Elliot Kuck of Elkridge, Md., is in the green room of the rock club Jammin’ Java in Northern Virginia, quietly strumming his guitar and preparing to face down his childhood trauma. When Kuck was growing up in Colesville, he was so terrified of his piano recitals he burst into tears before almost every performance. Sometimes he stopped in the middle. Now a muscular 30-year-old law enforcement instructor, Kuck will perform again — this time on guitar. His teacher is Manny Bernardo, whose philosophy of “make it relevant, make it fun,” manifests twice a year in Middleway Music Studio’s Concert Recital, a mash-up of rock, blues and soul covers and original songs played by ensembles of amateur guitar, bass and piano students.
Out in the club, heavy curtains block out the Sunday-afternoon sunlight. Friends and family members of the performers wander in, sipping beers and lattes and claiming tables in front of the stage. Wearing a gray plaid shirt, black Doc Martens and his trademark blue newsboy cap, Bernardo, 33, is kneeling on the stage, fishing cables from a big grocery bag, too busy to focus on the state of mind of the students he has persuaded to perform. Bernardo issues terse directions to his “tech,” college freshman Kirk Savidis — a former student of his — as they place stools, amplifiers, microphones and lyric books in the right places.
Behind him on the stage are bass player Tracy Epperson and drummer Mike Smirnoff, fresh off the road from touring as the rhythm section for D.C-based artist Justin Jones. Epperson reads over the set list while Smirnoff tunes his drums. As the professional backing band for the afternoon, it is their job to keep the songs from veering into chaos — no matter what the students do.
If this seems like a scene out of the 2003 Jack Black comedy “School of Rock,” only with adults, then that might be by design.
Traditionally, adults, particularly those in their working years, have had little access to the kind of performance-based contemporary music instruction increasingly offered to children.
“We tend to think of learning to play an instrument as something for kids,” says Don Coffman, professor and chair of the Department of Music Education and Music Therapy at the Frost School of Music in Coral Gables, Fla. “But we are seeing more of an interest [from adults] in learning from scratch or rekindling it.”
The Levine School of Music, with four area campuses, and the Contemporary Music Center in Virginia, and Jammin’ Java recently introduced rock-band classes and performance opportunities for adults with dreams of being on stage.
“The utility of having a rock band for adults is just as great as it is for kids, if not more so, because for adults it can be harder to meet people who are on their same instrumental level who they can jam with,” says Gary Prince, who teaches guitar and coordinates the rock program at Levine. “They just don’t have that kind of unstructured free time as kids do. … [A concert recital] really gives them something to work toward and a real place to demonstrate their skills, which is something that students of all ages need.”
Bernardo anticipated the need for adult education even earlier. But he had to explore his own music fantasies before he could help his students usher in theirs.
“Everybody wants to be a musician until they try it,” Bernardo says. “It’s time-consuming and it’s tedious, and a lot of times it’s difficult and it makes you feel inadequate and incompetent.”
In the basement apartment in a North Bethesda townhouse where he lives and teaches, Bernardo says he had to endure “years of tortuous infatuation with one style after the next and never quite knowing what my identity was” before he reached this point.
Artifacts of the musician’s life are everywhere in the apartment. Against the wall is a keyboard console elevated on each side by a book on a paint can. Open on the keyboard is the music to “A Natural Woman.” Taking up most of another wall to the left is an upright piano, on it a book of classical music, and a drum kit. On another wall hang several guitars.
Bernardo’s musical journey began conventionally enough at age 6, on the drum set in the storage room of the Bernardo family home in Silver Spring. He was the eighth of 10 children born to Cuban American parents and benefited from the instruments left by his older brothers’ bands. He became indoctrinated at a young age by his brother Jorge’s conviction that “the Beatles are the top of the heap,” followed closely by U2 and the Police.
Beatles-esque vocal harmonies, along with a little Police and U2, found their way into the reggae- and grunge-influenced tunes of Southbound Suarez, the band Bernardo and his next-eldest brother, Charlie, started when they lived in College Park and intermittently attended the University of Maryland. For four years, Bernardo lived the post-high-school band dream, playing fraternity parties and crowded bars.
Though he didn’t finish college, a passion for reading led him to authors such as Daniel Quinn, whose tenets about civilization’s threat to the planet fueled “radical” environmental beliefs that, Bernardo says, he struggled to square with being a musician. He quit rock-and-roll, moved to a group house in Mount Pleasant and embarked on a mission to fuse arts and activism by organizing themed events. Part-time jobs at Olsson’s Books and Records and Blues Alley paid the bills.
“I was kind of in a sad, anguished period,” Bernardo recalls. Attributing his unhappiness in part to his four-year hiatus from music (except for some dabbling in jazz guitar), he returned with a vengeance to a new obsession: classical guitar, studying for a time in Miami with Cuban-born guitarist Rafael Padron.
