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I'm With the Band

Release your inner Mick Jagger at this East Bay School of Rock


I’ve been taking classical cello lessons for three years, and not once in that time have I felt inspired to passionately smash my cello to bits, Pete Townshend-style. To me, this is a sign that something is missing from my musical education. This is why I have come to the BandWorks studio in Oakland. I have come to satisfy my primal urge to play rock and roll. And I am not alone.

BandWorks teaches musicians—cellists included—of all ages and skill levels to play in a band. The business is growing so fast by word of mouth that cofounders Jeremy Steinkoler and Steve Gibson now have seven studios across the Bay Area. Their latest opened in Concord and Dublin in September.

I’ve signed up for a $330 eight-week class. That’s enough time, the owners say, to learn six songs well enough to perform them live. It sounds ambitious to me, but BandWorks has been successfully creating and unleashing bands since 1993.

Almost everyone in this class is over 40, and none of us is about to quit our day job. But the financial advisor in the corner has a look of concentrated bliss, noodling away on his guitar like he’s just started another encore. A public defender turns up her guitar, hands me a package of earplugs and says, “BandWorks keeps me sane.”

Stepping over the snake nest of amp chords, Steinkoler passes out the song charts. I like the choices: Neil Young, the Beatles, the Pixies, Lucinda Williams, Al Green, Muddy Waters.

The band plunges into “Here Comes Your Man” by the Pixies, and I feel like I’ve been flung into a fast-moving river, flailing and splashing, not sure if I’m having fun or drowning. Looking around, though, I realize we’re all lost in our own noise. I shout to the singer, “Can you hear me?” She shakes her head no. I give her a big thumbs-up.

Two sessions later, I’m still not playing along with the rest of the band. I’m used to following the detailed instructions of classical music. All this freedom confuses me. I think my meanderings are covered by the blanket of sound in the studio, but Steinkoler can tell I’m astray. He stops the band and starts clapping the tempo I should keep, way faster than the leisurely pace I’d been following. “Clap clap clap: A!” “Clap clap clap: E!” I scramble from string to string. “Rock musicians,” he reminds me, “are used to not knowing what to do.”

After hours of rehearsals at the studio and practicing every night at home, I finally get it. I feel as proud and surprised as a kid who just learned to ride a bicycle. One day she’s wobbling and struggling with this awkward machine, then suddenly she’s flying down hills, the bike as reliable as her own legs.

My grasp of the music came none too soon: Our debut is only two weeks away.

For our concert at Ashkenaz, a dance club in Berkeley, Steinkoler warns us, “Remember, you’re going to have to show the audience how to have fun.” A collective groan. We have to play the right notes and have fun, too? “Yeah,” he insists. “If you have to choose, then choose having a good time. That’s what this is about.”

About 60 people mill around the club. Even though I’m sitting only a few feet higher than the audience, I feel dizzy. The stage lights shine hot and bright, blinding me. I remember what the keyboard player told me earlier: “Once you’re onstage, it’s like being in the talons of a falcon.” I decide that if I’m going to be flown across the skies like some raptor’s hapless snack, at least I’m going to enjoy the ride.

The drummer taps his sticks together and we start the Beatles’ “Come Together.” I’ve never heard the cello this loud before. It’s vibrating my chair. We play each song loud and mostly true. I feel so alive. We are making music! Even though my bow is shaking, I can’t stop grinning. I’m playing in a band! I want to be a rock star. Wait—I am a rock star.

So you want to be a rock and roll star? Go to www.bandworks.com .

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