Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"I had always had a “shadow life” as a working musician..." Q&A with David Levy, Co-Founder of Bach 2 Rock!

David C. Levy has been the Cambridge Information Groups principal advisor since they acquired Sotheby's Art Institute in 2003. David left his home town of New York in the early 90's to lead DC’s largest private cultural institution, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its College of Art and Design, where he served as its President and Director until 2005. Prior to leaving New York he was Chancellor of The New School University, a post he accepted after completing 20 years at the helm of Parsons School of Design. During his tenure at Parsons, David built it from a small school with fewer than 500 students into an international institution with an enrollment of 12,000 and a world-wide network of campuses including Los Angeles, Paris, The Dominican Republic and Japan. A life-long professional jazz musician as well as an art historian, photographer and designer, David founded New York’s first degree granting school of jazz, which thrives today as one of the world’s leading jazz conservatories, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. During his tenure at Parsons and The New School he initiated and oversaw the mergers of the Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County into Parsons and the Mannes College of Music into the New School.  We recently spoke with him about his latest venture, Bach 2 Rock - America's Music School! Check it out...

Q.  What is Bach 2 Rock?

A.  Bach to Rock (B2R) is an emerging chain of music schools serving students of all ages and based on a couple of very logical but innovative principles. These are summed up by our belief that students learn best when they join together to play the music they like the most. So the core of our method is to place students in small bands of four to six players, creating a powerful bonding based on social and musical interaction. This is coupled with an opportunity to play music that is meaningful today and for which kids get significant peer recognition and social credit.

Our students also take private lessons with us but we generally limit these to half an hour, so the ideal instructional time is 1½ hours -- an hour of band or ensemble practice immediately following or before the private instruction. From a technical perspective, B2R students are preparing themselves to play whatever music floats their boat – literally from Bach to Rock!

Q.  How Did B2R Come About?

A.  All of this began about seven years ago when my son, Alexander, then in third grade, was eight years old. He had begun to take very traditional piano lessons and though it was clear that he was musically gifted, the discipline of practicing was just not his thing. This was very frustrating to us because it was clear that he was not coming close to achieving his musical potential.

Then the mom of one of his classmates stumbled on a brand new storefront music school in Bethesda with the unlikely name of “East Cost Music Production Camp.” Something about the place intrigued her and so she ventured inside where she met its founder, Jeff Levin, a young, entrepreneurial performing musician and teacher who had left the school system to start a school of his own. He wanted a place where kids could learn the basics while simultaneously forming bands and playing classic, contemporary and even original rock music.

Excited by the concept, this mom sought out other parents in her son’s class, including us, and proposed that our kids form a band and study at “East Coast.” The result was a five-piece band of 8-year olds, in which Alexander was the only member with any prior musical instruction. Not only did these kids have to learn to play and work together, they had to learn their instruments from ground zero.  And learn they did!

The exhilarating thing for me was observing how this band rapidly became a central focus of our kids’ lives. It defined them in many ways, enhancing their self-esteem and giving them unique stature among their classmates. Perhaps of equal importance it became a strong bonding force among us, the parents. We barely knew one another at the beginning but we quickly became good friends, forming a closely-knit group that remains central to our social lives today, some seven years later.

For my part, the whole thing was especially intriguing and not a little bit nostalgic. I had always had a “shadow life” as a working musician, playing gigs and on the road with some of the world’s greatest jazz artists, and during my years in New York, where I headed Parsons School of Design and was Chancellor of New School University, I had founded, nurtured and written the curriculum for New York’s first degree-granting school of jazz, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. But when I came to Washington to head the Corcoran, the demands on my time made it impossible to play music professionally on a regular basis.

Picking up Alexander after band practice at East Coast was redolent with all that music meant to me, and as I would wait for him to finish his weekly practices my musings would run to such things as “wouldn’t it be great to be part of this?” or “why don’t I just do it?” But of course I had a full time day job and there was just no room to put such fantasies into action.

This changed, of course, when I left the Corcoran. In my new role as President of Cambridge Information Group’s Education Division, my initial responsibility was to head Sotheby’s Institute of Art (A graduate school with MA and PhD art history programs in New York, London & Singapore), but I also found myself in an entrepreneurial environment where there was both investment capital and a thirst for innovation. So I went to East Coast’s founder, Jeff Levin, and said, “This is a great educational concept. Let’s take it national.”

The rest, as they say, is history and in July of 2007 we opened the first of our six Bach to Rock schools in the DC area.

