Rock and Roll Academy kids play the wheeler tonight |

Rock and Roll Academy kids play the wheeler tonight

Jeanne McGovern
The Aspen Times
Lina Bradely practices singing a song at rehearsal Thursday afternoon.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

As soon as you walk into the Rock and Roll Academy’s Aspen Business Center studio, it’s clear this is not your ordinary “band room.”

There are Roland drum kits, a Fender Squire Stratocaster among an array of electric, bass and other guitars, as well as keyboards, amps, microphones and more. In fact, you might mistake it for a local rock band’s rehearsal space or a recording studio — until you see who’s jamming on those musical instruments.

“These are kids,” Rock and Roll Academy director Russell Cattaneo said. “What we do is provide a place for them to learn music in a whole different way; they are learning a language, a new language and new way of communicating with their bandmates and the world around them.”

The academy, which opened in Aspen five years ago and was incorporated as a nonprofit this past year, definitely takes a different approach to music education. Here, students choose the instrument they want to play, the music they want to play and the band they want to be in. In short, they march to the beat of their own drummer.

“We provide a democratic education in that the kids are in charge of the process, not the teacher,” he said. “And really, the music is just a catalyst, and the bands are just a vehicle for the greater goal — the unspoken goal — of the academy, which is about interacting with other people.”

Tonight, 41 students from the most recent after-school sessions will show Aspen exactly what they’ve learned at the Rock and Roll Academy’s annual Spring Concert. And if you’ve been to the Wheeler Opera House for a show before, or a typical school band concert, you might be surprised. Cattaneo said the first rows of seats are removed and the audience is invited to move in for a real rock-concert experience.

“This is not a sit-down recital; this is a get up and dance and yell kind of concert,” he said, adding that eight bands with kids aging in range from 6 to 18, will be performing in the show. “What I like to say is that the kids let the music in their hearts go out through their brain to their hands and their voices as well as the confidence to get on stage and play the music that moves them in front of an audience.”

The concert lineup proves the point: The younger kids have chosen songs from Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, while the older kids will be showing off their rendition of songs by The Black Keys and Tool.

And this speaks to the entire philosophy behind the Rock and Roll Academy Aspen, which is designed to emphasize the social-emotional aspects of learning such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

“With no written music in the curriculum, students learn through listening and collaboration,” states the academy website ( “Learning music becomes intrinsically social in nature. This social aspect may explain the popularity of the program. At a time when the dropout rate for music programs is 70-95 percent, RRAA kids continue to find success, commonly learning to play two or three instruments in the play-based atmosphere of the RRAA. Ask any RRAA kid how they learned to play so many instruments. ‘I don’t know,’ they’ll answer, ‘I just played.’”

And this is exactly why Cattaneo, who got his first guitar at age 8 (and a “knockoff” Fender Stratocaster electric guitar at 12), has embraced his role as director of the Rock and Roll Academy.

“I don’t miss the stress of being a performing musician, being away from home,” said Cattaneo, who played professionally through college and after. “It’s great now because my passion is leading kids into a deep relationship with music — especially with the music they love — and that’s what I get to do.”