By Brendan Lai-Tong
Have you ever wanted to play in a rock band? For some, the buzz of electric guitars, sonically sublime vocals, and the energetic roar of the crowd are enticing enough to want to give it a try. As you all know, not all of this is as easy as it seems. It takes some serious study time to get to the level of the greats like Queen and Led Zeppelin. After hours of study and private lessons, you will still need to round up some like-minded individuals to perform with, not to mention booking venues. If this sounds like a lot of work, well… it is! Where do you begin?
Today’s Music in Community feature, BandWorks, has the solution. Bandworks, a company based out of the California East Bay, was co-founded by Steve Gibson and Jeremy Steinkoler with a mission to bring people of all levels together to play music.
I think the most compelling aspect of BandWorks is the community experience we offer for kids and adults. We’re all looking to play music together, and BandWorks provides the supportive environment for it, and really builds community among musicians. – Jeremy Steinkoler
The program started as an idea in 1993 when Jeremy and Steve both realized that their students didn’t have enough opportunities to play with other musicians. It was hard to find students of the same level and attitude. It was also challenging to find the right instrumentation to form a good solid group.
The program has grown significantly since its humble start. Classes began in a small room in a women’s shelter in Berkeley and now Bandworks has expanded to locations in Los Altos, Oakland, Orinda, San Carlos, San Jose and San Rafael. They now offer private lessons, band workshops and summer sessions that enable music appreciators young and old to live their dream of playing in a band.
We think it’s great that there are places like BandWorks where musicians of all ages can come together to learn how to perform, write songs and make music together. There are many things that can be learned from being involved in music. Music encourages learning inter-personal, time-management and teamwork skills that can be transferred to any of life’s endeavors.
Let’s learn more about co-founders Jeremy and Steve as well as BandWorks!
Thanks for interviewing with us Jeremy and Steve. Please tell us a bit about yourselves and what sparked your interest in music.
Jeremy: I started on piano at 7 years old at the encouragement of my parents. My sister was training to sing opera and also taking piano, so there was already music in the house. But I didn’t get really inspired about music until I was 10 years old. I went to a show where there was a drummer and a piano player as the scaled down pit band for a community theater production. I was so enthralled with the drums, I ended up taking lessons with the drummer, who happened to be an instructor at Julliard.
Steve: My dad played piano and both my parents loved music. I took piano lessons and then played sax and trumpet at school. When my brother and I were discovering rock music he started on guitar lessons, and I started picking that up as well. We had a cheap nylon string at the time, but when the first Van Halen record came out, I became obsessed with Eddie’s playing. My parents bought me an electric guitar at that time, and I spent all my time practicing.
How did you both meet?
Jeremy: When I first moved to California in 1992, I answered an ad in the paper for some musicians looking for a drummer. We started playing together in this band, which eventually became (local favorite) Phatlip. After a few rehearsals Steve came to sit in on guitar — he was longtime friends with those musicians and had played with them previously. After some time and several bass players, Steve ended up playing bass in the band. We’ve played together in about 10 bands since then.
Please tell us more about what classes and instruction BandWorks has to offer.
We have both a year-round rock band workshop program for kids and adults, and summer camp programs just for kids and teens (Ages 8-18). In the year-round program we match musicians by age, ability, instrument and musical interest, and provide them with an instructor who helps coach them through 5 or 6 songs over the course of 8 weeks. Then they get to perform on-stage at a local venue packed with family and friends. During the summer, we offer a number of different types of camp: an Intro to Rock Band Instruments Camp for total beginners, a Rock Band Camp similar to the year-round program, a CD Recording Camp, and a Rock Jam Camp, which focuses more on kids original music and writing songs. We also have teen intensives for older kids, and special camps that focus just on the music of one band (Green Day, Chili Peppers, Hendrix, Beatles, etc). Above all, we offer a supportive and encouraging place to play music.
Do you allow bands to bring their own songs to work on?
Absolutely. We love it when bands play original music. During the summer we have specific camps devoted to songwriting and kids writing and playing their own music. And we’ve had adult bands play all original music as well.
What was the most challenging aspect about starting and running BandWorks?
