In Mid-May, a small crowd gathered in a rehearsal space on U Street to see three of the newest bands hailing from Capitol Hill.
The Bands: Ye Olde Snowcone; Nameless; and Rock, Paper, Scissors.
The Venue: 7 Drum Lessons, a spartan, brick-laden locale with scant seating space. An antique rug draws the eye to the stage, where each band plays a short set.
The Set List: Covers of “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones, “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash, and “Best of You” by the Foo Fighters, among others.
The Crowd: Parents, friends and family.
Now would be a good time to mention that no one performing is old enough to graduate high school. Rock, Paper, Scissors is a group of 7 to 10 year olds. Ye Olde Snowcone ranges from 11 to 14, and in Nameless no one in the group is older than 16.
The performers are part of a Rock Band program hosted by Music on the Hill, a full-service music store that sells and rents instruments, offers lessons and hosts live music shows. In Rock Band, local young people practice over an 8-week period before a program-ending live show. In between, they learn the basic logistics of a modern touring ensemble.
Watching videos of the bands’ live performances, it’s hard not think of the 2004 film School of Rock, a movie starring Jack Black about a would-be substitute teacher surreptitiously educating his students on the ins and outs of the Rock N’ Roll lifestyle. The film is equal parts a crash course in classic rock and a platform for Black’s sophomoric humor, but the film is probably the most common comparison to Music on the Hill’s Rock Band program in popular culture.
Speaking to Will Rzad, a teacher at Music on the Hill and the leader of the Rock Band program, you can tell it’s a comparison that he’s given quite a bit of thought.
“No no,” he said, laughing. “That’s not how we do things at all.”
In the program, Rzad — who works as a gigging musician and a private tutor — takes students through every aspect of being in a rock band, from picking a band name to performing songs of the kids’ choosing. Rzad says he’s worked in music programs before that lived up to the laid-back style of teaching exemplified in School of Rock, but Rzad says it’s important to keep everything organized.
“Certainly you want them to have fun. You’ll have moments when they strum a few chords and suddenly recognize the song, and that’s always a good feeling. But it’s much more structured than what you see in the movie.”
Rock Band runs in the Spring and in the Fall, with shorter classes available over the summer. Music on the Hill structures these programs differently because, as Rzad says, it can be difficult to line up everyone’s schedules during a summer filled with kids’ family vacation and other commitments.
“In that respect and in many others, it’s not that much different than playing in an actual band,” he said.
When talking with some of the students, you can see some of the similarities to a modern music act first-hand. Take the older crew for instance, the band “Nameless.” Members of the band talked with Hill Now about how much fun it was to work with Will and perform together live. But conflict can come up in even the closest of bands, like say, when members must choose a name.
“There was Totem. There was Space Wrench,” says Joaquin, the bass player. “There was Michigan Intrigue. Absence of Cthulhu (a reference to the mythical sea god created by writer H.P. Lovecraft). So, we’ve had a little bit of an argument around our name.”
Kristina, also of Nameless, confirmed that there was some disagreement about the name, though she likes ‘Nameless’. She’s enjoyed Rock Band — after 7 years of private lessons on guitar, she says she appreciates being able to play in an ensemble. Rzad, who studied at the Berklee College of Music, says this sort of feedback is typical — being able to play in an ensemble, he said, allows students to have responsibility within a specific role without feeling all the pressure of performing in a formal, solo recital.
“And if one person loses track, the whole show doesn’t turn into a complete mess,” he says. “You can just catch up.”
Lindy Campbell started Music on the Hill in 2013, when the District only had one other full-service music store. She moved to D.C. in 2006 after graduating from college, and worked as a retail associate and drum instructor at Middle C Music in Tenleytown before deciding to start her own store at 1453 Pennsylvania Ave SE.
“We chose Capitol Hill because it’s where I’ve always wanted to live and raise a family.” She said. “I always considered myself more of a teacher than an entrepreneur. For me, it was much more about my love for education and my love for this city.”
Music on the Hill is open 7 days a week, and will lead several different music camps over the summer. You can find more information on their website.