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Electric Education

Plugging into Burlington's Rock Camp


Published August 10, 2005 at 6:18 p.m.

Burlington's 242 Main is at capacity. On a recent sweltering Friday afternoon, an eager crowd has assembled at the youth center/music venue to witness more than 10 rock bands blasting through tunes ranging from metal to ska. Frantic soundmen make final tweaks and adjustments to the amps and microphones strewn across 242's well-worn stage. It's the calm before a rock 'n' roll storm, and anticipation is high.

Audience members sitting on plastic folding chairs fan themselves with day-glo event programs. They don't look like the club's typical punk-rock patrons, however - gray hair and spectacles far outnumber mohawks and piercings. In fact, most of the crowd is over 40. They're here to support their sons, daughters, nieces and nephews - the young graduates of 242 Main's Vermont Rock Music Camp.

This scrappy musical academy, which is overseen by the Burlington Parks & Recreation Department, has a few things in common with more traditional band camps. Each weeklong session includes workshops, instrument clinics, concerts, theory classes, rehearsals and, finally, a concert in front of friends and family. But the real difference between Rock Camp and other summer music-education programs is attitude. Forget about academic orthodoxy; this is a get-your-hands-dirty kind of experience. The 11-to-18-year-old attendees encounter the thrills and hassles of being in a real rock band, from the rush of performance to interpersonal dynamics. Along the way, they record a tune with Daryl Rabidoux, 28, an in-demand Burlington engineer. They also learn to write and arrange music, set up and strike gear, and put together a press kit.

Once a haven for misanthropic misfits, rock 'n' roll is now a highly competitive business in which success and failure are measured not just in ability, but also in promotion and organization. But Rock Camp, now in its fifth year, is really about playing hard and making friends. And judging from the smiles on the campers' faces as they hustle their gear through the crowd, it's a blast.

Before the students can even dream of getting onstage, however, they've got to get their fundamentals down. That's where the camp's A-list instructors come in. Guitarist, educator and Camp Director Greg Mastes has been with the program since its humble beginnings at Jericho's Browns River Middle School in 2000, when music-teacher Harry Shenawolf was its director. Mastes took over in the program's second year.

A gifted and energetic teacher, Mastes is also friends with a large number of Vermont's professional musicians, many of whom are involved with the program. Instructors represent nearly every branch of rock's family tree; soulful diva Tammy Fletcher, country-rock crooner Brett Hughes, drum hero Gabe Jarrett, bass god Stacy Starkweather, rocker Ted Pappadop-oulos and reggae legend Bobby Hackney have all shared their considerable knowledge and experience. Local groups such as Carrigan, Swale, My Revenge, Barbacoa and the Abby Jenne Band have played for the students and have provided information as well as inspiration during Q&A sessions afterwards.

Mastes, 42, is a dark-haired, intelligent-looking fellow with an easygoing demeanor. It's easy to see why the kids relate to him - his mischievous grin and quick wit make all that practice seem fun. Along with Richard Bailey, general director of 242 Main, he keeps the trains running on time. But when it comes to teaching, everyone pitches in. "Most of the instructors have been doing this for a couple of years," Mastes says. So they have a really good idea of how to give campers direction, from helping them choose the right material to working with arrangements."

Bobby Hackney, a gregarious 48-year-old with a booming voice and dreadlocks, knows a thing or two about teaching kids music. He's got a son and a daughter in this year's camp. Another son, Bobby Jr., is a professional drummer. Still, Hackney claims that he learns as much from the youth as they do from him. "There's no better source of inspiration for musicians than young kids," he says. "There's such energy and enthusiasm. Some of these kids are going to become leaders in this music community, you'd best believe it."

242 Main is located in the sprawling, cavernous Memorial Auditorium building, each corner of which Rock Camp puts to use. On the Tuesday of the session's second week, diminutive rockers are around every bend, running through material as diverse as Elvis and Green Day. At one point, three bands can be heard at once: two on opposite sides of the basketball floor and a third on the auditorium's stage. The resulting cacophony is akin to jets taking off. "I usually like to have one of these bands playing downstairs at 242," Bailey explains. "But we just had a workshop, and there wasn't time to set everything up again."

Behind colossal double doors, yet another band is bashing through Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean." The kids nail the tune's notoriously tricky time signature, and the singer eerily duplicates Robert Plant's famous banshee wail. The results are impressive.

Given its rich musical history, Memorial Auditorium might be the perfect setting for Rock Camp. "The kids get quiet when you tell them that Bob Marley was on this stage," says Pappadopoulos, 40. "It really brings things home."

With 50-plus students in each session, a legitimate worry is that the camp might become too popular. The vast majority of the students seem intent on returning next year, and many of them plan to tell their friends. Bailey, a guitarist who at 36 still looks very much the rocker, attributes the program's growth, in part, to parental enthusiasm. "They wanted us to do a winter session during the break, but that's a bit of an undertaking," he says. "They also say they want us to do an adult rock camp for them!"

Bailey's boss, Maggie Leugers of Parks & Rec, is prepared to expand the program if need be. "I wouldn't doubt that we could go three weeks," she says. "But we'd have to spread it out a bit so the kids and the staff don't get burned out."

If playing in a rock band was once considered antisocial behavior, it now can be a cure for the same condition. One camper who suffered from severe shyness makes a miraculous turnaround by the end of the first session. Stunning his instructors, he drops to his knees during a guitar solo in the final concert. He's back full force for week two, and performs a powerful version of Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."

Izzy Blakely-Aminzade, an 11-year-old sprite with an oversized personality, thinks meeting other young musicians is the best part of the experience. "The first week I was with all my friends, and I was like, 'Dad, Dad, I'm not going to have any friends in the second week," she says. "But I'm a very social person, so I just made more."

What Hackney says is true: Watching the kids perform is uplifting. It's obvious they aren't afraid of hard work, or the spotlight - no complainers or shrinking violets here. It can also be humbling. Some of these nascent rockers are better than a lot of grown-ups, a fact that isn't lost on the instructors.

One such musician, 13-year-old guitarist Max Bronstein, has only been playing for a year. A Black Sabbath fan, he has not one but two bands outside of camp. The kid's soulful phrasing and buttery chops honestly make even a seasoned musician a wee bit jealous. When complemented on his prodigious axework, Bronstein takes it in stride. "Thanks," he replies nonchalantly. But when asked if he'll be coming back next year, he can no longer hide his enthusiasm. His eyes light up and he answers without skipping a beat: "Definitely."