Rock Academy and What’s Shaking? enrich young people’s lives

LIFELONG LOVE: Rock Academy Asheville students perform at White Horse Black Mountain. In the organization's 13 years, numerous graduates have gone on to pursue music degrees, and many more continue to perform. Photo courtesy of Rock Academy

Subscribing to Whitney Houston’s belief that the children are our future, Asheville-area teaching artists work diligently to instill a love of music in local youths. While that mission was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing them to adapt their respective curricula, two local programs, Rock Academy Asheville and What’s Shaking?, have resumed in-person events and are again witnessing the immediate and long-term benefits of young people learning how to play musical instruments.

For those about to rock

“The social aspect of Rock Academy has helped countless kids and teens blossom and gain confidence, not only onstage but in their daily lives,” says Dena Clark, the music school’s director. “Playing in a band requires teamwork, kindness, acceptance and the ability to communicate clearly without judgment or blame.”

Among the students who’ve benefited from this curriculum is bassist Taylor Priola. Upon moving to Asheville in 2017, she sought a music program similar to the one she’d attended in New Jersey and gravitated to Rock Academy’s well-rounded offerings.

“What I admired most was the feeling of community and opportunities they provided,” Priola says. “Not only do they offer music classes, but I also got to learn about the music business, recording in a studio and the reality of being a musician, all from real musicians who have played shows all around the world.”

Through Rock Academy, Priola has also gotten to photograph various performers, hosted interviews with Rock Academy teachers, designed posters for events, directed music videos and booked her own gigs. Buoyed by this real-world experience, she’ll attend Columbia College Chicago this fall on a full-ride scholarship for photojournalism and plans to minor in music business. While unsure when she’ll play a gig in her future home, she’s already been hired to shoot 14 concerts.

In order for Priola and other students to have the tools to succeed, Rock Academy relies on its annual Give to the Music benefit concert. The organization’s largest fundraising event has been held at The Orange Peel since 2009 and has featured such performers as AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams, Roy “Futureman” Wooten of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, ’80s tribute band The Breakfast Club and singer-songwriter Patrick Dodd.

The 2021 edition takes place Saturday, Aug. 7, with a headlining set by DeCarlo. Fronted by Tommy DeCarlo, lead singer for the ’70s rock band Boston, the Charlotte-based rockers were booked for the 2020 benefit and committed to playing the event whenever it was rescheduled. A former YouTube sensation, Tommy DeCarlo nicely complements Rock Academy’s focus on hard work and determination through his own journey from Boston superfan to the group’s actual lead singer in 2008.

Prior to DeCarlo’s set, composed of songs from both of his bands, Clark says four Rock Academy youth bands and two adult bands will perform “a great mix of music, including ’80s favorites, blues, R&B, rock and some originals by talented student songwriters.” In addition to proceeds from ticket sales, funds will be generated from the annual raffle for an instrument.

“All of the profits from this fundraiser provide scholarships for private lessons, summer camps and instruments, as well as Rock Academy classes,” Clark says. “We are especially dependent on this year’s event because we are seeing a huge increase in students needing assistance, and we did not have any events, summer camps or live performances during 2020.”

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ryan!

Asheville-based musician Ryan Glass is similarly dedicated to instilling a love of music in young people — particularly the very young.

The multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter moved to Asheville in 2011 from Brooklyn, where he taught Music for Aardvarks classes for AudraRox. His long-established and successful colleagues wanted Glass to start an Asheville chapter of their business, but after settling into his new home, it became clear that the NYC-centric curriculum didn’t translate to Western North Carolina.

“I wanted to teach the same kind of classes that they did,” Glass says. “I liked their approach to working with music and dance, but I realized I needed to write my own songs.”

In 2013, he completed an album of original material and launched What’s Shaking?, which brings a music and dance program to local preschools and kindergartens. In these settings, Glass becomes “Mr. Ryan.” Each session starts with a call-and-response exercise to connect and activate the ears and voice. He then gives kids shakers, sticks and drums so they can experience music as a communal activity.

“I try to help them find as many different ways as they can to connect to music instead of just connecting to it through one instrument or one skill-building exercise,” Glass says.

The pandemic put a stop to this work in person, prompting Glass to make videos of his sessions. The recordings garnered plentiful positive feedback from parents and educators, and inspired Glass — who admits he’s prone to dabble in 15 projects at a time — to focus his energy on What’s Shaking? These efforts included developing an hourlong outdoor program and dance party to encourage greater participation this summer among families, who might be hesitant to gather indoors while children remain too young for COVID-19 vaccines.

He soon found a partner in Sweeten Creek Brewing, where he and percussionist/vocalist Elaine Scott — aka “Miss Elaine” — have performed free shows on the first Saturday of each month at 1 p.m. The next concert is set for Aug. 7 and will feature Glass’ band Record Prophets, whose members are well versed in his original children’s music and playing for a younger audience.

“The breweries here, there’s always kids running around, no matter what band is playing or no matter what’s going on,” Glass says. “And a lot of times, kids pay the most attention to the live music, even when the people aren’t singing to the kids or talking to them at all.”

Glass will return to schools this fall and is also working on collaborating with Head Start and other programs that serve families with limited incomes. He believes that all people deserve to experience the joy of playing music — and that adults could stand to learn a thing or two from the way their kids uninhibitedly react to songs.

“Sometimes, I don’t win over adult crowds at all like that. There’s nobody jumping up and down or screaming,” Glass says. “But 3-year-olds act like The Beatles just landed in New York. I tell other musicians about that all the time: The best audience is 3-year-olds.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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