WASHBURN – Seth Vasser, 39, and Alex Strachota, 30, play in a band together. They also co-lead the School of Rock, a new afterschool activity they drummed up together a few months ago.
After six weeks of rehearsals with nine Washburn students from grade five-nine, four of these budding musicians gave a concert at the Washburn Meditation Center on Nov. 10 to which they invited family and friends. No one expected what happened that night.
“The turnout was incredible,” said Vasser, who initially set up 20 chairs, then 20 more, and 20 more. By showtime, over 100 guests arrived. “One mom brought her whole family.”
Some weren’t even connected to the all-girl band that performed that night, which consisted of Lily Vasser (piano), Ede Krueger (uke), Elsa Paterson (guitar) and Sieanna Sandor (bass).
“They just thought it was a great idea,” said Vasser, who’s been stewing on this idea for years.
A portion of the audience also came to hear Chequamegon Bay People’s Orchestra, the instructors’ band which played as well.
These young rock ‘n rollers (in 5th and 6th grades) were quickly introduced to show biz, jittery nerves and all.
“They were a bit nervous as the crowd kept building,” Strachota said.
“But they played it real smooth,” Vasser added. “You wouldn’t have known it.”
Two boys and five girls ages 10-15 years old signed up for the class in October. Unfortunately the three ninth graders (Connor Seeger, Alex Morrisseau and Kyle Hanson) couldn’t make the performance due to conflicting schedules, the biggest challenge the instructors’ had, juggling everyone’s schedule. In the future, they hope to offer a separate class for high school students.
In the meantime, the girls kept the rhythm going.
The performance included four songs: “One Day” by Modus Yahoo, “Seven Nation Army” by White Stripes, and two originals, one by Paterson, “Over the Hill,” and one by Vasser’s daughter, Lily, “Stanley’s Riff,”
Lily is 11 years old. Her brother, who studies ukulele with Strachota, is nine. He’s too young to go to rock school, but definitely next year. Meanwhile, they play together with their dad at home.
One reason Vasser wanted to start this school is because he loves playing with family and friends, which he’s done since he was a kid.
“I try to dedicate some portion of my life to making the world a better place,” Vasser reflected. “This is a way that feels really fun to me, because I just love being in bands. Also, I feel like it’s a way to express myself to the world and wanted to give that to kids.”
Beneath Vasser’s friendly veneer (a trim beard and ready smile) belies a more serious motive.
“Conflict/resolution is something I’m really passionate about,” he said. “When you’re in a band, not that there’s going to be conflict necessarily, you need to learn to work together as a team. I also wanted to bring people from different backgrounds together.”
Vasser has a B.A. from the University of Iowa in education. Strachota comes from a slightly different background but with similar motives for starting a music school.
While earning his B.S. in Biology from the College of St. Scholastica, an M.S. in Agronomy and Agroecology from the University of Minnesota, and working toward his PhD in Agroecology, Strachota taught music as well.
“I started teaching piano, guitar, and uke in 2009 in Duluth, and in Minneapolis from 2010-2013 until we moved up here in 2013,” he said.
Strachota has continued teaching those instruments privately and in group lessons, adding accordion to the mix.
“One of my musical hopes is that I can keep learning more instruments throughout my life — flute, clarinet, banjo, sax, maybe harmonica — and eventually teach some of them,” he said.
As a teacher and lifetime music student, Strachota is determined to infuse more fun into this activity that sometimes gets stymied.
“I’m constantly trying to change music education from this thing that is just a disciplinary, additional chore kids have to do after school to something that is creative and expressive,” he said. “And like Seth mentioned, something that taps into this idea of teamwork, because I think a lot of kids, parents too, have learned piano, where it’s this solitary exercise. Music is also teamwork and creative group expression.”
Yes, there is value in learning Hanon finger exercises to make the playing of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik a bit easier, also in joining school choirs and bands, even sports teams, Strachota said, to learn teamwork. But what about just wailing the blues on electric guitar, drums, bass and keys with friends and singing about things that matter to kids? The School of Rock is just that, a place to grow, learn and have fun in a less structured setting. However, there is one fundamental rule: someone needs to keep a steady beat.
“At first I was trying to just click on a wood block, but it was much more helpful to actually play the drums at rehearsals,” said Vasser, a professional drummer who also sings, plays guitar and writes songs. “We did the same thing in the performance, but we try and take a back seat. It’s not like we’re playing solos the whole time.”
Eventually they’ll tiptoe away from the band, letting the students set their own grooves.
“As they get more comfortable, we can pull out,” Strachota said.
For now, they act as live metronomes and guides on this creative journey to musical freedom.
Both instructors were surprised by how broad the kids’ musical interests were.
“I was impressed with their knowledge,” Strachota said. “I wouldn’t have expected they’d be into music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. They wanted to play ‘Carry on My Wayward Son’ by Kansas, songs by Green Day, a punk rock band, Beatles, and Black Keys, and they write originals.”
The School of Rock rocked so much the band wants to keep going.
“These four girls are really interested, and their parents are especially interested in having them continue,” Vasser said. “They’re going to try and get them together after school at different houses…We love teaching, but would love to have them do it on their own, have the freedom to do it without adults shepherding them.”
Sign-up for the next six-week session will be in February. Vasser and Strachota welcome new faces, and down the rock ‘n roll line plan to offer a variety of classes with additional teachers from the community. Meanwhile, private lessons are always an option.