Guest Blogger Tina Aguilar teaches Humanities at El Centro College.
Marc Solomon, founder of Zounds Sounds School of Rock, started out with a budding collective of students just over a decade ago. Now his program has blossomed into a student body over 200 strong with a dynamic staff and new dreams in the works. Zounds Sounds teachers are musicians who merge music education with their passion and thoughtfulness for what they love to do – make and share music. With a strong selection of music lessons, a Rock and Roll band program, and the Way Into Music initiative, which gives kids who may not be able to afford lessons or instruments to practice a chance to thrive, Zounds Sounds and Solomon are creating living legacies in our North Texas community.
Recently I was invited to check out a Zounds Sounds event in Deep Ellum at La Grange, and the exuberance of these kids, parents, and teachers hooked me immediately. Solomon celebrates getting 501(c) 3 status, which is no small feat, as art education and art funding these days are at the forefront for most of our cities. I caught up with Solomon again in Lakewood and took a tour of the studios.
Zounds Sounds Summer Sessions and Little Rocker Summer Camps will be held in Dallas and Plano. Please call 214-826-7735. Mark your calendars for the May 14th and 15th Zounds Sounds School of Rock shows.
T.A.: What was it like planting your first seeds?
M. S.: How it all started was I was teaching out of a music store and I just decided I didn’t like the way it was going there. I liked the idea of what I was doing, but I’m just kind of a freelance guy. I went on my own and basically started teaching out of the house, and also I went and got a space because there were so many people. My schedule was full and, you know, and having that many people come through your house is just a little weird, but I was continuing to get calls. I got a couple of rooms and then when I filled up that second teacher I got a third teacher, and at that point, we had enough students to start doing the band thing between all three teachers. There were also kids that we didn’t necessarily teach private lessons, but we became their outlet to getting in a band. That stuff took place at Universal Rehearsal and in my garage. In 2005 the Dallas Observer did a cover story on me and it was right around the School of Rock release. So it was a real live School of Rock in Dallas.
With the rehearsal things and bands in my garage, the cops were starting to come every once in a while, and at Universal Rehearsal he’s got tons of parents coming through there all the time, kind of a drag for him because it’s a rock band environment, and I totally understood where he was coming from. He didn’t throw us out but he was just like ‘your thing is getting pretty big now,’ which was a good thing, really a blessing in disguise. So we found the place on Haskell.
T. A.: Tell me about the space.
M. S.: We had the building redone and everything, custom fitted for us. And when we opened we had two big rooms for bands to practice and hold drum lessons and stuff like that; we had five rooms, little rooms for a couple of people to sit in there and take music lessons. We have this killer 2800 square foot building and eventually we built five more rooms. So now we actually have eleven teaching rooms. There is a studio in house so we can record the kids and we also make records with certain bands, like The Ackermans. Every Mother’s Day I make a record with them [Bob and Sally]. I met them right after my mom died. They were like, ‘what are you doing on Mother’s Day?’ They said ‘if you need to be with your mom we understand.’ I told them actually that would be a fun thing to do and at the end of it they had a positive experience and I had a positive experience, too. We have kids that are serious about their bands so they’ll make their demos and records there and then I do some personal work. Sometimes, I do fill in work there. You know it’s really hard for me to get, well, I need to get away when I’m doing my artsy kind of vibe [laughing]. It’s so easy to go in there now, and of course we do it after teaching hours because there’s no way we’d get anything done during school hours.
T. A.: How did the conversation go when you asked someone about working for Zounds Sounds?
M. S.: There were a couple people who I approached and like every time I saw Chris Holt at the bar, I didn’t really know Chris, and the only time I ever saw him was at a bar at a gig. When we finally started talking, like probably from the first time we ever spoke, I was like, ‘it seems like you could do this. You’re pretty awesome Dallas Observer Mr. Three Time Musician of the Year.’