When Bernardo moved back to Washington, that obsession became classical piano. He pursued it even after joining the Sketches, his brother Charlie’s latest rock band, in 2007. When the band wasn’t on the road, Bernardo spent his spare time practicing and played acoustic gigs to pay the bills.
In late 2007 and early 2008, Bernardo started doing what many musicians do when they want to keep doing music but aren’t ready to cash it in and get a day job. He placed an ad on Craigslist and started to teach out of the cramped apartment he shared with Charlie. One of his first students was Kirk Savidis, then in eighth grade. Bernardo recalls Savidis arriving for his first lesson with his parents, with all four of them huddled in Bernardo’s bedroom.
“I’m feeling super awkward, trying to teach this kid power chords to a Kiss song and thinking they are never going to come back,” Bernardo says. “But I guess [his mother] liked me. I found out subsequently that she worked as arts coordinator for the Kennedy Center, and I think she was probably into the idea of supporting starving artists.”
However, most of Bernardo’s students turned out to be adults, which influenced his approach.
“Adults won’t settle for some bulls— that is technical and dry,” Bernardo says. “They have enough technical, unfun things to do in their lives.”
So Bernardo offered immediate gratification. Saving theory and scales for later, instruction began with “the minimum amount of technique to get their fingers going and then immediately just saying, ‘Well, what do you love?’ ” Bernardo says.
Nick Conger, now a 32-year-old communications officer at the World Wildlife Fund, was one of Bernardo’s early students. Conger approached Bernardo 41/2 years ago; he loved the band Phish and thought it would be great to learn the group’s music.
“The thing about Manny, you can just walk into his studio and say, ‘Hey, I love this song by so-and-so band,’ ” Conger says. “He’ll listen to it, and even if he’s never heard it before, moments later he is transcribing it and showing me how to play it.”
The approach went over well with busy working professionals, and the business grew through more ads and by word of mouth.
“Most of my students are working professionals from all different walks of life with very busy schedules,” Bernardo says. “Music is the way for them to make a connection with something that is almost quasi-spiritual. It has nothing to do with the daily grind, nothing to do with rat race.”
“I told Manny that in a year I’d love to have at least 10 to 15 songs I can go out and play and entertain my friends,” says Jim Stephens, 51, regional sovereign credit risk manager at the World Bank, who began studying with Bernardo after a frustrating year and a half learning nothing but finger drills from a previous teacher. “He said, ‘You’re giving me a world of time. We’ll have you on stage in a year.’ ”
When he had about a dozen students, Bernardo realized he was making enough money to stop playing covers in pubs and restaurant bars in Northern Virginia and just stay at home teaching and practicing in his spare time. And as his teaching business was growing, the rock-star dream was fading. Though he had played in a bunch of bands over the years, he came closest to breakthrough success in the summer of 2008, when the Sketches played a showcase at L.A.’s famed Viper Room and auditioned for Kara DioGuardi, a songwriter and Warner Bros. Records executive who later, briefly, was an “American Idol” judge.
“We got so close to a few big breaks and they didn’t pan out, and we were running out of money and enthusiasm,” Bernardo says. “You can only wait for so many years. … Pop music is just one of those businesses — you’re 30, you’re not ancient but you’re close.”
So he made a decision to keep building up his teaching studio and to pursue a dream to become a composer and arranger. “I love music too much to make it a lottery ticket,” Bernardo says. “For me, music had to become a lifestyle. It had to become a career.”
As Bernardo was learning as a teacher, one of his biggest epiphanies was the realization that his students were “developing in isolation.”
“Because they are adults, they have busy schedules, and they don’t necessarily have a bunch of buddies to play with,” he says. “I felt like I was having all these talents developing in a vacuum and … that not enough collaboration was happening on their own time. I thought, ‘If they are not going to do it on their own, I’ve got to force them into ensembles to play with people.’ That is really what it means to learn an instrument.”
Bernardo began to talk about doing a recital.
“The word ‘recital’ itself has a lot of negative connotations, so I was determined from the outset to make this almost unrecognizably recital-ish,” he says.
The idea was to make it fun by turning it into a rock concert, pairing beginners with more-experienced students and backing them with a professional drummer and bassist skilled at keeping songs moving when students falter.
“A lot of these people have been dreaming of playing on stage all their lives,” Bernardo says. “They have gone to millions of concerts, idolized all these performers, and when they get on stage for the first time, it’s literally mind-blowing because it’s the moment they’ve always dreamed about.”