Jeremy: I think in the beginning we didn’t know what we were getting into. We knew we had this great idea, and we were both passionate about bringing the band experience to amateur musicians, helping our students learn to play together. Probably the biggest challenge in the beginning was finding the space to do it. At first we held the classes in a women’s shelter, and we had to bring in all the gear every week, set it up, tear it down, etc. But 20 years later, the most challenging part is getting the word out. So many people have such an amazing, rewarding experience in BandWorks. We know the program is great, and it’s really evolved over 20 years, with concert recordings, teacher training, videos, etc. We believe that if more people knew about BandWorks, the program would be even more successful and the community would grow. We live by word of mouth, which in some ways is great, because we get such great people referring their friends, who are also great people. But we’re still trying to figure out how to let more people know about the program.
What was the most rewarding aspect about starting up and running BandWorks?
Jeremy: At first it was just a thrill to watch musicians step out and take risks, and do something they thought they couldn’t do. And it remains incredibly rewarding to watch kids grow through the program, and develop not only their musical skills, but also their self-confidence, and self-esteem. But I think after 20 years, the most rewarding part of running BandWorks is to see the musical community we’ve created. So many great friendships and musical partnerships have been created through our program, and there’s a real feeling of shared experience and community in the program. So many people tell us how grateful they are for BandWorks and that it’s really changed their lives. It’s very gratifying.
Steve: I would agree with everything Jeremy said. Being in a position to help others connect and make music together is extremely satisfying. I can still remember my first experiences playing with a group, how exciting it was, and how much fun I’m still having with it. It makes me happy to share this and see how much our students are enjoying their musical experiences.
What instruments do you provide instruction for at BandWorks?
While most of our teachers offer private lessons (Jeremy teaches drums and Steve teaches guitar and bass, for example), what we offer at BandWorks is group instruction in a band context. We accept any and all instruments in BandWorks. Primarily we get the typical rock band instruments: guitar, bass, keys, vocals, drums. But we also see horn players, and even get the occasional cello, flute, or violin.
What is the age range of the students at Bandworks?
We start with kids as young as 8 years old, though sometimes we’ll allow a 7-year old with some experience. And you can be as old as the hills and still play in BandWorks.
How many musicians do you have on staff?
Over the years we’ve had probably around 100 instructors, but at any given time we typically have about 10 teachers on staff. That number grows during the summer, when we have our summer camps at several additional locations around the Bay Area.
Do any of the bands have videos up on YouTube that our readers can check out?
We have a ton of videos on YouTube, I think around 500. Visit the BandWorks channel. Some of them will be summer camp videos of kids who had never picked up an instrument until a few days before. Others will be of bands that have been playing together for years and play gigs outside of BandWorks on a regular basis.
What advice do you have for those trying to get involved in music?
Jeremy: First of all, anyone can play music. You don’t have to have any “innate” ability or talent to play music. It’s a skill that can be learned. Some people have an easier time of it to be sure, but a lot of it comes down to the work you put in practicing. I’ve taught many drummers who started in their 50’s. Music is fun, it’s a great way to connect with other people, and it’s incredibly rewarding. For many people it’s about taking risks, and being vulnerable. Surround yourself with supportive people. Find the right teacher. Remember that even the masters started out as beginners. And enjoy the process, because you never “arrive.” Even as professionals, we’re still students of the instrument, and there is always more to learn. Music is full of infinite possibilities.
Steve: If you love music and are interested in singing or playing an instrument, you can do it. A teacher who can stoke your enthusiasm for it is important. While any instrument has lots of fundamentals that are important for all students to learn, it’s never to soon to start in on the musical styles or techniques that made you want to play in the first place. In my experience, all my motivation comes from my love of music and I have an endless list of musical goals that keep me moving forward. If I don’t feel like picking up my guitar, all I have to do is put on an Albert Collins record, and boom, there’s my motivation.
Where do you see BandWorks in 10 years?
We want to continue to offer this terrific experience for kids and adults, and continue to help spread the passion for music that we have as musicians. We’d love to open BandWorks in other cities. We do have plans to grow, first regionally, then nationally, if everything works out. But no matter what, we want to maintain the community feeling and foster the connection between all the musicians in the program.
We would like to thank Jeremy and Steve for interviewing and giving us an inside look into BandWorks. We hope this this will inspire others to follow suit in their communities to help keep music alive and well well into the future.
Brendan Lai-Tong is the Assistant Marketing Manager at Sheet Music Plus and holds degrees in trombone performance from University of Miami and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.