T. A.: What was it like for you as a student and now as a teacher?
M. S.: My basic thing is this, I’m a schooled musician, you know, and that worked for me but I am schooled in the sense that it was osmosis at first. When I got really interested, and it was really all I wanted to do, I was one of the lucky ones. I went to Booker T. [Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts]. I said “Wow this jazz is pretty cool.” All of that starts to happen and then those doors open. And for me, I say this all the time. Give me somebody that wants to do it.
The kids who have this crazy natural skill and also that desire to learn, just gimme’ what you got, [biting lips] – oh, that’s the best! There’s no question. But somebody that tries really hard is so two thumbs up! [holding two thumbs in the air.] You know, you’re a teacher. I’ve had kids in order to get this part down, they have to go home and practice for two hours and this other kid kind of got it coming out of his lesson. But you know what, that kid not only went home and did it for two and a half hours but threw in another half hour on top of that just so he could get it. That to me is amazing – that’s incredible!
T. A. That work and encouragement builds confidence and catapults students to the next level.
M. S.: If you get their interest, eighth notes are eighth notes. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Beethoven or The Ramones, those are eighth notes. Now we’re into the vernacular, we’re talking music, and I’m real big on that. Some of the teachers are a little more academic than me, some are not academic enough for my tastes and I’ll pull them aside and be like, ‘a little more.’ But then again some of the kids will just go [hands up] to it and the wall goes up and we lose them. I’m starting a song writing workshop and one of the teachers mentioned, you know, I think a Stage Presence or How to be on Stage clinic would be a good thing, and not necessarily in the sense of how to strut. Although how to be confident is probably part of it, but more in the sense of like have your stuff memorized, don’t use music once you’re up there or how to sing on mic. You put a microphone in front of them for the first time and they’re like, “What!” and you’re like, “Get on it.” The shows we do – it’s the kid’s decision. I will not put a kid in the show if they don’t want to do it.
T. A.: You’re giving them ownership.
M. S.: Yes, also in the beginning of planning of the shows every kid got to pick a song and you know now there’s too many kids involved for every kid to pick a song. We try to get them involved with something that they’re interested in, so to have a day of 30 songs takes a lot.
T. A.: At the La Grange Showcase there was a super range of songs.
M. S.: We don’t do theme shows except for one a year – last year’s show was a Beatles show and that just made sense because Chris Holt had come on as the band manager. The one before that was the Soul show and the one before that was the ’80s, but we do four big shows a year. So out of those other three, those kids are picking the songs, and there’s always a band that’s going to do a bunch of Beatles or a bunch of Zeppelin. Sometimes depending on the group, you help them along. They’re like we want to do this song and they pick the hardest song by that band. And we say, ‘how about this song’ by the same band. And they say, ‘that’s a great song’ and we’re like ‘Whew!” [laughing] But then there’s some group that comes with the bar raised pretty high and we’re like “Let’s Go!”
T. A.: What are some memorable moments as a young musician?
M. S.: I had some great, great teachers. I had a composition teacher at Arts Magnet who I think understood that I would be fine, but I wasn’t cut from the same mold. One time we had to do transcriptions of songs. He gave me a pop one, it was “All Night Long,” I think. It was a Lionel Richie song, or it might have been “Hello.” Basically what I had to do was listen to it, figure out the chords, transcribe the melody, and just write everything out so you could see how a song worked in that light. Some kid got a classical tune, some kid got a jazz tune; I got the pop tune. But he knew what he was doing and I recognized that he recognized that.
T. A. What was the first song that you learned how to play?
M. S.: “Ice Cream Man” [Van Halen], it was a very beginner friendly version that I learned. Later, listening to it, I totally didn’t learn that song at all. Now I can, totally, sit down and play it.
T. A.: What were you listening to as you were growing up?
M. S.: The first song I ever loved and would jump up on any table and sing it for everybody was “Joy to the World” then Tom Jones, who was a huge, huge influence. I wanted to grow up and be Tom Jones. Then the Osmond’s, Donnie Osmond, you know, the Donny and Marie Show, then KISS. I’ve always been a fan of songs. I could sing songs from all eras my whole life long. From KISS there was still that energy plus Punk Rock hit and that became a huge influence for me. When I say Punk Rock I mean The Ramones, the first English Punk Rock, The Clash, The Sex Pistols.