Q.  What intrigued you about the underlying concept of Bach 2 Rock?

A.  The thinking behind the B2R concept and curriculum (our secret sauce) is a little more complicated than it may sound at first blush. If you consider the nature of traditional music instruction, it becomes clear that this is one of, if not the most, solitary activity we ask of young people. The stereotype (which many of us have lived through) is of being confined to a room with a piano, clarinet or half-sized violin while a parent (usually our mother) has set the kitchen timer for 45 minutes. She informs us that we are not coming out until she hears us playing steadily and the timer’s bell has rung.

Meantime our friends are playing video games or soccer and we hear their gleeful voices, siren-like, through the open window. But unlike Odysseus and his crew, we can’t practice music while lashed to the mast or with our ears plugged with wax. So we suffer through exercises and silly compositions (with even sillier names) written by textbook authors of indifferent ability, or we play music composed three hundred years ago that has little resonance in our everyday lives and is certainly not discussed in the schoolyard or recorded on our iPods.

The end result is that unless a youngster discovers a deep and personal musical proclivity, the advent of music lessons is a declaration of war in most households. After five or six months the student is begging for release and the parents, after perhaps a year or more of acrimony, acquiesce and let him quit.

Does the study of music really have to be this way? No. As we say at B2R, “Learning to play music should be fun. It’s called play for a reason!”

That line may sound glib, but once you fully take onboard the fact that the solitary nature of musical learning is its greatest deterrent, you can focus on techniques to mitigate the problem and transform musical study into an important part of students’ lives.

Playing Music as a Team Sport
At B2R we turn music instruction into the equivalent of a team sport. Bands (teams) perform before large, enthusiastic audiences at exciting competitive events (e.g. Battles of the Bands); they play frequently in public at a variety of clubs and other venues throughout the region and they record in our professional, Pro Tools-based recording studios.

All of this fosters healthy social and interpersonal development along with a steady undercurrent of energy and excitement. And the self-confidence our kids develop along the way is truly astounding. When ten-year-olds can walk up to the mike on the 9:30 club stage and play to a packed house with the energy and bravado of a pro, you know your methodology is paying off, big time!

Q.  Tell us about the upcoming Battle of the Bands happening at the 9:30 club January 29th!

A.  B2R’s biggest public event in the DC areas is our semi-annual Battle of the Bands, which is held at the 9:30 Club in January and June. The upcoming “Battle” will run for three days, feature more than 90 bands and have an audience of about two thousand. We also have many outdoor concerts in parks and public spaces when the weather is warm and we arrange opportunities for our kids play in clubs and restaurants and to be featured at various community events throughout the region. In Maryland our “acoustic” musicians (i.e., our classical and pop players and vocalists) perform twice each year at Strathmore Hall. In Virginia they play in the concert hall of the Franklin Park Art Center, Northern Virginia’s most important regional venue.

Q.  Is Bach 2 Rock hiring?  If so, who are your best candidates?

A.  B2R is always looking for new talent. We have been expanding rapidly and need qualified musician/teachers to fill our growing needs. Also, we limit our faculty’s teaching loads so that they can focus on their students as individuals as well as continue their professional lives as musicians. As a consequence we have a rather large number of faculty and there is always an opportunity for gifted instructors.

Our faculty is comprised of working professional musicians, often in the building stages of their musical careers. We look for people who can couple highly developed instrumental skills with a solid knowledge of music theory and educational talent. We also seek teachers and staff who can both express and demonstrate a genuine interest in helping young people learn.

Q.  Your very own son has a band called R.A.T.E.D. at Bach 2 Rock, tell us about his experience.

A.  The band’s name, R.A.T.E.D, is an anagram formed from the initials of its members’ first names. I told you the band’s origins earlier, but the amazing thing about it is that even though these kids started from scratch as eight year olds, by the time they were 12 they had virtually become professionals. In addition to the 9:30 Club and the battles of the bands (which they have won four times), they performed at the Verizon Center when they were 9 and more recently at Comet Ping-Pong, Jaxx, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and at lots of other public venues throughout this area. Their main focus now is writing and performing their own music.

Combining Learning and Social Development
In addition to our kids’ intense musical learning, the socialization process inherent in the development of this band has been very interesting to observe. 

