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5 Pittsburgh schools of rock to get kids strumming and drumming

schools of rock
Rege Behe
July31/ 2017

When rock music flowered in the 1960s, detractors viewed it as a rebellious and even dangerous art form.

But 50 years after the Summer of Love, rock ‘n’ roll is simply a mainstream part of pop culture with kid appeal. Consider Jack Black’s star turn in the kid-focused “School of Rock,” followed by the Broadway version of the movie that’s slated to open in October at the Benedum Center, plus a Nickelodeon series of the same name now in its third season.

Today’s parents point their kids toward rock music via their vinyl record collections or attendance at concerts. And for those who aspire to be musicians? There’s the very appealing option of learning the basics from professional musicians at various schools in the region.

Here are 5 noteworthy Pittsburgh schools of rock for kids:

schools of rock
At Sunburst School of Music kids can learn voice, guitar, bass, piano and keyboards, drums and ukulele, as well as DJ and music production skills.

Sunburst School of Music

Alex Stanton was tired of teaching music to kids in their homes. In 2011, he found commercial space on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill, hung a sign on the door, and crossed his fingers. Six years later Sunburst School of Music employs 20 music teachers and three administrators and offers a diverse musical curriculum.

Sunburst’s mission is to serve each student’s best interests. Stanton purposely assembled a staff that shares his vision of a non-classical approach to teaching music.

“It’s trying to find out what they want to get out of it and why they want to play an instrument,” Stanton says of his students.

Sunburst’s staff teaches voice, guitar, bass, piano and keyboards, drums and ukulele. And, in a nod to current trends, DJ and music production skills are part of the curriculum.

Lessons take place in a space that has been radically transformed over Sunburst’s six years. When Stanton opened the school, it was industrial and cold. Now, “after putting down a rug and bringing in some lamps, it helps set a better mood,” Stanton says of the colorful, airy space. A stage for performances was added, too.

“It gives it more of a family living room feel, which is disarming to people in a way,” Stanton says.

While the focus of the school is kids – “4 years is generally when we start, although we’ve done some lessons with 3-year-olds,” Stanton says. Sunburst also has a healthy population of students in their seventies. The school’s makeup is two-thirds kids and one-third adults over 18, including parents who take lessons with their children.

“The goal with every student, whether they’re a kid or adult, is to ask them what they like,” Stanton says. “Forget what I like, and let’s try to break it down and figure out how to get there.”

schools of rock
Empire Music’s huge 7,000-square-foot school teaches as many as 500 music lessons per week.

Empire Music

The 15 music teachers at Empire Music in Mt. Lebanon wouldn’t mind developing the next Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran. But they also hope that their lessons transcend merely learning how to read music and play an instrument.

“My ethos behind it is that personally and professionally, without the kids learning it and enjoying it, the craft and artistry of music doesn’t continue,” says Anthony Pecora, a musician at Empire who has played with the Boogie Hustlers and the Mandrake Project and now is a solo artist.

“Whether that’s just a kid having fun who cultivates some interest in music, or if they pursue it as a profession or pursue it as a pastime, that’s great,” he says. “It’s important to me as a musician that the art form is continued via the younger generation.”

Empire Music opened in 2002 as a small 800-square-foot storefront. Today, it’s an expansive 7,000-square-foot space that holds approximately 500 lessons per week on guitar, bass, piano, vocals, drums, banjo, and ukulele.

One of Empire’s goals is to bring together kids of similar interests. Twice a year the store hosts Rock University at the Hard Rock Café in Station Square, featuring four bands of students.

Pecora acknowledges that kids sometimes are isolated. Music, he thinks, can be a bridge to more interaction.

“We want to grow that community, that unity, that cohesiveness, with students under the tutelage and direction of teachers,” Pecora says. “We want to grow that community aspect of it.”


schools of rock
Kids at For Those About to Rock Academy regularly perform in front of live audiences at festivals and community events.

For Those About to Rock Academy

Dave Granati and Cathy Stewart are hands-on music teachers at For Those About to Rock Academy. At Granati’s cozy studio on Maplewood Avenue in Ambridge, budding vocalists, guitarists, drummers and keyboard players learn via free-flowing and interactive lessons.

“Coming from the traditional educational standpoint of what I learned in college and about classroom management, it all goes out the window,” says Stewart, who has a music degree from Duquesne University. “It’s unique in that the students all have input here. That’s probably the biggest difference.”

The roots of the school were planted 10 years ago when Granati and his brother Joey taught music at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center Charter School in Midland. In 2009, they opened their own school at Dave Granati’s studio with the idea of giving students – usually between the ages of 8 and 18 – an opportunity to learn at their own pace.

