Starting a band in middle school isn't easy. Take it from Carson Bell, the 15-year-old singer for Boulderfist, an up-and-coming local metal band.
"The first band I was in got together two years ago, but we couldn't find the right people for a while," he says. "When we finally had a full lineup and started getting in gear, some people in the band didn't get along."
Disputes among young musicians can arise for all sorts of reasons. The logistics of finding bandmates, cheap rehearsal space and a way to haul the band's gear from one place to another without a car or driver's license often keep kids from starting groups in the first place. Then there's choosing who plays what instrument, who writes the lyrics and who gets to be the face of the band in public, problems that can turn even the meekest 13-year-old (or 35-year-old) into a full-blown drama queen.
Luckily, Bell's not the drama-queen type. He decided to look for a different music-making opportunity when conflict brought his first band to a halt. When his father mentioned an ad for Rock Workshop, a new program at two-year-old Madison Music Foundry, Bell jumped at the opportunity to meet some other kids with similar musical taste and comparable chops.
The folks at the Foundry already know lots of local kids through the private music lessons offered at their rehearsal spaces. As a result, they're quite aware that most bands made up of teens and preteens don't last long without top-notch problem-solving skills or, at the very least, patient and dedicated parents.
While a lot of parents aren't against the idea of their kids joining a band, it's much easier to drop the kids off at soccer practice or private guitar lessons than soundproof the basement and supervise eight hyperactive tweens with amps and drum kits.
"We really wanted there to be another outlet for kids that's structured, something that's not necessarily a sport or a school activity but a positive thing that parents can get on board with," says Kendall Mann, the Foundry's general manager. To that end, Rock Workshop brings together young musicians from all over south-central Wisconsin, providing them with new friends, a secure space to rehearse and a grown-up mentor from a local band.
Over the course of eight weeks, each fledgling band picks songs, learns and rehearses them as a group, cuts a CD and plays a live performance at a local rock venue. Each band spends time recording at Smart Studios on the city's east side, and their favorite tracks are placed on a compilation CD made with Super Duper Music Looper, a music-creation tool designed by Sony Media Software, another local institution.
So far, the program has been a winning combination for the kids, their parents and the local music industry, according to Mann. In addition to sponsorship from Smart Studios and Sony, Rock Workshop has teamed up with the High Noon Saloon and Capital Brewery to promote the bands' live shows.
Meanwhile, the mentoring experience is the glue that holds many of the bands together offstage. For some bands, the mentor helps bandmates work out kinks in their songwriting; for others, he or she helps them defuse disputes or rehearse more consistently.
In Boulderfist's case, mentor Joe Bernstein, drummer for El Valiente, the Kissers and several other local rock groups, has challenged the band members to learn new instruments and make compromises about who plays guitar.
"The cool thing about our band is that when we started we had no bass player but three very good guitar players. This could have been a problem, but the guitar players have learned bass and Joe helped us find a way of trading off who plays bass for each song," says Bell.
Bernstein says his experience as a rock band mentor has been a blast and a fantastic learning experience, for him as well as Boulderfist.
"I basically become 15 years old when I'm in the room with them and they're practicing 'Hot for Teacher' or 'Eruption,'" he says. "Sometimes I actually have to step back and realize that I'm twice their age."
While some Rock Workshop mentors serve as teachers or mediators, Bernstein says that the band's decision to use a mentor-as-manager approach has worked out particularly well.
"For Boulderfist, I'm the eyes and ears behind the scenes, a trusted member of the team who doesn't perform," he says.