School of Rock

Clara Wildenauer plays bass during a weekly Thursday practice at Marcy Open School.

Photo by Matt Mead

Marcy Open School students kick out the jams

See the Marcy rock bands’ next gig at the Marcy Arts Partnership Gala, Saturday, April 12. Visit www.marcy.mpls.k12.mn.us for more information or to buy tickets.

With his laid-back manner and cool-cat style, you wouldn’t mistake music instructor Mike Leipold for Jack Black. But like Dewey Finn — Black’s character in the popular movie School of Rock — Leipold is a master at introducing students to the heady thrill of performing rock ’n’ roll music.

Leipold has taught at Marcy Open School for 15 years, directing three bands and a strings ensemble, and providing music instruction to all the K–8 classrooms. In recent years, he has also begun leading rock ’n’ roll ensembles in response to heavy student interest.

Leipold said he started working with some Marcy students on rock music several years ago, but things really took off in 2004, when Allen Sebola, another Marcy teacher who is also a professional musician, suggested the two of them lead an “Options” class in rock music. (Options is a program in which teachers and parents lead one-day seminars for students on the subject of their choice.)

The kids who signed up had such a great time, Leipold and Sebola created a week-long rock ’n’ roll summer camp for kids. Randall Davidson, a Marcy-Holmes resident and the fine arts manager at Augsburg College, helped them arrange for practice space, and the camp was a big success.

Since then, Leipold has incorporated rock music into his work at Marcy, allowing students who already play in band or strings to join one of the three rock bands that meet on Fridays during the school day. For students who want even more rock music instruction, Leipold has organized an after-school “rock band camp,” which meets once a week and brings in several professional musicians to work with kids in beginner, intermediate and advanced rock bands to help them learn their parts and develop a set of songs they perform in concert at the end of each camp session.

For the two dozen students who participate, learning and performing rock music is both a challenge and a thrill. Fifth-grader Seamus Hawley is a classically trained pianist, but he loves to play keyboard and perform vocals on songs ranging from Little Richard’s “Lucille” to his current favorite, “Sunshine of Your Love,” by Cream. “I’ve played many kinds of music, but this is really amazing,” he said.

Connections to the open education philosophy

Leipold said the wide-ranging music program was possible because of the leeway that past administrators at Marcy have given him. “A lot of what I do at school ultimately springs from the opportunities that the open program has provided me,” he said. A key tenet of the open philosophy is “the ability to create a project and then have the time to develop the skill base so you can finish the project,” he explained. “In music, it’s learning to perform a song.”

Playing in a band also strengthens the sense of community among students and helps them develop important social skills. “It’s about having the kids work in a dynamic social work situation,” Leipold said. “You take ownership of what you’re learning and apply it to real situations.”

Through the avenue of rock music, Leipold introduces students to a whole musical history and tradition. Greg Lee, a musician whose sixth-grade daughter Quinn plays guitar at Marcy, said, “Quinn comes home and wants to talk with me about Duke Ellington and listen to Beatles CDs.” He added that one of his musician friends recently heard Quinn working on Freddy King’s 1971 blues song “Going Down.” “[My friend] was just stunned,” Lee said. She asked him: “Did I just hear what I thought I heard?”

For students, of course, one of the best parts of learning rock music is that it makes them feel cool and confident. Charlie Lincoln, a fifth-grade bass player (and this author’s son) said the song he most enjoys playing right now is “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. “During the intros and the beginnings of verses, I get to play, just me, just the bass,” he said. “It’s really fun because there’s never usually a spotlight on the bass player.”

And while rock music has traditionally been dominated by male musicians, the program has a large group of dedicated girls. Fifth-grader Clara Wildenauer plays guitar and bass and performs vocals, too. Her favorite song to perform is “The Locomotion,” though she also enjoys the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.” Learning her part on a new song can be tricky, but the older girls help her out. “The boys can be a bit annoying,” she said, “but the girls are all my friends.”

Anne Taylor, a Marcy parent, said rock band has been a huge inspiration for one of those older girls, her sixth-grade daughter, Hannah. “It’s all very Marcy, the way the kids come together to help each other learn and perform,” she said. “Hannah wouldn’t give up that rock band for anything.”

Ultimately, Leipold said, his main goal is to help students find a connection point to music. “It may or may not be the kind of music I like,” he said, “but I want to help them develop their own intrinsic sense of music.”

And maybe, just maybe, that connection can help kids learn in a way that standardized testing cannot. As fifth-grade drummer Eleanor Noble said, “I need something really fun in school. When I have rock band, I have a place where I can get really excited about something, and that rubs off into my regular day. It really gets you pumped up.”

last revised: March 31, 2008