- Associated Press - Thursday, July 17, 2014

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - Jesse Strauch, band director at Sage Valley Junior High, is a jazz and classical music enthusiast, but he knows sometimes his students just want to play some rock ‘n’ roll.

Strauch and fellow directors Matt Hard, Chase Cassidy and Paul Zeleski will present an evening of rock at 6 p.m. Friday at the Cam-plex Heritage Center, and all the performers will be children from Campbell County playing a variety of songs, including hits by Taylor Swift, ZZ Top, Guns N’ Roses and One Republic.

The summer-camp-style week began Monday at the Heritage Center, and students arrive at 9 a.m. and stay until 3 p.m. each day, said Hard, a technology specialist at Sage Valley who is also passionate about music.

Friday’s performance will be “a culmination of all the work that we did the previous year and then this week,” Strauch said.

Strauch and Hard were awarded a Rec Mill grant last fall from the Campbell County Parks and Recreation Department to further the musical education of students who wanted to explore styles outside of their regular study material.

“Some of the kids wanted to go beyond what was in the curriculum, and the only way I could do that was to go after school,” Strauch said. “We just thought, ‘It’s not in the curriculum, but there’s all these kids here, so we’ll just get this started.’”

The group met every Thursday after school on a come-when-you-can basis. After more and more students started showing up, “it was clear the more adults you had, the more improvement you could have every time you meet,” Hard said.

“Then he (Strauch) thought that we should do a rock band camp, which he’s done before in other places he’s lived,” Hard said. “And here we are.”

When Cam-plex told the directors there was a week available for them to hold the camp, Strauch and Hard quickly got things in motion.

“There’s nowhere else you could do this in the school district or in the county, because the performance halls we have for music, they don’t compare to Cam-plex,” Strauch said.

The directors believe this opportunity will help young musicians break out of their shells, Zeleski said.

“Many of them sit at home and practice their instruments on their own, but this is something different - to have the stage, to have the lights, to have the sound and the band. There’s nothing like the feeling of this kind of performance,” he said.

In order to teach students how important solid practice and commitment is, days at camp don’t include a lot of downtime, Cassidy said.

“The kids have to play it straight through to see what it’s actually like on the professional side to play music live. Then we break off into sectionals and work on parts,” he said. “It’s kind of grueling, really. But at the same rate, the kids have just been very impressive to us in their potential.”

The directors know it’s one thing to play music as a solo artist, but it’s completely different to play with other people.

“For a lot of these kids, I think it’s just like us when we were younger,” he said. “You go from playing by yourself in your bedroom to actually playing with other musicians. That’s a whole other step in actually becoming a musician, and to communicate and listen to other people’s parts.”

Still, the directors think their students are lucky to have this opportunity available to them.

“It’s definitely an experience that we talked about and thought it would have been cool if they’d had this when we were kids,” Cassidy said. “We could have probably learned a thing or two back then.”

In his work with technology, Hard has learned it’s too easy for kids to be idle.

“Phones have made it so you don’t have to be in the same location at the same time, so most of the time they aren’t,” he said. “It’s hard to have a band over FaceTime.”

Cassidy remembers when he was a teenager in Gillette. There used to be about 20 local bands made up of kids under the age of 18, he said.

“We’d put on shows at Bicentennial Park and the Lasting Legacy amphitheater. We’d haul a flatbed trailer in there and either rent sound gear or put all of our stuff together to make the show happen,” he said.

The community has lost that sense of friendship between musicians in recent years, he said. But this workshop is helping to change that.

“Aside from this, I can’t name a single band of kids under 19 that are actually going out and doing stuff right now,” he said. “I think it’s cool to see this type of camaraderie build up again and sort of push these younger kids into playing music, playing in bands. When you’re a kid, it’s a release to just have fun doing it.”

The directors are already seeing their students forming those relationships.

“Different people are on different skill levels, but they’re helping each other. That camaraderie is developing, and hopefully when all is said and done some friendships will have developed,” Cassidy said. “Some of my greatest friends that I’ve made, I wouldn’t have had them if we hadn’t played in bands together.”

There’s not really a chance for students to learn rock ‘n’ roll in school, and there aren’t many underage clubs in the area that cater to that type of crowd, Strauch said.

Without the camp, many of his students may have never had the chance to put together this type of performance.

“Not every kid goes to school every day and says, ‘Man, I just need some algebra.’ When you’re teaching kids something they actually care about and they’re intrinsically tied to, it’s really rewarding - not so much that I taught a kid something, but because they get this opportunity to play in a rock band,” he said.

The students are grateful for what the directors are teaching them, said 15-year-old bassist Kole Horton, who also played in Strauch’s jazz band at Sage Valley this past school year.

“Having Chase and all these guys helping us get things ready, I’ve learned more than I ever have in just a couple days,” he said. “That’s amazing.”

Horton said his favorite part of the week has been learning to work with others.

“The bonding you get through a band is really cool,” he said. “We’re just learning to work together. Most of us are used to playing individually, so this is something completely different.”

The directors have helped students learn showmanship and new ways of playing their instruments, 15-year-old guitarist Trevor Rook said.

“They’re making me go to center stage in the middle of my solo,” he said. “I have to drop to my knees and just play like crazy. There are techniques that Chase has taught me this week in two minutes that I never would have learned.”

Other students have enjoyed the freedom that rock music gives them.

“Most music, like with choir, you have to do it a certain proper way. But with rock band club, it’s really just letting loose,” said Sydney Robinson, a 13-year-old vocalist and keyboardist. “It just makes you feel so free, while with some other music you’re just more closed in.”

Sage Blessing, a 13-year-old vocalist, said he’s benefited from learning to work with other musicians.

“Say you’re a guitarist and you’re off a little bit, your drummer will let you know. Everyone helps everyone else,” he said. “We’re all connected, so you’ve got to work together.”

Even though he’s not the biggest fan of rock music, Strauch knows there is a time and place for it.

“You can play this rock show, and then maybe you can play a jazz gig down at a restaurant. And then go play with the symphony at a black-tie event,” he said. “I think it’s good for music instructors to realize all music is good.”

Not everything can last forever, but music is one of the things that can, Cassidy said.

“Music never has to stop - you can play it until the day you die,” he said. “It’s that kind of thing that this is all about - to see the growth of music and what it gives back to the kids.”


Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, https://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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