Before the first recital, at Potter’s House in Adams Morgan in 2010, Bernardo called for a day-long rehearsal at his house. As students started arriving, it was clear they were nervous and self-conscious. According to Bernardo, the audition-like atmosphere was heightened by the fact that the students didn’t know one another. Meanwhile, he and the professional bassist and drummer knew each other well from playing in bands together, which added to the students’ feeling of being outsiders.
Although Bernardo was confident his students could rise to the occasion and put on a show, they weren’t so certain.
“For the first time you were performing in front of an audience,” recalls Carl Bedell, a lawyer who has been studying with Bernardo since 2009. “Having other students there is not quite as nerve-racking as getting up onstage, but it is still performing in front of people.”
When Bedell, who was one of the first performers, played “Blackbird,” everyone in the room stopped talking and listened, hushed. And when it was over, everybody clapped.
“After I performed, I felt like I could do it,” Bedell says. “I felt like I needed to practice a lot more before, but I could do it.”
Another beginner played “Under African Skies” by Paul Simon, a song Bernardo and the backup band loved — and they had put extra work into their parts.
“I remember that being a pretty miraculous moment,” Bernardo says, “the idea that … if everybody is committed to the song, it’s going to not just sound okay — it’s going to sound awesome.”
Bernardo pushes his students as hard as he can until the last night before the show, and then he lets go, saying to himself, “You know, they are still students.”
It’s minutes before showtime at Jammin’ Java, and several students are crammed in the narrow green room. Rob Zmuda, who will play lead guitar to Elliot Kuck’s backup guitar on “Jack & Diane,” the opening number, is leaning against the doorjamb. The 26-year-old cybertech consultant has his cellphone to his ear, calming his nerves by listening to the song and visualizing himself on stage.
Deeper inside the room is Deborah Crandall, a lawyer and former jazz pianist who sought guitar lessons because she wanted to “master another instrument.” In her skintight red python-print pants, she looks the part of an accomplished rocker. And she has convinced a skeptical Bernardo that she is ready to play her first guitar solo, on “I Love Rock n’ Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
Barbara Fonseca, the bass player on that song, arrives and asks Crandall if she’s seen Epperson, the professional bassist — she needs him to tune her instrument. Fonseca, a 30-year-old sustainability consultant who wants to be a songwriter, says she practically hyperventilated before the last show but has prepared for this one with some “downward dog” and other yoga poses.
Feeling antsy, Zmuda exits the room just as Bernardo blows in with Kuck and another student, Brian Dickerson. Kuck was added to the lineup for “Jack & Diane” only days before, and the three haven’t had a chance to rehearse the song’s three-part harmony.
“I need a guitar,” Bernardo yells, grabbing Crandall’s.
Bernardo sings Kuck and Dickerson their melodies. But when they start singing, “Let it rock, let it roll, let the Bible Belt come and save my soul,” they are totally out of tune. Bernardo gives a couple of pointers, and they start again. This time they nail it — and then head out to take the stage to start the concert.
Kuck cruises through his part, then ably leads a medley of ’50s and ’60s tunes. Midway through “Twist and Shout,” people in the audience start clapping along, arms up over their heads. When the song ends to loud applause, Bernardo shouts: “Thank you! You got us rockin’!”
A rock show it becomes. The audience is grooving, people are snapping photos with their cellphones, and at one point some young women start dancing left of the stage. Bernardo provides some modest theatrics, executing little jumps when playing guitar riffs and dancing around the stage.
And it is an afternoon of personal victories. Crandall makes it through her guitar solo without a major gaffe. In fact, after the “all girl” band takes the stage for the song, the sight of head-banging Bernardo in a blue wig at the drums and 12-year-old lead singer (and piano student) Nina Faraone whipping her hair around and windmilling an imaginary guitar generates so much clapping and “woo-wooing” it obscures some stiffness in the playing.
With Bernardo on the bongos to his right, Nick Conger pulls off a jazzy take on Phish’s “Stash,” a near-virtuoso electric-guitar selection difficult for even advanced guitarists. And acoustic guitarist Nick Kaufman, 29, who runs a youth swim program out of Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, exits the stage to a gantlet of high-fives after acing the rhythmically tough, fast “Two Step”— a song by the Dave Matthews Band he struggled mightily with leading up to the show, requiring several late-night emergency rehearsals.
“I had a great time,” Kuck said after the show, describing it as the first of the roughly 30 recitals he had played in his life that he didn’t enter extremely nervous. “I was very happy with my performances, very proud of myself, and when it was over I was actually looking forward to the next one.”
“The show is kind of like a roller coaster,” Fonseca said. “You are just all in it together. Even if you mess up, you keep on going. It’s a really good lesson for anything.”
Lora Engdahl is a writer and editor in Washington. Her last story for the Magazine was about lifelong learning opportunities.
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