Rockin' The Suburbs

Detroit's music scene is one of the most influential in the world. From blues to Motown to punk to hip-hop to techno and even classical and jazz, it's hard to think of a genre where the "D" hasn't made its mark.

So it shouldn’t come as no surprise that some local entrepreneurs have started formal, tuition-based programs to train would-be rockstars.

Two focus on kids ages 7-18 – the Paul Green School of Rock, a Rochester outlet of a national franchise program, and Ann Arbor's Rock band School, part of the Ann Arbor Music Center.

Only one, however, offers programs for both kids and adults – the Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music, which opened in a space formerly occupied by a bike shop in downtown Royal Oak in May.

Jason Gittinger, who founded the school, is probably best known locally for his work as the drummer with popular 80's cover band the Mega 80s. He's been playing music since his childhood in Marion, Ohio, and is the son of musicians.

He moved here after meeting his wife Sherri, during a summer job at Cedar Point playing in shows there.

I pledge allegiance to the band

The model for both the Rochester school and Gittinger's place is very similar – you pay monthly tuition, and get a weekly private lesson as well as hooking up with a band with whom you practice on a weekly basis.

That's right –instead of going the typical band-seeking route of papering local guitar stores with flyers looking for bandmates – or just recruiting your friends -- the schools will match bandmates based on skill level, musical style and a sort of chemistry.

Frequently, the people who pursue studies at the Detroit School are well beyond their teens and 20-something years, when talking your friends into starting a band sounded like a good idea. Long afternoons practicing in someone's basement and late night gigs playing to five drunk people just isn't an option for many of the school's students. Most are adults with jobs and families who have decided, for whatever reason, to finally get serious about their music hobby and want to get good at what they are doing, Gittinger says. "Most of the time these are people looking for the opportunity to play with other people," he says. "They don’t have a directed way to do these things –they've either failed in the attempt or are looking for more consistent ways to do it."

It's worked out well for the would-be musicians who have signed up at Gittinger's school.

Kevin Rushton, who's been taking classes and playing guitar in a band for a couple weeks now, says he isn’t interested in doing outside gigs, but finds the routine of having people to play music with to be very enjoyable. "I've never been in a studio before," says the 50-year-old technology consultant from Bloomfield Hills. "I'm gaining an understanding of the technology behind what the studio does and the excitement of performing with a band, in front of people."

Sherwin Springer, 34, of Romulus plays bass, which is a difficult instrument to learn well outside the context of a band. He was taking lessons with a friend of Gittinger's when his instructor told him about the school. He'd like to eventually play gigs, he says, and he likes the fact that the instructors are experienced but his fellow students are novices like himself.

"It's difficult to put yourself out there and find people to play with," he says. "This gives you more confidence -- we're going to have someone behind us telling us what to look for and how to avoid pitfalls. You're not going to get that going out and learning on your own."

Another brick in the wall

The Detroit School of Rock and Pop's atmosphere is decidedly cool. The brightly colored lobby (complete with soundproofing panel that visitors and students are asked to "autograph") leads into a long hallway with small rooms for private lessons. The main spaces are a large rehearsal room/art gallery with a rotating display of music-themed art, and a high tech recording studio and practice space.

It's got a nice family feel as well, though – Jason's wife Sherri acts as receptionist and office manager, and the couple's nearly two year old daughter Jasmine toddles the halls, exuding star quality and charming visitors.

Gittinger says he started the school because he realized he had a talent for helping people improve their musical skills, and saw a niche for educating people with an interest in rock to "stop practicing, start performing" as the school's slogan says.

A computer system allows instructors to keep notes on each band and refer back to them from session to session, which helps different instructors track their students' progress. The Detroit School is different than traditional music education because they are much more focused on bringing out the best in an individual band versus teaching a specific style or technique. "I don't care what kind of music they come in here liking," Gittinger says. "My job is to rip them out of their comfort zones. You can find difficulties in any kind of music; my job is to help them over the challenges."

Students must audition before being accepted to the school, and Gittinger says he works to weed out people who are not serious about devoting the time and energy to improving their skills at playing and performing. This isn’t rock and roll fantasy camp. "They have to be committed to excellence," he says. "Talent makes no difference, as long as they have the passion for doing this."

The ultimate goal depends on the student, he says. In the audition process, the final question he asks himself when evaluating a potential student is if they just want to have fun, or if they have to "make it." "Fun, we can accomplish fairly quickly," he says. "But I try to impress upon them, without other people you're not going to be anything. If you devote yourself to the details of what other people respond to, you'll be successful."

Since its opening in May, the school is about "halfway to sustainability," Gittinger says, which he considers pretty good in this challenging economy. Tuition is $299 per student per month, with summer camps for youth running around $1200 for a three-week session.

Running the school has distilled all of his lifetime musical experiences into one place, Gittinger says. "This place is my life in a building."

Detroit freelancer Amy Kuras has written about local schools – among a host of other topics –for more than a decade. Her previous article for Metromode was From Scratch: Aqaba Technologies.


Band on stage - courtesy photo Detroit School of Rock - Royal Oak

Jason Gittinger, founder of Detroit School of Rock - Royal Oak

Guitars - courtesy photo Detroit School of Rock - Royal Oak

Headphones on console

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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