T. A.: What about playing in the city while you were at Booker T.?
M. S.: My sister was friends with Robert Lee Kobb. He was super cool and when I was like 16 years old he used to let me come and sit in with him, pretty huge. That was a great experience for me. I was always comfortable being on stage. Growing up that way there was no outlet. I was pretty lucky. My best friend, who I met in Hebrew school in the fourth grade, Aaron Comess, he’s the drummer for the Spin Doctors, now he plays with Joan Osborne and Edie Brickell, and lives in New York; his parents totally supported his musical love and he had a whole music room and everything. So I had a little clubhouse for my thing. Zounds Sounds is the outlet, for me that was the first thing to provide, and it’s really nice now that it’s becoming so big and we are bringing kids from all over the community.
T. A.: Tell me about Way Into Music?
M. S.: As we sit here in this neighborhood [Haskell and Live Oak] most of our students are from Highland Park and other neighborhoods, not from this one. At first we just had a few kids that were having troubles, you know, for whatever reasons. So Mary and I absorbed the cost of those lessons and we kind of just paid for their lessons. Then, really, that’s when the whole thing, the radar of the school was getting bigger, and realizing there’s lots of kids in this neighborhood and none of them came here. Maybe they couldn’t because, you know, we’re not as expensive as hockey, but we’re not totally cheap either. Through helping out the kids we were like, well, maybe others might want to help out kids. People were making donations to sponsor kids and then enough were doing it that we decided to get non-profit status, still not a 501 (c) 3 yet, but we decided we have to do something with this. So then we started hitting community centers and trying to figure out how we do this.
T. A.: Congratulations are definitely in order with your new status.
M. S.: Now we actually have status and everything. I would love to see it be in neighborhoods where it is needed. We did this in much the same way that musicians gravitate to a certain neighborhood because they can afford to be there, and that’s why we opened the school up. Fortunately people are into Dallas and will go anywhere for a good thing. On the same token, I’d like to be servicing the community, and I think we’ve figured out a way to do it.
T. A.: How else are you reaching out?
M. S.: To be honest, we’ve got our Boys and Girls Club partnership up and running and, basically, so we could be legitimate. I think with the waiting process of becoming a 501(c)3, we’ve kind of just held back with too much fundraising and getting the program off the ground, and just working within a budget of ‘let’s raise this much to support that.’
It would be hard to do what we want without that status. It’s too hard to do without help, and the help I’m talking about is collaborating with like minded organizations and getting help from the government. The kids aren’t getting it in school anymore, even the kids in the better schools and neighborhoods.
T. A.: You recently attended an Arts Magnet meeting about upcoming district changes. Do you think it benefits getting involved?
M. S.: That’s a very personal one for me because I am alumni, but the thing about that is I went to them and asked, ‘what can I do?’ Obviously there’s a lot of bureaucracy and red tape and you just can’t give money, but there’s a guild that you can go through. So that’s the kind of stuff I’ve been trying to help with. First, I’ve been educating myself about it, and figuring out how I can do it because I really didn’t want to just go give a check to DISD and hope that it made it to Booker T. Music Program. Things like that as far as that particular school. But that’s what I’m looking for in a lot of ways. Really what I would love to see Way Into Music become is a place where these kids can go get it at a younger age, so by the time they’re getting ready to go to a place like Booker T. they’re ready for it. They’re not even getting enough of the education to be good enough to get in because they don’t let you in on a passion to play.
T. A.: What else are you working on these days with your band?
M. S.: Our Charming Gardeners [Solomon, Amy Curnow, Wade Cofer, and Ross Martinez] new album will release in May and we’ll be traveling through the summer. I hope to work more with Trey Johnson and help him do some recording. There is a new Zounds Sounds kid’s compilation in the works, too.