Academy Of Rock Teaches Teens Band Dynamics

Aug 7, 2014

The Kalamazoo Academy of Rock thursday night band at the old Gibson Guitar Factory
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story called the academy's thursday night band The Copacetics. Not all of the members of the student band are in The Copacetics.  

The Gibson Guitar factory shut its doors in the 1980s after running for almost 70 years. But on weeknights in Kalamazoo, you can still hear the music that made it famous emanating from the now dusty, discolored windows of the old building.

Celeste Dely performing a song she wrote called 'Ferris Wheel'
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

That's where students from the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock go to practice. They'll be playing a concert at Ribfest on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Bell's Eccentric Cafe from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.

“All the great guitarists that you know that play Gibsons, more often than not they’re going to be at a Gibson made here, you know, pre 1985. That’s when they moved to Nashville," says academy founder and instructor Jeff Mitchell.

"So Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin plays…his two primary guitars are Gibson Les Pauls made in 1959 right here in this building. B.B. King’s Lucille was made here. Elvis has been here, he played an acoustic Gibson.”

Mitchell says he got the idea for the academy five years ago while teaching classical piano.

“We started doing Neil Young and Supertramp along with Beethoven and Bach and my piano recitals. And at one point I saw this film called ‘Rock School’—not ‘School of Rock’ but ‘Rock School’—which is a documentary about this guy in Philadelphia named Paul Green who started a school of rock. And so I kind of pick up how he worked his curriculum and how he worked the bands. And I thought, ‘Well that would be the thing to do, just break off the rock, jazz, blues we’re doing into a separate entity of its own.” 

Kalamazoo Academy of Rock instructor Jeff Mitchell takes over on piano while Owen Edwards, 14, does a saxophone solo. Edwards is the youngest member of the band but has been in the academy since he was just 9 years old.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

This semester the academy has five bands. The Thursday night band may be teens, but they’ve been playing together for about three years.

“Beyond just learning how to play like coming here you learn how to perform, which is really hard to learn without being up there," says 18-year-old guitar player Ben Dunham.

"Cause like I know especially when I started like I could play guitar really well but I just kind of sat in the back and I wasn’t exciting to watch.”

The band's other guitar player Kevin Rice, 17, says it should be every musicians goal to play with as many other musicians as possible. 

“I have a buddy who listens to smooth jazz who I recently began playing with and it is a completely different idea. You start with this one sound and somebody with an influence comes in and it can completely change the way you’re playing. And so it’s a really big deal to play with other human beings. Sure you can be a hip hop artist and go turn on your drum track and put something together on the computer and go into a recording studio and put down some really nice vocal tracks. And it’ll sound good, but you will never truly get the musicians experience of playing with the other people.”

As far as the set list goes, Mitchell says no song is too complex. They play everything from classic rock to more contemporary artists like Arctic Monkeys. 

Bassist Malachi Cox (left) and guitarist Kevin Rice (right)
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

“These kids like the challenge. They encourage the challenge. They want the challenge," he says. "And so, yeah, it’s up to us to keep stretching them. Keep finding something that helps them grow.”

Most of the instructors from the academy of rock are all in local gigging bands like Flypaper, The Mainstays, and Full Frontal Cortez.

Mitchell says this academy is an opportunity none of the instructors had as a kid.

“’Boy I wish there was something like this around when I was in my teens.’ Yeah, I hear that from our teachers and a lot of other active musicians around and just adults," says Mitchell. "You know this is…teaching rock is kind of what jazz used to be. It’s kind of shunned—not shunned exactly, but not accepted as a proper art form.”