Forget classical tunes and marching bands. Telluride's Rock and Roll Academy teaches children to play—and fall in love—with music as if they were rock stars themselves.
And so it goes for the next 15 minutes. The girls um and ah and use the word "like" in an impressive number of ways. The host, who isn't blessed with interviewing skills, doesn't do much to help. Finally, Galbo steps behind a microphone, takes hold of the interview, and tells the citizens of Telluride about the amazing talent assembled under the name Juxtapoze and why Saturday's concert is this weekend's go-to gig.
After the interview ends, the girls make their way back to the Academy for their last rehearsal before Saturday's concert, and it immediately becomes clear their problems are far from over. Renny plays one song an octave too high on the keyboards. Jacqueline forgets the lyrics to "Young Folks." "Sorry," she says, "I was thinking about my homework." Marina is worried about almost everything associated with the U2 song: the melody, the transitions, the Chapstick that gets all over her pick when she puts it into her mouth.
"Can we do it again?" she asks.
"No," Frances says. "We're gonna wear it out."
Watching them, the girls look like your average clique of 13-year-olds. But they're not. Not really. They live in a town where the arts play a predominant role, not only in the schools but also in the community overall. Telluride is known across the country for its bluegrass, blues, jazz, chamber music, and film festivals. Here, the arts—and most especially music—are not the cherry on top, they're an integral part of daily life, and Juxtapoze and the other Academy bands benefit from broad public support. Where else do 13-year-old musicians get 20 minutes of live airtime on the radio?
Plus, the girls are lucky to have parents that can afford quality music instruction and understand its value. Grace Engbring, who has three children—including Renny—enrolled at the Rock Academy, says that playing in a band can be a magical elixir, especially when it comes to kids' social development. "It's amazing," she says, "in only a few months you see the kids learning how to get along, share their ideas, and be critical with one another."
Mention this conversation to Galbo and he'll smile as if you've just learned one of his cherished secrets. "It's happens all the time," he says. The shy kid turns out to be a great drummer, and pretty soon the cool kids start looking at him differently.
While the girls practice, Galbo projects a photo of the band onto a large screen. It's the same photo that will be featured on marquee posters outside of the Opera House Saturday night. When the girls notice their photograph, the music clanks to a stop.
"Look at how red our faces are!"
"Yeah, let's see the other bands."
"Their faces aren't all red. We look weird. Can you Photoshop this?"
Galbo lets the girls' vanity unwind for a few minutes and then gently calls them back to practice.
"Girls," he says. "Remember, the concert is in two days."
Rock 'n' roll is by its very nature rebellious. When it blasted onto the scene in the late '50s, buttoned-down, alarm-clock-setting Americans had no idea what hit them. The music was loud, the hair was long, singers screamed, and you couldn't dance to it, at least not the way Arthur Murray and his cohorts wanted you to. On top of all that, rock lyrics discussed things you just didn't. Things like war and cocaine and c'mon, c'mon, c'mon...now touch me baby.
The rebellion inherent in rock is essential to kids, Galbo says, because kids have a hardwired need to push limits. "They've got to explore the boundaries of their culture, their families, and their communities," he explains. "You know that line, 'Just say no?' How about 'Just say yes?' How about just say yes to what kids actually need? Kids are going to experiment with drugs and drinking no matter what you do. But at the Academy, kids can have a powerful, authentic, soulful experience that is centered on their peers, and they don't have to be high or drunk to do it."
If the number of rock music programs opening across the country is any indication, it seems Galbo is not the only one who's caught on to the power of rock 'n' roll as a way for kids to rebel safely through musical expression. Paul Green, whose story inspired the movie School of Rock, opened his first after-school music program, the Paul Green School of Rock Music, in 1998. Today, he has 44 existing or planned franchises across the country, including one that opened in Denver earlier this year. Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band guitarist and Sopranos star, has also jumped on the rock bandwagon through the creation of the nonprofit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. Starting this school year, his foundation will launch a middle- and high-school curriculum designed to teach the history of rock 'n' roll from its roots to the present. There are also a variety of summer music camps across the country that offer rock instruction, including DayJams, Power Chord Academy, and the Dog House Music Rock & Roll Camp in Lafayette, Colorado.
Galbo's Academy—and the franchise he's working to develop—differs from the other models in that his uses a school-within-a-school approach. The Rock and Roll Academy is located inside the private Telluride Mountain School, which paid for the musical instruments and construction of the Academy's soundproof rehearsal room. During school hours, Galbo, as the staff music instructor, teaches rock music to all grades. Then, after school, he opens up the Academy to kids throughout the community. A semester's tuition for the after-school program runs $745 per student.
Galbo sees his model as a win-win-win. Kids have access to the kind of music education they wouldn't otherwise. Schools, which take a cut of after-school tuition fees, have a new revenue source and can keep music education alive. And the franchisee, ideally a music educator like Galbo, makes money managing the school.
Although his marketing efforts began only last year, Galbo is already talking with three private schools, including one in Cleveland, that are interested in the Rock Academy model. And although he's currently focused on private schools because they are more flexible in their programming, Galbo ultimately would like to use his school-within-a-school approach to modernize public music education in the United States.
Early Saturday evening, from the gondola above town, Telluride—with its tidy houses and twinkling lights and smoking chimneys—looks like a Christmas mantel display of a Victorian village. The effect doesn't diminish when you step off the gondola, walk through the snowy streets smelling of wood smoke, and arrive at the Sheridan Opera House. Built in 1913, the Opera House has been, at various times, a drinking place, a dance hall, and host to a series of vaudeville acts. Even today you can see its history in the gold banisters, deep green carpeting, and hard wooden seats. The whole place evokes a pleasant hot-cider sense of nostalgia you'd be tempted to succumb to if it weren't for the buzz and screech of the amps, the photos of Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain being projected above the stage, and the fact that Mark Galbo has just jumped up and started screaming into the microphone for everyone to "Give it up for the Rock and Roll Academy Winter Tour!!!"