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Fri, Feb. 26

Students learn that school can rock

Not everyone appreciated the volume at last Thursday’s School of Rock performance.

Not everyone appreciated the volume at last Thursday’s School of Rock performance.

For years, students here have been treated to performances from Grand Canyon Music Festival artists. But this year, after an offhand suggestion by one veteran festival musician and support from local groups, it was the students themselves who put on the show.

Violinist Joe Deninzon, one of the two musicians involved in the effort along with guitarist Chris Milletari, explained how a conversation last spring with festival volunteer coordinator Rene Westbrook evolved.

"We were casually talking and I had this crazy idea - wouldn't it be great if we had a school of rock while we were there," he said. "Rene just lit up. She took it and ran with it."

The result was a week-long workshop where Deninzon and Milletari worked with students to rehearse and stage two performances around a set of songs spanning four decades, from Jimi Hendrix' "Fire" to Green Day's "Basket Case." They also included one original song, "Strangeman," by Cabo, made up of Ryan Petzoldt, Chris Shirley and Andres Velazquez. They were joined in the workshop by Shawn Ray, Bryan Struble, Craig Bowman, Hannah Littleboy and Ashley Beale.

Though much of the music on the playlist had been around longer than the students who played it, in a way it was new to them.

"We'd heard them on the radio but we'd never played them before as a band," said Petzoldt. "We just love music and any opportunity that we have to experiment, broaden our musical experience, we're going to do it."

For Bowman and Littleboy, this meant a new direction on the sax.

"I learned how to play saxophone in a different way to make it rock," said Bowman.

Though they were a small group, Deninzon said they were an enthusiastic one.

"The second day they were practicing and they were still practicing after we left," he said. "I said do you guys do your homework like this for algebra class?"

Milletari and Deninzon worked with the students after school on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with a performance Thursday in the school multi-purpose room. They also performed on Saturday at the Mather Amphitheater.

The performance, however, wasn't the goal, said Milletari. Rather, the aim was to prod them to grow as musicians, not only individually but in concert with others.

"The biggest thing that they learned is that they could depend on each other," he said. "They got to understand that growth process and there definitely was an evolution. Even if we didn't do the performances, they still would have felt good about themselves."

Milletari said that the goal was to get the players to feel the music as well as understand it.

"You couldn't play this music by looking at it on paper," he said. "It's very sectional. We whittled it down to its most basic parts, worked those out and built a house from the foundation up. They learned that process, adding sections and building blocks. It takes a certain intellectual expertise but we understand it soulfully."

Deninzon said the school of rock concept is one that's catching on at schools across the country to promote the well-documented benefits of music education.

"Even if they don't grow up to be professional musicians, this kind of interaction is not only cerebral, it's soulful," Milletari added. "There's a sense of camaraderie and self confidence and it transfers itself into math, science, wherever they want to go."

Westbrook was instrumental in coordinating the workshop with Principal Bob Kelso and music teacher George Haughton.

She wrote the grant request and approached local organizations for funding. The Rotary and Lions clubs gave $500 each and the PTA kicked in $300.

"The most incredible thing was that everyone I went to for money just funded it," she said. "It just all rolled together really nicely."

She, Milletari and Deninzon said they expect the program to return next year, during the festival's 25th season.

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