Rock to Rachmaninoff

Rock to Rachmaninoff

Getting your kid into the after-school groove.

The East Bay has long been a hotbed of musical talent. Heck, Berkeley and Oakland alone have produced famous musicians the likes of Keyshia Cole, Dave Brubeck, Michael Franti, Joshua Redman, Sheila E., and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. All these folks discovered their vocal or instrumental vibe here, honing their chops until they were ready to release their sensational sounds into the world.

Maybe your kid will be next.

But even if you aren’t counting on your child becoming a superstar, there are many benefits to providing him or her with a musical education. Experts say that learning and practicing music allows all kinds of skills to develop in a youngster’s malleable brain, including spatial-temporal reasoning, logical thinking, and self-confidence.

One-on-one lessons are a time-honored form of instruction. But don’t overlook group training, perhaps in conjunction with private lessons, as a fun, effective way to introduce or supplement skills. The East Bay abounds with quality after-school programs that expose kids to everything from classical to rock. So whether your child is a true beginner or already has some experience, there’s sure to be a program that will light his or her inspiration.

Vibrant vocals

Elementary-age boys in matching green shirts crisscross the courtyard of First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, bumping into each other and then spinning away like water molecules at a boil. It seems fantastic that they could be wrangled into any semblance of order, much less a choir. Ten minutes later, though, they’re all in order, eyes fixed on Joseph Lim, associate music director of Pacific Boychoir Academy, a day school with a professional choir, which also runs a separate after-school music program. Lim leads this after-school choir in warm-up exercises. “Focus front so I can see your lips,” Lim calls. “Relax your shoulders.”

Pacific Boychoir Academy’s after-school program currently consists of about 160 boys who range in age from 5 to 18. This month, the Academy’s after-school choirs move to the school’s new building, at 215 Ridgeway Ave. in Oakland, after a year-long hiatus prepping the site. The “choir ladder” climbs from Prelude (ages 4 to 6), to Minstrels (grades K through three), Intermezzi (grades one to four), Cantori (grades three to six), Trouveres (grades four through eight), and beyond.

“The teachers are great at managing that kind of floppy boy energy,” says Heather Lewis-Charp, who has two boys in Pacific Boychoir Academy choirs: a 9-year-old in Cantori, and a 6-year-old in Prelude.

One way the school makes music boy-friendly is through the Kodály Method. Developed by a Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist in the 1950s, the technique includes hand signs performed during singing exercises to provide a visual aid for the basic tones. (For example, “do” is a fist with the fingers curled above the thumb, and “re” is a flat hand angled palm up.)

The hand signs are not only helpful for learning music, but also create a sense of teamwork, according to Pamela Weimer, managing director. “Getting boys involved in sports is one approach to creating a team,” Weimer says. “We’re teaching them to express it in a different way.”

Clearly, the technique gets results: this year, the Pacific Boychoir, which tours worldwide, won its third Grammy award.

Hitting the high notes

A vocal bunch: About 160 boys sing in the Pacific Boychoir Academy’s after-school program in Oakland. Photo courtesy Pacific Boychoir Academy.

“Okay, pretend we’re all stockbrokers, and the Dow just went down 500 points,” Robert Geary, artistic director of Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, calls out as teenagers fill the folding chairs of a rehearsal room at Piedmont High School. He scrunches his shoulders, and then relaxes, and the kids follow suit. “Ooooh,” Geary says. “Aaaah.” The students imitate, and Geary offers a prompt. “Make the ‘aaaah’ more vertical, more beautifully shaped.” Somehow, with just these words, the students’ “aaaahs” smooth out and deepen. And that’s just the warm-up. Soon he’s got the group of girls and boys, ages 13 to 16, practicing the American folk song, “He’s Gone Away,” their voices lilting and lovely.

Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir was founded in 1982 by Susan Rahl, who wanted a choir for her son closer to home—they’d been commuting to San Francisco so he could participate in the San Francisco Boys Chorus, which then offered no East Bay option. Rahl hired Geary to teach a group of boys in her living room, and the endeavor was so successful that soon Geary added a separate girls’ choir. Now, there are more than 300 students in an after-school program for children from kindergarten to 12th grade, drawn from 95 local schools and 25 area communities, including Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley.

“Our emphasis is on developing a high level of musicianship in kids,” says Marion Atherton, the choir’s executive director. Key to the much-acclaimed program’s success, Atherton says, is a tradition of “active collaboration” with working composers. “The composers come and articulate what they intended with their music, and the kids can connect with the living creation of music,” Atherton explains. “They develop a depth of knowledge, as new music tends to be more challenging.” And evidently the system works—the award-winning Choir works with performing arts organizations such as the San Francisco and Oakland East Bay symphonies, and has performed with artists as diverse as the Kronos Quartet, the Mark Morris Dance Group, and the folk rock group Bare Naked Ladies.

Geary’s enthusiasm and energy is a draw for students. “He treats us not as children, but as colleagues,” says Tlalli Moya-Smith, 16, a Piedmont High School student who began singing with Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir five years ago after catching the choir bug from a friend in fifth grade. For Moya-Smith, one of the most “phenomenal” experiences the choir offers its older members is the opportunity to tour. “We really bond as a choir,” she says. “I love to sing, and it’s great to grow with other people who love it just as much.”

Get jazzy with it

Rippling riff: Guitarist Tomoki Spilsbury, a former Jazzschool student, performs at the school’s Hardymon Hall in Berkeley. Photo by Hali McGrath.

