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Rock U University gives Pittsburgh’s future rock ‘n’ roll stars a start

Kyle Lawson
February17/ 2015

Pink hair, distorted guitars and skinny jeans are typical at a rock show in the Burgh, except the musicians who squeezed into the jeans can typically order a drink at the bar. Or at least drive to the venue.

As a crowd of more than 150 filed in to the Hard Rock Café on a Sunday in November, the miniature rockers who posed for photos on stage and sat through hair and makeup ranged from age 7 to 17. As the MC announced the first band, 10-year-old guitar player Dominic Pellicciotti addressed his band mates before they hit the stage. “Let’s do it right here, right now, and make it count!”

Six weeks of rehearsals and guidance from instructors at Empire Music in Mt. Lebanon culminated with the Rock U showcase. The event grew from a crowd of 80 in 2006, to a doubleheader showcase that draws a total of 300 people, three times a year.

Empire Music Instructor Luke Williams explained the importance of a live show for his students. “I told one student, ‘when you’re playing rock ‘n’ roll on stage, you can’t have a music stand in front of you,’” Williams says. “So he really worked on memorizing the chords and I’ve noticed the difference in his playing.”

Williams hosts a family-friendly open stage at the Walnut Grill in Mt. Lebanon. Kids play and sing within a few feet of the bar. “It’s like a recital, but way cooler,” Williams says.

The owner of Hambones in Lawrenceville also offers a family-friendly open stage, set to resume in 2015 after the holiday season.

But for some young musicians, an occasional open mic night isn’t enough.

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Henry Supp, 10, at Rock U showcase, Photo by Jennifer Taormina-Lawson

Local middle and high school bands such as the Swag Monkeys and the East Enders have played festivals and events throughout Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. The Swag Monkeys have collected more than 1,000 likes on Facebook and have an EP on the way. The East Enders, of Monaca, so far collected more than 500 likes on Facebook, with an album for sale on CD Baby.

Winston Bell, 12, of the Swag Monkeys, recalls his first live performance in elementary school. “I was nervous I’d read the chart wrong, or I’d play a wrong note,” he says. “But when it was over I felt really good. It felt amazing.”

His father, Poogie Bell, is a jazz drummer who has played on two platinum records and tours the world with his band. “Science has proven that when you play music, it’s like a party going on in your brain,” Poogie Bell says. “It’s gonna help with school work and focus … so if your child enjoys to play, let them play.”

There was plenty of support at the Rock U showcase, as some students played for more than a dozen family members and friends in attendance. Bands included #Go, The Master Builders and the Rice Farmers and songs spanned five decades, from the Beatles to the Black Keys.

Tom Huber of Mt. Lebanon says his son Daniel performed at the showcase three or four times. “It’s such a cool place, the Hard Rock, so it’s a neat experience for the kids,” Huber said. “He’s gotten more confident with every show.”

Registration for the spring session of Rock U University classes is taking place now through March 16 at Empire Music in Mt. Lebanon. For details, see http://empiremusiconline.com/ or call 412-343-5299. The next Rock U showcase at Hard Rock Cafe is scheduled for May 3.

The open stage at Walnut Grill on Washington Avenue is held on the third Wednesday of each month, at 9 p.m. For details, click here.

The family friendly open stage at Hambones in Lawrenceville will resume sometime in early 2015. For details, click here or call (412) 681-4318.

Featured photo: The Rotten Cheeseburgers with Fries at the Rock U showcase at Hard Rock Cafe. L to R; Eli Anstandig, 11,  Henry Supp, 10, Empire Instructor Brett Pecco, Dominic Pellicciotti, 10, Sam Harris, 11. Photo by Jennifer Taormina-Lawson.

Kyle Lawson