How do you end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Practice, practice, practice, sure. Or you could take Ms. Levy’s class at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, Md.
Of course, you’ll still have to practice. The course Randi Levy teaches is called “Rock Band,” and it’s designed to turn out little Jimmy Pages, Stevie Wonders, Ringo Starrs and Aretha Franklins. And at the end of the three-year program, the eighth-graders take a class field trip to Ohio, where they tour the rock hall and perform on its stage.
Twelve years ago, Levy was Clemente’s newly hired instrumental music teacher. She suspected that some kids would benefit from something a little less traditional than trumpet or violin.
“What I really wanted was kids to learn to play rock and roll instruments in school,” Levy said.
Private rock classes had exploded — spurred by parental nostalgia and the movie “School of Rock” — but those lessons are too expensive for many of the kids who go to Clemente, where a third of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Levy spearheaded a pioneering program to teach popular music. Students sign up in sixth grade to study guitar for a year. In seventh grade, they can switch to keyboards, bass or drums. They form bands and rehearse and perform together.
Levy created the curriculum herself. It isn’t just how to strum a power chord or whip off a paradiddle. It’s the history of popular music, which of course is the history of the U.S.A. and how its signature musical inventions — from rock to rap — have colonized the planet.
“We study the Beatles in the context of the British Invasion and Bob Dylan in the context of protest music and Motown in the context of black empowerment,” Levy said.
Levy has a rock look herself, her hair buzz-cut on the sides, the center moussed up into an impressive punk-chick forest. She has nothing against orchestra music — she’s a trained French horn player and the daughter of two college instrumental music teachers. She just thinks a Fender Stratocaster can reach a kid in a way that, say, a clarinet may not.
“When you sit in the clarinet section, first of all, you can fake that,” she said. “There’s 10 other clarinets.”
But when you’re the guitarist in a band — or the drummer, keyboard player, bassist or singer — you can’t retreat. You’re a modern, musical musketeer: all for one and one for all.
“They have to step up,” Levy said. “They don’t have a choice.”
About 150 kids take Rock Band at Clemente. Traditional orchestra classes are offered, too, and about 60 percent of students take some form of music — a percentage three times higher than at most secondary schools.
Levy has helped start similar programs at other Montgomery County middle schools, including E. Brooke Lee, Newport Mill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Takoma Park.
The benefits extend beyond being able to play Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” or Van Halen’s “Jump” on a keytar, two of the songs Rock Band students performed at a recent Friday after-school battle of the bands in the Clemente cafeteria.
“Some of the girls tonight are usually so quiet, you can’t even hear them talk,” Levy said. “And they put themselves out there when they sing.”
Feel the beat and free the feet. And when the feet are free, the soul and the mind shall follow.
“The whole journey helped me break out of my shell. I came into middle school very shy,” said Sohan Ganatra, a 15-year-old ninth-grader who returned to Clemente for the recent show. (The band he drummed in, Flavour Town, won last year.)
Sohan’s parents grew up in Gujarat state, India. Like a lot of kids at Clemente — which has a demographic split of about 25 percent white, 25 percent Asian, 25 percent Hispanic/Latino and 25 percent African American — he didn’t hear much rock music at home.
Of course, playing in a band — a real band — is more than being able to hit the middle eight at the same time. It’s collaboration and competition, passion and jealousy. It’s navigating the complicated interpersonal dynamics that threaten to erupt in some Axl/Slash explosion.
“That’s everything, honestly,” Levy said. “The music and Rock Band, that’s what hooks the kids in. But my philosophy is not about trying to make great musicians. It’s about trying to build great people. And the great thing about being in a band is the kids have to learn to work together. They’re playing in bands with kids that would never hang out with them, would never sit with them in the lunchroom. . . .
“The instrument is just a hook. They think they’re coming here to play rock band, but what they’re really learning is how to have relationships with different people.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.