We get them ready to perform, to play 10-minute sets to show what they can do, and that’s exactly what they do. They really perform like professionals.”

The musicians also get to do something positive for their school. “They know that if they win, they get extra equipment for the program,” said Weber. “The kids have taken that to heart.

“That’s the best part of what Biff has accomplished – the budgets for music are really tight, and this helps.”

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Another best part about the Battle of the Bands is that it allows kids the rare chance to perform on a big stage, with a high-end sound system, in front of a big crowd of friends, family and strangers. And knowing that their music is going to be heard and judged makes the students take it more seriously and practice harder.

Basalt Middle Schooler Tyler Stevens, a 13-year-old drummer, had started playing with two band classmates two years ago. The prospect of playing in the Battle concentrated their attention. “We heard about the Battle of the Bands and we started writing more and practicing more and getting time during lunch and after school to rehearse,” he said.

Last year, performing as Social Impairment, Stevens and his bandmates played Blink 182’s “All the Small Things” and an original song. This year, with the name changed to One Twisted Group – also known as O.T.G. – Stevens and company plan to play two original songs, with an alternative rock sound.

“It was really fun,” said Stevens of last year’s Battle. “It was my first real public concert. It’s one of the biggest things we work hard for. Kids usually don’t get gigs, so it’s good to have something like this.”

Nearly as much fun as performing is seeing the other young musicians perform. “We saw a lot of good bands” at last year’s Battle, said Stevens. “We got to see kids our age, and older kids, and we got to feed off them.”

For Stevens, who has taken some drum lessons in and out of school, drums and music have become a significant part of his life. For a model, he has his brother Jeff, a guitarist who performed in the first Basalt Battle of the Bands and now works in a Los Angeles music studio.

“I’m serious about learning and getting more serious about drums,” said Stevens.


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