Ensconced in the landmark Kress Building on Addison Street, the Jazzschool feels like a little piece of Manhattan transported to downtown Berkeley. Piano riffs tumble out of windowed practice rooms, designed so that visitors can watch the performers within. A witty sculpture of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” dominates one purple-painted wall, and students lounge in the Jazzcaffè. But if you look around, you’ll notice that the musicians aren’t urbane 20- or 30-somethings, but gangly youngsters.

In the Jazzschool’s Young Musician after-school program—for students ages 11 to 18—kids of all musical experience levels can take classes in drums, bass, saxophone, piano, and jazz vocals. Other offerings—some for high school students, some for middle-schoolers—include four big bands and 11 ensembles, among them Latin jazz and funk. The Jazzschool holds auditions for new students in August, but conducts tryouts throughout the year as well.

“I enjoy introducing students at any level to music they’ve never seen before, and helping them take the challenge,” says trumpet player Keith Johnson, who has directed the school for four years and also teaches six of the program’s 15 groups. “In fact, some of my students, who had no thought of becoming professional musicians, are now heading in that direction.”

Comfy composure

Young students in Crowden’s John Adams Young Composers Program consult teacher Alexis Alrich. Photo © Mark Costantini and courtesy Crowden Music Center.

A handful of 6- and 7-year-olds in Lisa Grodin’s beginning violin class at Berkeley’s Crowden Music Center stand tall, bringing their tiny instruments up to their chins. “Think of the Statue of Liberty,” Grodin cues.

“Or maybe the Statue of Violinity,” a child jokes shyly. Grodin laughs and takes the children through a warm-up, setting the rhythm for scales with whimsical phrases that make the kids smile in return.

The Music Center runs the Crowden School as well as its Center for Music in the Community program, which offers after-school students classes in piano, harpsichord, guitar, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and bass; opportunities to play in string and chamber ensembles; and private lessons. The auditorium of this comfy school space has the lived-in look of a particularly musical family’s rumpus room, with instrument cases, backpacks, and a stray jacket or two strewn about. But don’t be fooled: that auditorium—already one of the best classical music spaces for concerts in the East Bay—will soon boast Meyer Sound acoustics.

“We have the kind of quality music education and faculty you’d find in a conservatory,” says Jen Strauss, public relations director. “But rather than cold practice halls, the atmosphere at Crowden is warm and fun.”

For those who don’t just want to play music, but to create it from scratch, Crowden offers the John Adams Young Composers Program, named in honor of the Pulitzer Prize–winning composer. Here, children learn from each other through weekly musicianship classes and student salons, attend lectures and demonstrations by visiting artists, and even have their works performed by professional musicians.

Rock of all ages

Grade-schoolers don’t usually perform at clubs. But after an eight-week session in the BandWorks program—which matches musicians at the same levels of experience with a professional musician and teacher—newly minted rockers can show off what they’ve learned at local venues like Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center in Berkeley.

“Music offers a chance to transcend the everyday, the mundane,” says Jeremy Steinkoler, BandWorks co-founder and co-director. “We give our students a chance to be part of something bigger as well—a band.”

Steinkoler started the BandWorks program with Steve Gibson in 1993, out of a mutual impulse to provide a way for their private students to jam. First setting up shop at a women’s shelter in Berkeley, they eventually made Jack London Square their headquarters, with classes conducted all over the Bay Area.

“When I’m doing my job well, I’m inspiring my students to improve their skills, try something they haven’t tried before,” says Steinkoler, a professional drummer who plays in several bands.

BandWorks classes run for eight weeks, and each child is encouraged to take risks: solo, sing, and experiment with finding his or her musical voice. On the way, the kids learn to understand song forms and the importance of a band’s musical dynamics. Interested beginners are welcome, although most students have basic skills on an instrument.

“On the one hand, we bring kids together to play music,” Steinkoler says. “But on a deeper level, we offer them a chance to gain self-esteem, and work cooperatively toward a common goal. In a way, the music is the means for building community.”

Imagine. Not only can an after-school music program help your child develop technical skills, but it can also help her see that she’s part of a larger, harmonious whole. As Michael Franti puts it: “A little bit of rhythm makes the world go ’round.” Given the stressful, sometimes fragmented lives that most of us—children included—lead these days, perhaps that’s the most important music lesson of all.

Kate Madden Yee is an Oakland freelance writer. She sings regularly in the shower.

Variations on a Theme | Resources

BandWorks, 2034 Blake St., Ste. 9, Berkeley (at Jack London Rehearsal Studios, 623 3rd St., Oakland), (510) 843-2263;

Crowden Music Center, 1475 Rose St., Berkeley, (510) 559-6910;

The Jazzschool for Music Study and Performance, 2087 Addison St., Berkeley, (510) 845-5373;

Jingle Jamboree, 1016 Talbot Ave., Albany, (510) 334-8851;

Jon’s School of Music, (415) 971-5435;

Los Mapaches (at Berkwood Hedge School,1809 Bancroft Way, Berkeley), (510) 684-9741;

The Music School at Piedmont Piano Company, 4382 Piedmont Ave. and 1728 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, (510) 652-1222;

Oakland East Bay Symphony, 2201 Broadway, Ste. 300, Oakland, (510) 444-0801;

Pacific Boychoir Academy, 215 Ridgeway Ave., Oakland, (510) 652-4722;

Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, 3629 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-4441;

San Francisco Boys Chorus (Oakland, San Rafael, and San Francisco), (415) 861-7464;

San Francisco Girls Chorus (at Crowden Music Center, 1475 Rose St., Berkeley), (415) 863-1752;

Faces of the East Bay