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Kicking Out the (Junior) Jams

Rock's Angry New Voices Rise From Suburbs at Bethesda Music Camp

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page B01

Eleven-year-old Patrick Burke cocks his head to the side and presses close to the microphone, his back turned to the imaginary audience. J.T. Fairbanks, also 11, knocks his drumsticks together and calls out, "One, two, three, four," and the pint-size members of Wanted by the State launch into "Killing in the Name" by the band Rage Against the Machine:

Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses

Peewee rockers Suburban Rage launch into a Green Day song with Izzy Jenkins, center, getting into the role of lead vocalist. (Michael Robinson-Chavez -- The Washington Po St)

Rock and Roll School
_____School of Rock_____


If anyone thought rock was dead, the kids who religiously attend the weekly jam sessions at East Coast Music Production Camp in Bethesda are out to prove them wrong. It's just that rock lives peacefully in suburbia, scheduled between soccer practice and karate class.

To the kids, the music is heavy stuff that few of their classmates could handle. Inside these soundproof walls, Britney is over, Christina isn't what a girl wants and 50 Cent is barely enough to buy a bag of chips.

Jack Cleary, 11, admits that he once went to a Backstreet Boys concert -- but that was when he was young, like, 7. Now he's into PowerPoint slide shows of his favorite cool guitars: Ibanezes, Fenders and Gibson's Les Pauls. Jack has a Schecter Diamond Series that he brings to his rehearsals with Wanted by the State.

Conversation during the band's practice is rapid-fire. Wanted by the State has been together about two years -- a lifetime compared with the rotating rosters of the other bands at the music school. Most of the members have taken lessons from the studio's owner, Jeff Levin, since he was a teacher at the Woods Academy in Bethesda holding band practices there after school. When he left to establish the studio last summer, they followed.

"My distortion pedal isn't working," says Jordan Rowe, the 8-year-old guitarist for Danger.

"Can you get me that shirt?" J.T. asks, pointing at the Killers T-shirt on the band's teacher, Christian Gero, 17.

"Can I get you this shirt? You can get it for yourself," Christian yells. He turns to Jordan. "Can we have a D? Low strong, low string . . . "

About 260 students are enrolled at the music school, and another 75 take classes through a partnership with J.F. Oyster Bilingual Elementary in Northwest Washington. Parents shell out about $30 an hour for the jam sessions to give their children a chance to play in bands with such names as Igos, Syndrome and Mushroom on a Stick.

Many of the kids credit Levin for nurturing their taste for the classics: Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, Nirvana and Green Day. With his spiky hair and fitted T-shirts, Levin is like a Bethesda version of Jack Black's head-banging character in the film "School of Rock." He even tried to teach one of the bands "Purple Haze," though the singer couldn't quite muster Hendrix's mumble. Which turned out to be fine, because parents weren't too thrilled with the lyrics.

Levin's students substitute their own words when the songs get dirty or offensive. Sex and drugs aren't prerequisites for rock-and-roll here -- after all, most of the kids couldn't get into a PG-13 movie by themselves. But they are learning that being a rock star is as much about attitude as it is musical ability.

Take 10-year-old James Dreben. James, who has floppy blond hair and an angelic face, has spent his young life training with Washington National Cathedral's choir, most recently singing Johann Sebastian Bach's "Passion" in German. He plays classical piano, takes fencing lessons and attends the all-boys prep school St. Alban's School.

But come Friday afternoons, he sheds his uniform sport coat and tie for a black T-shirt -- never white and preferably emblazoned with a Tony Hawk skull design -- and takes lead vocals for Danger.

"It's a much different personality to fit in in band," he says. "More like . . . out there."

"Out there" James is not. He has printed out the lyrics of all of his band's cover songs from the Internet, each sheet in a protective plastic covering compiled into a blue binder that he brings to rehearsal each week.

Some of the other guys in the band are a little more hardcore. Kevin Rogers, 10, is an animal on the drums, and Matthew, the guitarist, owns a Guns N' Roses T-shirt. So when James takes the stage, he jumps around a little when he sings, loosens up his shoulders and stops thinking before he speaks.

It's a transformation that Levin knows well. His music career started when he was 5 with guitar and piano lessons. By high school, he was headed to the Juilliard School for a semester.

Though he was good at playing classical music, he wasn't passionate about it. What he loved was Eric Clapton, the Eagles, Van Halen and Carlos Santana. He ditched Juilliard and came close to making it in the music business before devoting himself to teaching.

"I want to see you attack those vocals, man," he tells Sarah Heckman, 11, of Four Miles to the Sun one Friday. "Don't be all shy with me."

Sarah furrows her brow. She is still wearing her Holton-Arms School plaid uniform, a pink polka dot ribbon in her hair. Levin starts her off -- "One, two, rock-and-roll!" -- and Sarah begins to sing in a small but determined voice.

Levin is seeking venues where the bands can perform. They're working to firm up an appearance at a country club concert for tsunami relief this month. It's not Lollapalooza, but it's a start. Levin said he also plans to expand the studio to include a stage for in-house performances.

Meanwhile, the kids are polishing their acts. The girls of Suburban Rage are ready for fame. They have a Web site with a list of their biggest fans -- six of their best friends -- and a summary of the band's six-month history. Their theme song is Queen's "We Will Rock You."

"We are a ten year old band with a lot of skill. . . . One of are fav things to do is go to Quiznos and get chips, sodas, subs, and STARBUCKS drinks," it proclaims.

The girls work hard to live up to their name. During a rehearsal one Friday, lead singer Izzy Jenkins, 10, jumps around the cramped room, nearly tripping over a cord during their rendition of "When I Come Around" by Green Day.

Truth be told, the girls are more prep than punk: There are pink polo shirts, pink flip-flops, pink sneakers and pink ribbons tied to their guitar cases. Two of the members bicker over who wore what and when.

"You guys," Izzy says, "clothes is important. . . . But not right now."

The six girls put their differences aside and began strumming their power chords again, losing themselves in the music, if only for a moment.

A collection of photographs of the young rock musicians at their weekly jam session in Bethesda can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/metro.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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