Monday, December 7, 2009

Schooled in rock

Published April 2009 in Salem Monthly.

A certain nervous energy precedes the start of most classes from elementary through high school. It manifests as the shuffling of papers, quiet, or not-so-quiet, chatter or the occasional burst of laughter.

In the Rock & Roll Workshop at Judson Middle School that anxious tension is drummed on the soles of students' shoes, literally. In the rear of the classroom, about a dozen budding drummers tap out timing beats like over-caffeinated squirrels on the back end of a Morse telegraph.

At a time when educators are fighting a losing battle to preserve arts education, the Jaguars' rock class is a breakout hit.

In front of the classroom, the guitarists coagulate and begin tuning or furtively plucking out a few notes from the previous day’s lesson.

"I wanted to play for a while," student Ashley Porter said, the sole left-handed guitarist in the class. "I didn't really think I'd learn how to play in this class, but I have."

Teacher Matt Polacek inherited the class and its curriculum about two years ago.

"The biggest difference between then and now is we're playing instruments," he said. "When the started up, the students mostly watched videos and learned how to do things like create album covers."

Time was spent playing instruments, but it was limited and instruments were shared among small groups of students. At the end of his first semester, Polacek surveyed the students. Overwhelmingly, they wanted more time with the instruments.

"So we changed it up and started spending the majority of time playing," Polacek said.

Before the change, enrollment was capped at 20 students. School administrators raised the cap to 30 after the curriculum change. More than 130 students tried to enroll. Polacek was surprised at the response, but taken aback by the depth of knowledge his incoming students possessed about classic rock.

"They pick it up playing Guitar Hero," he said.

That might be the reason a majority of students choose the axe over drums or bass. In fact, there's only one bass player in the entire class.

"I don't mind too much," bassist Daniel Schaub said. "It means I get a lot of practice."

Daniel inherited the music bug from his mother, and picked up his first bass about a year and a half ago.

"The best thing has been learning how to read music," said Daniel, who had been using tabs, a short-hand form of music notation that only tells players where to put their fingers, to recreate his favorite tunes before enrolling in the class.

Idalis Schmidt, a seventh grader and the class' only female drum student, wowed Polacek with her ability to keep time on the skins and name-checked her during class.

"I told her she ought to have her own band," Polacek said.

"I already do," Idalis responded.

She enrolled in the class specifically to pick up drum skills to keep the rest of her band mates, tentatively named Blackk Fire, in rhythm. She tabbed the band My Chemical Romance as her greatest inspiration.

"But I'll listen to anything rock or heavy metal," Idalis said.

Fellow drummer Ryan Shaw has been playing drums since second grade. It didn't take long for Polacek to tap him as the class' student aide.

"There's still stuff to learn, I'm picking up some great jazz fills," he said.

While the class teems with excitement over learning to play, Polacek requires reports on favorite bands and one on hearing loss and tinnitus as part of the curriculum.

"The parents really appreciate that one," he said.

Polacek who had some minor band experience himself before becoming a teacher, finds that the real lesson students seem to take away from the class is the importance of hard work.

"Like anything else, playing an instrument takes time and practice," Polacek said. "Eddie Van Halen spent eight hours a days playing in his room to get where he is. When they get through with this class they understand exactly the sort of commitment that takes."

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