Welcome to Rock Band Land. It’s a place where 4 to 9 year olds are introduced to music by learning to write it themselves. They go through the whole process, up to when they are on stage in front of 300 screaming fans.
17 kids sit cross legged in a circle as they start spitting out ideas for their new song of the week.
At the helm of this imaginative brainstorm is one of the two adults in the room: Brian Goreman. There is only one character off limits during this class – zombies. One girl says they give her nightmares.
Gorman is one of the founders of Rock Band Land. Seven years ago, he was working as a preschool teacher by day, rocker by night when the idea for Rock Band Land came to him. The music he was sharing with his young students at the time was driving him crazy.
Gorman says, “It was all cute like bubblegum, like, maddeningly irritating, condescending music. I was like, we can write a punk rock song with these kids no problem. They were four years old; we can easily write a punk rock song with four year olds.”
So he started an after school program, co-directed by his friend Marcus Stoesz who joined four years ago.
Stoesz remembers, “I think our first song together was a two chord - kind of like a Weezer song or something - just really silly and simple, and actually wasn’t that catchy, it was just simple and silly. And then I realized after that, oh, we can make something, we can make music that we both really like after this, because these ideas are great, and there’s this never ending supply of ideas.”
To help with the creative process they created four rules to the songwriting process at Rock Band Land: each song has to be original, no potty words, listen to each other’s ideas, and the story cannot be mean-spirited.
When it is time for the kids to write the music, they are separated into groups. Each one picks their favorite instrument -- from keyboard to tambourine to guitar and drums -- and tries to find a pattern that will fit with their song. And what is key to the Rock Band Land approach is that no kid is told how to play, or given formal training. It is about feeling it out as they hear it in their heads.
Rock Band Land is one of at least half a dozen rock schools in the Bay Area. The idea got popular after the 2003 hit movie “School of Rock,” starring Jack Black.
Marcus Stoesz and Brian Gorman say their approach remains unique because of the amount of power that the children have in the whole process:
Stoesz says, “We operate under the guise of a rock band land camp - or a rock camp - but we spend just a lot of time creating with the kids and coming up with silly things to say or new ideas that are all centered around the central story and song that we end up writing at the end of the camp.”
Gorman responds, “We can really, really go to some crazy fun places and have the energy kind of that in any other class situation would seem totally nuts, but we can go there with our rockers because we really try and emphasize respecting each other and the band and music and creating in general.”
And part of that is giving students the real rock star experience of getting on stage.
At the end of the six week camp, around 300 parents and fans crowd into a theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District. Everyone is decked out in their favorite band’s merchandise, and line up outside the door to get a good seat.
Gorman says this performance is essential to the Rock Band Land experience.
“We really create a space for them to make something they can own, and like celebrate with a lot of people, and the shows do wonders for kids - like we’ll have lots of young rockers who are really at first a little shy, or, nervous to even just talk to Marcus or I let alone be one stage with 300 people. And then six weeks later and they’re on there, and they’re just screaming their heads off into the microphone. It’s just transformative for some of them and for us as artists and teachers that’s it right there. That’s the reward; because we know that’s going to stay with them and that’s a big thing.”
It is no coincidence that the songs written at Rock Band Land are punk rock. The idea is to give kids the freedom to break free from the mold of bubblegum pop and Disney cartoons. In this place kids are allowed to sing about war, character death, magic gone awry, and good people going evil.
Gorman says, “There are horrible things that happen in life and kids are exposed to so much stuff and, we’re all processing things differently, you know, and we’ve found really wonderful ways to explore kind of scary ideas through these kind of wild, sometimes a little demented, or magical stories.
And in the end, what might otherwise be sad or infuriating just becomes an excuse to rock out.