By Heather May | Special to The Tribune | May 25, 2019, 6:00 a.m. | Updated: 11:28 a.m.
There’s no Jack Black character bouncing around the room riffing about rock and urging the students to “stick it to the man.” And no unsuspecting principal about to learn the truth and ruin their upcoming gig.
In fact, in this tucked-away music space in Sugar House called Salt Lake Academy of Music (SLAM) [ed: the former MusicGarage.org], the students’ parents are listening just outside the studio, beaming as their kids audition while playing “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” by Jet and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
This is a real version of the movie and Broadway musical “School of Rock.” The play — on stage May 28-June 2 at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City — features Draper’s Blake Ryan. The 12-year-old is a swing performer who steps onto the stage as needed; he’s the understudy for five characters, thanks to his skills with the piano, harmonica, guitar, ukulele and drums.
The musical, based on the 2003 Jack Black movie, follows a teacher who turns a group of students into a “guitar-shredding, bass-slapping, mind-blowing rock band.”
Which is kind of what Salt Lake Academy of Music and similar School of Rock-like studios do.
“The idea is to shock the community, to go out there and rock people’s butts, to have little kids say, ‘I wanna do this,’” says Steve Auerbach, executive director of Salt Lake Academy of Music. “It’s like this virus of musical love that grows in kids.”
Salt Lake Academy of Music, formerly MusicGarage.Org has been spreading the musical bug for a decade through a program that can train teens to play instruments on their own, then with other students. Those with the desire and talent can try out to perform.
That’s what a group of teens were doing on a recent Monday. The best will be chosen to be in the Festival Band, which will practice all summer together and premier at the Park City Arts Festival Aug. 4.
They will become fast friends. They will become inspired by — not jealous of — their more talented bandmates. They will learn to rock, but not be narcissistic (the studio rewards a selfless player each season), Auerbach says.
If all goes well, they will be majestic. “We’re not about ... cute. We want [the audience] to say, ‘Who’s that band performing Led Zeppelin?”
Here are three students who’ve made the band:
Connor Bliss: ‘I couldn’t stop’
Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and that scene in “Back to the Future” where Marty McFly stuns the crowd playing “Johnny B. Goode” got Bliss, a 17-year-old Lehi High School student, to pick up the guitar. Once he got an electric one about three years ago, he’s never looked back. “I couldn’t stop if I wanted to,” he says. “There’s something really cool about creating music. There’s nothing like it.”
He started playing with Salt Lake Academy of Music last summer, performing for the first time at Pat’s BBQ in Salt Lake City. He felt like a rock star. And his mother, Marci Bliss, says he looked like one.
“He’s always been a quiet kid. I didn’t know he had the performer in him. He got up on that stage and all of a sudden he was this rock star. ... He was doing his foot pedals and smiling and bobbing his head back and forth. I [couldn’t] stop grinning.”
He’s excited to get back on stage this summer, knowing that he’ll be performing with like-minded teens who take their music seriously. He recalls playing Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” at a show and the moment he and the drummer, Miles Buchmann, looked at each other at the end of Miles’ improvised drum solo.
Connor lifted up his guitar and jumped — the classic rock move — ending on a ringing chord. “When everyone gets tight with each other and can read each other and play well, it’s a really cool feeling,” Connor says.
Connor even got to play “Johnny B. Goode” after a director at Salt Lake Academy of Music heard him and some others playing it for fun. Connor says he stepped up to the mic and said, “This is an oldie. Well, it’s an oldie where I come from.”
Tallulah Schweitz: ‘Always cheers me up’
An “amazing” music teacher at her middle school — which is focused on science, technology, engineering and math — inspired this 16-year-old Skyline High School student to want to play guitar.
“He just gave off [a vibe] that he was a really happy person that played music. I noticed when I played music it made me really happy. Ever since then, it’s been something I turn to that always cheers me up.”
She formed an all-girl band — with Schweitz on guitar and vocals — and performed at school talent shows. When she played “Riptide” by Vance Joy for her first performance, she watched as the audience’s faces lit up. “If people are feeling the music, it feels like you’re playing with a whole crowd of people, not just your band.”
Her mother, Liza Schweitz, had seen Salt Lake Academy of Music perform in the community last summer and encouraged her daughter to join this year. “They show us and themselves what we are capable of, when we put time into our passions and work with similarly impassioned people,” Liza Schweitz says.
Tallulah auditioned to play bass, hoping that will allow her to sing more in the Salt Lake Academy of Music festival band. She’s never played in a big venue to a big crowd, but the basketball and tennis player is not worried.
“I just want to play. I’m just going to play my heart out and see where I go.”
Miles Buchmann: ‘Backbone of the music’
The 15-year-old Skyline High student is itching to perform. It’s been about six months since he was on stage with Salt Lake Academy of Music and the drummer can’t wait to get back.
Buchmann has been playing music since he was 4 or 5 years old. He showed enough talent on the piano that his parents enrolled him at the University of Utah Preparatory Division.
He was listening to Franz Ferdinand, Van Halen, Rush and moe. when he decided he wanted to play the drums.
“I kind of like just being the backbone of the music. ... I kind of enjoy that role. I enjoy kind of being able to like lift up people and to be able to let them shine,” he says.
He was trained in classical music, but when he tried out for Salt Lake Academy of Music a couple of years ago, he played “Back in Black.” “All these older kids were like, ‘Oh my God,’” recalls his mother, Anne Naumer. “It was one of those times as a parent where we just got goosebumps because it was so clearly where he belonged.”
He remembers his first gig at Pat’s BBQ when he was 12. He knows the audience thought they were just “cute,” and their voices were high. Today, he says, he has more stage presence and shows just how much he enjoys it.
“It’s just exhilarating. Just getting to be like the cool guy. You get to kind of be the center of attention and like you give energy to people,” he says.