Kids, as you know, can be really mean to one another – they haven’t learned the social disingenuity that we adults use to overlay our more abrasive feelings, so they don’t cut each other much slack. As this band was developing, if one kid or another wasn’t learning his part or was goofing off, the others would really let him have it. The result was a lot of (relatively good natured) fighting as they came to understand how interdependent they were and how the music required full cooperation where every band member had to carry his or her weight. So in the beginning an hour-long practice was 50% about keeping order and discipline. As they matured, musically and otherwise, they hunkered down to real solid work. Today it is a joy to watch and hear them practice.

And I didn’t mention that they also write and record their own material (as do most of the B2R bands).  Here’s a link to a video of an original song called “Sorry,” which they wrote and recorded in 7th grade, at age 12.  CLICK HERE TO SEE THE VIDEO by R.A.T.E.D.

Q.  You currently have 6 locations in the DC area.  Word is you're going to franchise Bach 2 Rock nationally.  What's the plan?

A.  Right now we are fine-tuning the model, adding and developing some interesting new components such as DJ instruction in a program called “The Beat Refinery,” and we are also expanding our early childhood curriculum. As I already mentioned, we do a lot of recording for our regular students and we have state-of-the-art sound studios with Digi-Design control boards and Pro Tools software built into each school facility. So we are looking to develop a robust recording arts curriculum as well.

Once we are satisfied that all this is completely on track and assuming that the economy continues to improve, we will look at a variety of approaches to national expansion. This idea and the excitement our schools bring to their students, parents and communities, is just too good to limit to the DC area.

Interestingly, we get requests to develop schools in other parts of the country all the time – sometimes from parents of former students who have moved to other cities, but often from folks who have just come across us in some fashion and are excited by our approach and methodology. So we know we have a compelling concept and product.

Q.  What is it about the Bach 2 Rock methodology that sets it apart from from other music schools?

A.  I think this gets summed up pretty well in the way we use the socialization process and team sport approach to motivate students and to make playing music a central focus in their lives for a meaningful period of time.

My son is a typical example; a student who joined the program in elementary school and continues to play, practice and create music in the stimulating environment created by B2R all the way through high school. Like so many of our students, he will have music as a life-long resource, whether he makes it a career or simply a passionate form of artistic fulfillment. By contrast, most kids give up playing music after a year or two of waiting for the kitchen timer to ring so they can quit practicing and go out and play. 

Practicing Made Meaningful; A Sports Analogy
I always like the sports analogy, where a kid comes home from school on a late November day. The sun goes down at 4:30 and it is bitter cold but he spends an hour in his driveway putting a basketball through a hoop. This is not about having fun; it is about wanting to excel the next day when he plays on the team. So at B2R we take the solitary activity of practicing music and give it that same kind of meaning – a motivating social and competitive goal that goes beyond the very feeble incentive of merely not being scolded once each week by your music teacher for being unprepared, which is about the only reinforcement most “traditional” music students are likely to get.

Teaching Students of All Ages; From the Very Young to the Elderly
There is also our extremely innovative method of working with really young children. We start with musical games, which for the very young have been proven to have significant impact on cognitive development. When the child reaches 4½ to five years these activities begin to morph into a program we call “Kids and Keys.” This continues to be game-based and taught in groups but uses keyboards and computers to teach basic technique and music theory. Ultimately Kids and Keys segues (at age six or seven) into our regular private lessons and beginning band instruction.

We also use many of these techniques to work with retired communities and the elderly – even with Alzheimer patients. And there are 30- and 40-something adults who have re-formed bands they had as kids and now come to us for professional coaching and recording. So although B2R serves a very large cohort of elementary, middle and high school students, it is actually a cradle-to-grave operation and a significant community service.

Respecting the Needs and Time of Parents
Finally, we take the parents’ needs into consideration. In today’s over-scheduled world, the last thing a parent wants to do is sit around reading out-of-date magazines while their kid takes a music lesson. So we choose sites that are in or near really good shopping centers. Parents can then schedule their time to include their weekly marketing or other activities (including meeting friends at Starbucks) during the hour and a half that their children are combining their lessons and band practice at B2R.

Q.  Last but not least...what are the 5 songs & artists that have been looping on your iPod this week?

Glen Gould – The Goldberg Variations (Bach).
Dick Morgan Live at Montpellier*
Rick Whitehead, Live in Captivity*
Francis Poulenc, The Dialogues of the Carmelites,
and a couple of dozen tracks by Paul Desmond.

*Dick Morgan and Rick Whitehead are terrific Washington-based Jazz musicians who are as good or better than anyone, anywhere, anytime.

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