All the Right Notes

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Bach to Rock Teaches to a Different Beat

At 8, Alexander Levy showed tremendous musical prowess on the piano. The year was 2004, and Alexander was looking for a place to take lessons. Through an acquaintance, Alexander’s father David learned about a music school called East Coast Music Production Camp, founded by Jeffrey Levin in Bethesda, Md.

David Levy wanted to know more. He himself played the saxophone professionally for many years — performing with artists such as Joni Mitchell and notable jazz musicians. Levy, who also started the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, thought East Coast Music Production could offer Alexander private piano lessons.

But the private lessons morphed into a much grander educational endeavor that has many parents singing its praises. At the time, David Levy was director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where he also happened to work closely with Bethesda-based Cambridge Information Group, a firm that owns Sotheby’s Institute of Art, affiliated with the famed auction house.

The relationship with Cambridge Information Group would come into play a few years later when the group acquired East Coast Music Production, and Levy began to lead Cambridge’s education division. Then with a name change and a new partnership, Bach to Rock was born, with Levy serving as its chief executive officer.

What impressed Levy about the music school and camp was its unique method of teaching music to young people. Rather than the traditional solitary practice of pairing teacher with student, East Coast Music Production made teaching music a social and competitive discipline.

“By making [learning music] a social experience, you’re making it into a team sport,” said Levy, who works alongside founder Jeff Levin. “It adds a whole other dimension. There are things about playing music that you can only learn by playing with other people. These kids play and behave like professionals. It’s all in a day’s work. They spend six hours in a studio knocking out a CD.”

That’s exactly one of the ambitious goals of Bach to Rock: bring music students to a level where they can perform in a band. Levy’s son Alexander eventually became a band keyboardist.

In addition to professional recording studios, Bach to Rock students participate in jam sessions and battle of the bands. According to the school, “These creative group activities foster teamwork, build self-esteem and motivate students to perfect their musicianship through independent practice.”

Another component of the Bach to Rock philosophy is that students learn best when they come together to play music they like the most, whether it’s Bach, the Beatles or B.B. King. The idea is that the technical foundation is all the same and people learn faster when they play music they enjoy.

The method seems to have struck a successful chord. Bach to Rock has now grown to four locations, two in Maryland — Bethesda and Gaithersburg — as well as two in Virginia, in McLean and South Riding. The school also plans to open its fifth location in Lansdowne, Va., in June.

Each school covers roughly 1,700 square feet to 4,000 square feet of space. Classes cost anywhere from for the Tunes N’ Tots program to for an hour of private lessons. There are also group lessons, jam sessions, weekly band performances, and summer camps with day- or week-long options.

Paul Waskiewicz, senior director of the early childhood program at Bach to Rock, said the school has about 1,500 students between the four schools, with students ranging in age from 15 months all the way to 58 years old, though the majority of the population falls between 15 months to 15 years.

“If someone wants to come in and learn how to be musical, they can come in,” Waskiewicz said, noting that the schools have about 100 music teachers, most of whom are part time.

And you’re never too old — or young — to come in. For the super-young students, Bach to Rock isn’t exactly teaching them music. Rather, teachers start by helping to enhance children’s cognitive development.

“When you throw in a couple more elements — like music — you develop [cognitive development] even more,” Levy explained. “At the point that a child has reached age 4 or 5, you can take that child and move on to another play-oriented program, such as Kids ‘N’ Keys, and you begin to teach basic music. The playful environment keeps the child engaged, and they learn the names of notes, the intervals, what it sounds like, the structure of music theory.”

Officials say Bach to Rock hits all the right notes because the school moves away from the old way of teaching music. “With Western music, the traditional emphasis has been the visual music. Sometimes looking at a piece of music, it looks scary,” Waskiewicz said. “We’re working on training the ears. It’s an oral emphasis. Most kids are listening to stuff on the radio, and it becomes an emotional relationship and response to music.”

But kids aren’t the only ones getting in on the Bach bandwagon. Waskiewicz said the program arranges corporate parties, where for a couple of hours a group of adults can come in and learn to play rock songs. In fact, one successful group of businessmen went on to create their own band in South Riding.

Waskiewicz said the draw is simple, and ageless. “We all want to be rock stars,” he pointed out. “So if you ever wanted to be Mick Jagger, we have private lessons on drums, guitar and vocals. You get coached by a teacher, and you jam.”

And jamming like Jagger is all the more possible thanks to the school’s state-of-the-art engineering and recording studios in all four locations. Waskiewicz said recording as a band becomes an evaluative tool, allowing students to pick up on their strengths and weaknesses.

At the end of semesters — typically classes run for 15 to 20 weeks — students perform at a battle of the bands competition, a sort of graduation. For the rock crowd, the battle of the bands takes place at the popular 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. The next musical showdown will be in either late May or early June, and 75 bands will participate. Meanwhile, the classical music students will hold a performance and recital at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda.

For most students, this “graduation” marks their first big performance in what could potentially become a long musical career — playing for school assemblies, performing with their band in local gigs, or who knows, maybe Bach to Rock will produce the next Bach, or Mick for that matter.

About the Author

Christine Cub

Last Edited on July 8, 2014