“We’ll take an absolute beginner, and the other kids will take it upon themselves to make them feel welcome,” Granati says. “Since it’s an ensemble, it’s like a little football team or an orchestra: you have reserves. If you’re an absolute beginner and can play a semblance of the song, you’re included right in there.”

Because of the Granati Brothers’ long-standing reputation in the region, the academy often has guest musicians at classes. Granati and Stewart invite media to conduct interviews with students and introduce them to engineers, producers, and other music industry colleagues.

Most of all, there’s an emphasis on live performances. Students at For Those About to Rock Academy have the opportunity to play live shows as soon as they learn the basics.

“Some of the kids have played 20-30 shows, and they’re not even 15 yet,” Granati says. “You hear that in order to be an expert you have to do something for 15,000 hours. They haven’t done quite that many, but they’re doing what they have to do to get to that point.”

Stewart agrees.

“They’re playing festivals and car cruises,” she says. “Our kids go out on real gigs, in front of real audiences and they earn their applause.”

schools of rock
Girls Rock! Pittsburgh allows girls to shed inhibitions while learning music and song writing.

Girls Rock! Pittsburgh

Girls Rock! Pittsburgh is for girls ages 8 to 18. But some older “kids” – the instructors who never had a chance to go to a music camp devoted to girls – are equally thrilled by the camp.

“I always say the volunteers have just as good of a time as the campers do,” says board member and volunteer Meg Prall. “It’s such a special week for everyone involved. … We’re doing this because we want to be there.”

Part of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance featuring 60 camps worldwide, the non-profit Girls Rock! Pittsburgh is in its fifth year. This year’s sold-out camp takes place Aug. 7-12 at the Winchester-Thurston School in Shadyside. But it’s not too early to watch for next year’s camp and take advantage of scholarships. The $350 fee is voluntary; those who cannot afford that are only asked to pay what they can.

“We are on a completely sliding scale, and we don’t ask for any financial information,” Prall says. “Our goal is one-third of campers paying the full amount, one-third on partial scholarship, and one-third tuition free.”

While building confidence is the main goal, music is the vehicle. From rock to folk to hip hop, girls learn the basics of an instrument and how to write songs. The students form a band with other campers and design a logo and screen-print band merchandise. At the end of each camp, recording sessions are held, and each camper receives a CD with the band camp songs. Each day during lunch, local bands perform for the campers.

In addition to learning song writing, chords, and scales, the camp allows girls the opportunity to shed inhibitions.

“You find that in school girls are a little less inclined to speak up sometimes,” Prall says. “Boys tend to dominate conversations. This is just a space where girls can really express themselves and not worry about anything. We always say we’re not so much a music camp but an empowerment camp that uses music as our tool.”

See what they learned at the camp showcase from 4-6 p.m. Aug. 12 at Winchester Thurston School. Tickets are $5-10 at the door. Kids are free.


schools of rock
Real Life Music Camp teaches kids how to collaborate musically and aesthetically to set the groundwork for a career in music and to inspire creativity.

Real Life Music Camp

Liz Berlin wanted to share the knowledge she learned as an original member of Rusted Root. The idea was to hold a week-long Real Life Music Camp to teach kids how to collaborate musically and aesthetically to set the groundwork for a career in music and to inspire creativity.

Now, 18 years after that first gathering of kids, Berlin has exceeded her expectations by staying true to her original vision.

“Every year we focus on getting the kids to collaborate on original music,” she says. “They come in with their bands or forming bands. That’s been pretty consistent. I think we stuck with a formula that works. The kids find new connections and new camaraderie and new creativity within themselves.”

Real Life Music Camp, part of Mr. Small’s Creative Life Support philanthropic services, caters to kids 8-18, although students as young as 6 and as old as 26 have participated. This year’s camp, held in July, culminated with students giving a performing at Mr. Small’s Theater prior to performances by Berlin’s solo band and Out of the Blue.

Berlin’s curriculum has evolved over the years to include workshops on how to use social media as a “way to increase creativity and create a place for your music out in the world,” she says. But the heart of the camp is still breaking through inhibitions, refining skills, and creating music that will resonate with others.

“There’s nothing I love more than giving creatively to a kid,” she says, “and helping someone discover the beauty in their own work, the power of letting their feelings come out in poetry and song. It’s the most fulfilling thing of anything I do.”

Rege Behe

Rege Behe writes about books and authors, music and musicians, in Pittsburgh and beyond.