VIDEO: Perham High School of Rock
This video shows some of the band members playing their only country song, a rocked-up remake of Toby Keith's "American Soldier." Senior Joe Ahlfs is on lead vocals.
Drums thumping, guitars blaring, bodies rockin' and speakers blasting.
One thing's for sure: This is no ordinary music class.
Mention the 'classics' to the 20 or so students in Perham High School's Rock Band class, and they're thinking more along the lines of Queen and Styx than Mozart and Beethoven.
(Note: That's not a bad thing.)
It's not that the kids don't know Beethoven, it's that they're focused on something with a little more modern 'oomph.' Something they can play at basketball games, community get-togethers and other gigs to get the crowd pumped up.
Something like "Footloose," a popular '80s tune that the band rocked during a rehearsal last Friday morning. With senior Chad Hofland crashing up the drums, freshman Joe "Little Joe" Lorentz killing on vocals, two students on guitar, another on bass, one on the keyboard and others singing backup, the high-energy number made the band room walls shake with enthusiasm.
As is not unusual with the kids in this class, both Hofland and Lorentz play in garage bands outside of school: Lorentz is the lead singer of "Border Patrol," and Hofland's in a band called "Electric Feel."
"Music is pretty much my life," said Lorentz. "It's awesome."
In class, the students switch off between playing instruments and singing. Many of them are multi-talented.
Christian Bueng, for example, plays a whopping 15 instruments, and he's still only a freshman. The Rock Band class is one of three music classes he starts his school days off with - a schedule that he said, "wakes me up in the morning." He's been playing since he was just three or four years old and, like Hofland, he's also a member of "Electric Feel."
Senior James Hersch has been playing music for a long time, too. He said he got a guitar for his birthday about eight years ago and has "been playing ever since."
Having some previous experience with music is a prerequisite to being in the class, said teacher Kevin Kosiak. The Rock Band class isn't for beginners. There is an audition process students must go through before being admitted. Those who want to be ready can take guitar classes with Kosiak in earlier grades.
Rock Band students are not only expected to read sheet music, but they must also have the ability to learn songs purely by listening to them. This 'ear training' is unique to the Rock Band class, a technique not often taught in high schools. It also doesn't come easy for all students.
"That's one of the skills that a lot of these kids don't have when they come in here," said Kosiak. "It's a challenge, but you have to be able to learn things by hearing them."
Why? Because that's how the pros do it, Kosiak explained. Professional bands will often have to learn the latest popular songs before they're out on sheet music. Being able to listen to a song, and then play it, is crucial for kids who want to go on to play paid gigs someday.
For other students, this element of the class is a saving grace. Nichole Colby, for example, said reading sheet music is difficult for her; learning songs by ear is her stronger suit.
A senior who's been in the class for the last three years, Colby said with a smile that she sings "all the time" outside of class, though she admits with a shrug that it's mostly "to myself."
The band has only been around for a few years, and it's already well known around town. Commonly referred to as, "the garage band," the students have played for high school reunions, the Perham Turtle Fest, a Lions Club party and other community events - often garnering donations to the music program in return. Kosiak said the community has been very supportive.
Then, of course, there are the basketball games. The band played at nine Perham High School games last year, including performances at Williams Arena and the Target Center in Minneapolis, after the team made it to the state tournament.
"They were really treated like rock stars there," laughed Kosiak. The band was put up in a hotel, given meal money and just generally given the royal treatment. Their memorable performance at the Target Center earned them a standing ovation from the huge crowd.
Kosiak attributes the band's great public reception partly to its uniqueness. Most schools feature pep bands or marching bands at games; this is something different. And he said audiences enjoy the little burst of unexpected fun, listening to songs they know and can sing along with.
In all, the kids learn 15 songs in 12 weeks - three of those by ear alone. Some of the songs they get to choose themselves. All of the music is rock 'n' roll.
Kosiak started the class after the regular band program was cut from the high school for budget reasons in 2007-08. The school was playing taped music during games, he said, "and I was embarrassed."
He had time in his teaching schedule the next year, and knew there were some great student musicians in the school, so he made a proposal to administrators and got the Rock Band class rolling. The first year, about 12 kids were enrolled; this year, there are 20.
"I think there's a need for it," Kosiak said. "A lot of kids want to do it."
"It's a lot of fun," said junior Mark Huebsch. "It's different. You learn about contemporary music."
The school's regular band program made a comeback this year, Kosiak said, and has had a successful start. Whether the Rock Band class will remain an option for students in future years remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Rock Band members will continue to revel in the moment, savoring "the energy" of the music, as senior Randy Swanson described it. Because, "there's nothing more fun than having 1,000 eyes looking at you on stage."