News Column

Plugging into a band -- through Rock Workshop

July 27, 2013


July 27--It starts with a riff, and two hours later the song with the working title "Power" has been professionally recorded and emailed to the musicians who created it.

Those musicians are 15, 14 and 13.

Meet five members of Rock Workshop, a product of Madison Music Foundry, where aspiring rockers try their hand at becoming a band.

Set in the classy Blast House Studios, the course brings together musicians who start out as strangers and get right down to business: writing songs and polishing them to the point that they're ready to perform on a professional stage. In the case of this summer's two-week, intensive workshop, the big gig happens at 2:45 p.m. Sunday, July 28, at High Noon Saloon, preceded by a student jam at 1 p.m.

"I consider Rock Workshop to be an ice breaker of band experiences," said Madison Music Foundry owner Mike Olson.

"The goal isn't to make a band that when you're done with the program you're going to keep playing. Sometimes it happens, but that is not within our expectations. It's to learn the elements of what it's like to be in a band."

Like -- needing to show up on time. Learning your part. Collaborating and not shooting down a bandmate's brainstorm -- ideas that might turn out to be exactly what a song needs.

In the second meeting of a band in the summer session, studio engineer Dustin Sisson doubled as an instructor and producer as he helped five young teens develop their first original tune together.

"What does everybody feel like this song is about?," he asked the band in the first minutes of practice. "To me it feels really big, like power." (Which is how "Power" gets its working title.)

For the next two hours, Sisson and the band speak their own musical language of harmonies, dynamics, jams and choruses.

One studio rule is "no noodling" -- practicing on your own when the group's supposed to be paying attention. But that's not to rule out exploring new ideas, Sisson clarified.

"It's not noodling if you have your amp turned down," he told the guitarists. "You can play on your legs," he told the drummer. And to the vocalist: "You can sing in your head."

After two hours of work, the nearly finished song -- recorded in the control room by fellow engineer Landon Arkens -- gets sent to the teens' email as an mp3 so they can refine their parts at home. The next day, they'll come back to the studio to work some more.

Grant Bartuska, 14, spends about two hours each day after Rock Workshop practicing and developing his part, he said. The piano, guitar and bass player has attended Rock Workshops since he was 9.

Grant and his current bandmates -- guitarists Everett Andersen and Eli Rosenblum, vocalist Kyle Elliott and drummer Andrew Ricks -- share an apparent taste for respectable haircuts, not to mention a passion for classic rock. Most inherited their musical tastes from their dads, they say.

"The Beatles," Everett explained. "It's what my dad played in the car."

Video games like the popular "Guitar Hero" also seem to have hooked many young people on classic rock, said Ken Fitzsimmons, education director for Rock Workshop.

Through the program, participants learn to be a band "leader," he explained.

That means recognizing "how each person has their own way of approaching the creative process, learning how you approach your own creative process, and learning how to communicate across that threshold," he said.

Though adults are welcome in Rock Workshop, most musicians are in their early teens. And most are male, though the program has had its share of female drummers, bass players and vocalists, and once had an all-girl band.

In fall and spring, the two-hour workshops take place weekly over 10 weeks, culminating in a live show of original material. Similar workshops are available for jazz and bluegrass players whenever enough musicians request it.

To enroll, musicians need to be able to play through an entire song and participate in a 20-minute audition, not only to demonstrate their skill level but to talk about the music they like.

The workshop's organizers then take that information to assemble bands that have the right balance of personalities, skill levels and musical tastes -- whether it's classic rock, alternative or heavy metal.

Since its start five years ago, Rock Workshop has placed 195 students in more than 60 bands, Olson said.

Founded by Olson in 2006, Madison Music Foundry runs the recording facility Blast House Studios and also has 17 studios for band rehearsals, lessons and workshops.

The business won a 2013 Dane County Small Business Award for its rewarding workplace environment and contributing to the community. Madison Music Foundry is also active in Launchpad, a statewide band competition sponsored by the Wisconsin School Music Association. The contest's grand prize: Studio time at Blast House Studios.

After all, connecting with youth is great for business, Olson said.

"Now they've experienced this facility and they know what it's like," he said. "Recording studios aren't really competing against each other. They're competing against basements. Home recordings.

"In this program, I want them to be in a professional setting. I want them to know the difference -- what an engineer contributes to your recording, or even your songwriting."

Rock Workshop bands have gone on to play civic events, win Launchpad and even open for The Kissers -- bass player Fitzsimmons' well-known band -- at a Mallards Game in front of 6,000 people.

"Early on, it's hard to convey to some younger players the notion of playing original material. It's a little abstract," Fitzsimmons said.

"But by the time they make it to the end and have a recording of it, and they play it live and get audience applause and it sounds great, then I think the satisfaction is even higher -- because they created something from nothing."


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