Practice for the Murray Rock Band begins not with a bang, but with many overlapping whispers.
“Let’s put devices away,” says Andy Rockwood.
He and Jeremy Barta, the pair of 20-something rock-‘n’-roll instructors, are both in bands that play around the Twin Cities, and they look the part of local rock teachers as they gather the dozen middle school students around a low table for today’s rehearsal.
At first, there seems to be little progress.
“If you still have your headphones in your ears, there’s no way for me to tell,” chides Rockwood. “So how do we feel as a band? What’s working? What do we need to work on?”
“Everything,” says a girl named Rowan.
“Well, not everything,” counters Izzy, a small girl with an asymmetrical, punk-style haircut.
“We need to listen to each other,” a boy named John quietly offers.
John’s comment catches the ear of Barta, who begins to nod.
“If we need to play well, we need to listen to each other, especially for singers,” he shouts over the bubbling din.
That’s easier said than done in a roomful of 12-year-olds talking about selfies, and for a few minutes the dozen kids squirrel in their small chairs, their high voices full of energy.
Rockwood leans back in his chair and patiently stares at the table. “Let’s pretend that me and Jeremy are not here and you have to run band practice by yourself,” Rockwood says to the kids.
Barta chimes in: “[We] are going to step back here and y’all are going to have a little band meeting. You’re going to decide how rehearsal is going to go tonight. You have to come up with an agenda. Someone has to start this. We’re stepping out.”
Chaos ensues. But somehow out of the back-and-forth conversations and kids talking over each other in small groups, a leader sort of emerges as Izzy begins to write down a set list. The plan is simple: They will begin with their most solid song, the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” before trying some of the harder stuff like AC/DC’s “T.N.T.” and Owl City’s “Fireflies.”
In a way, rock band is the opposite of marching band. Instead of a regimented hierarchy of uniformed students following orders in unison, the rock band is a selforganizing salad where the students seem to take the lead.
“It’s very different every year,” Rockwood later tells me. “It’s so dependent on the students, on which students take leadership. Sometimes they like classic rock, sometimes it leans more poppy. We leave the creative control to them. And that’s why a lot of students come back.”
The sense of freedom rings true for Rowan, who plays keyboards. Along with Izzy, she’s one of the two returning members of the Murray Rock Band. And like Barta and Rockwood, she’s curious to find out what the band will be like this year.
“There was a lot of different kids that were in the class,” says Rowan, describing her experience last year. “We played lots of songs. We played ‘Proud Mary,’ ‘Snow’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Purple Rain.’ You kind of have to figure out how to do everything by yourself, and how to converse amongst yourselves.”
It takes the kids a while to set up, plugging cords into amplifiers and amps into walls. The guitar players, stretching their legs across the carpeted steps, take turns with the electric tuner. And in the far corner, two or three boys set up a green drum kit.
One of the drummers begins to play a tight rock beat, complete with fills on the toms and snare.
“I’ve been playing drums since I was 5 or 6,” says King, a 12-year-old boy with short black hair. “If they got music that they like, I’ll play with it. I don’t have a problem with it. I used to be nervous, but now I’m just used to it.”
For anyone who has played in a rock band before, middle school band practice doesn’t seem that different from the typical rock rehearsal. With the shorter attention spans, setting up and getting focused takes a lot longer. But considering the average rock ‘n’ roll musicians’ welldeserved reputation for prolonged adolescence, the Murray Rock Band might be precocious.
“Well, it’s kind of fresh and new for them,” Rockwood admits, describing the main difference between a middle school rehearsal and one for his own band, Panther Ray. “They just need some direction. But really they kind of naturally learn how. After a while, it kind of runs how a normal band practice would run. You get together, chat for a little bit, then play.”
After the setup has lingered for a half hour, Chad, a boy with long straight brown hair, tries to take the lead, drumsticks poised above a cowbell. “Guitars ready?” Chad shouts. “Keyboards ready?”
For now, nobody is listening, and Barta eventually drops the hammer. “Cut the noodling,” he says, kind but stern, and slowly the instruments quiet down.
A minute later, Chal, sitting at the drum kit, gingerly starts off the song. Clapping his drumsticks together and declaring, “One … two … one-two-three,” he sharply hits the snare. The room fills with the roughly hewn chords of the 1960s classic “Twist and Shout.”
Somehow, a gaggle of 12-yearolds are playing rock ‘n’ roll.
As they go through the chords, the two instructors pace around the room. Rockwood leans over the keyboard to help 13-year-old Toby with the chords. The three guitarists on the stairs seem at home with the one-four-five progression, and Chal, the drummer, is keeping solid time.
Meanwhile, Barta and Izzy face each other at the microphone stands, reading the lyrics off an iPhone as they pass the verse—“shake it up baby now”—back and forth a bit inaudibly. The sound mix could use a little help, but it seems like a good start for the Murray Rock Band.
After a few minutes, Rockwood shouts “Let’s go to the bridge!” The kids all seem ready for this, and the dominant pedal tone builds to a harmonic climax as the drums beat away.
One more chorus, a bit of feedback, and the song is over. But it’s just the beginning for the Murray Rock Band. They typically play five gigs each year on their donated instruments. Who knows what the rest of the practice has in store? With rock ‘n’ roll, what happens next is up to the kids.
Bill Lindeke is an urban geographer and writer living in St. Paul.