The Tuesday before “The Big Show,” Castle Bing Bong – Rock Band Land’s Treat Avenue headquarters – is bustling with activity. Dozens of young rockers playfully wander throughout the building, excitedly greeting their bandmates with giggles and high-fives. The sounds of vocal warmups, synthesizer beats, scattered drumming, and enthusiastic chatter spill out of various rooms, up and down the funky, two-story space.
The organized chaos is music to founders Brian Gorman’s and Marcus Stoesz’s ears. Twelve years ago, the pair quit their professional careers and launched an afterschool program for kids that’s the flip side of learning to play covers and singing bubble-gum tunes. Gorman and Stoesz engage their students in the entire creative process of making music, generating original art from conception to execution: developing the story and lyrics, composing music, producing the cover art and music video.
“I was a touring musician with my band, and I was also a preschool teacher at the time and a nanny,” said Gorman. “I realized as a preschool teacher, the music we were playing for the kids was really condescending and sort of saccharine music. It felt insulting that we were giving it to the kids when they could handle so much more. There are others that do rock music for kids, but they’re focused on playing covers and making shredders out of kids which is not what we’re interested in.”
Rock Band Land blossomed from a single “Rock Out” class to a full spectrum of creativity, with six-week classes and seasonal camps that focus on music, storytelling, video production and even comedy. Each lesson is unique, encouraging students to learn and express their original voices through collaboration, trial and error, and most importantly, a ton of silliness. Dress-up, props, and out of the box ideas incite the best music, according to the founders.
“We get a lot of kids that wouldn’t necessarily take to traditional piano lessons or flute lessons, so they are pretty grateful and excited by the process we have here.” said Stoesz. “Generally, we just like to be a little bit more playful and we don’t like to take ourselves, this place, or what we do too seriously. If it’s not fun at the end of the day, it’s going to be kind of a drag. We’ve always had a lot of fun with music and making art and we want to share that with the kids.”
Thirteen-year-old Alex, who has participated in Rock Band Land programs since she was four, said the teachers’ energy and what she learns musically keep her coming back. “It’s just so funky and quirky in here and I feel like I wouldn’t have ever gotten an experience like this anywhere else,” Alex said. “I feel like I wouldn’t have been exposed to as much music or seen the process of making a song and that helps me think differently when I’m listening to songs now.”
According to Gorman and Stoesz, Rock Band Land’s goal is to help kids realize their artistic voices by offering them the creative tools to express themselves in whatever form that takes. “I see Rock Band Land to be a place where the possibilities are endless,” said Stoesz. “Where someone can come in here and make a trajectory of what they want their artistic exploration to be.”
Six weeks of hard work culminated in The Big Show, which was held last month at the Verdi Club in Potrero Hill. Hundreds of family members, friends and music-lovers packed the venue as the young rockers took to the spotlight donned in headsets, band-tees, and eager smiles. The performances brought the audience to its feet, head-banging and jumping along to the tunes.