Nashville Skyline

When I was growing up and starting to play in garage bands and dreaming of being a rock god one day, the idea of going to a school and learning to play

Battleground Academy students rock out at band camp.

Photo: Rick Clark

When I was growing up and starting to play in garage bands and dreaming of being a rock god one day, the idea of going to a school and learning to play Led Zeppelin licks on guitar or Jack Bruce — style bass was about as easy to visualize as taking courses to understand the nuances of various blends of marijuana.

That said, my high school band class in Memphis was a lot of fun. My band teacher played in sessions for all the Isaac Hayes records, and when he snuck out of school to do a session, we played our favorite rock albums. I discovered the first Traffic album in band class. When I wasn't playing some form of percussion instrument, I played electric bass. I remember hauling my bass rig up to the top of the high school football stadium stands and freezing my butt off trying to play horn-driven Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears numbers wearing gloves!

Overall, the music curriculum of the time was geared toward directing students into careers as high school band directors, music teachers or symphony players, and it wouldn't be until years later that Memphis State University would become one of the first schools in the country to have a recording and music industry program.

I recently received a DVD of a documentary called Rock School, which portrays an urban band camp for kids run by a rather in-your-face Jack Black School of Rock — type guy. I could relate to the challenges and joys of his undertaking, as I had played a small part for the past several years teaching at the Kids on Stage summer camp.

Kids on Stage was created in 1997 by a visionary guy named Aubrey Preston and a handful of parents and local music people (particularly, Gene Cotton) in the Leiper's Fork area just south of Nashville in western Williamson County. During the years, locals such as Michael McDonald, John Hiatt and Naomi and Wynonna Judd, among many others, have volunteered to make Kids on Stage an incredibly rewarding endeavor.

The beauty of these types of camps is seen by how some thoughtful seed-planting enables students to step out of their shells and learn fearless self-expression, while gaining an understanding of the principles of teamwork in a band context.

Bill Lloyd, a seriously fine songwriter, recording artist, producer and guitarist, came onboard this summer for Kids on Stage. It was great seeing him work with his group and learn that he had been asked by another school, Battleground Academy, to start their own Kids on Stage — inspired band camp.

When I was there, I got to work with a very cool group of girls writing an original song, as well as creating an arrangement for a whacked-out version of the theme song from the Broadway show Phantom of the Opera. I have to say, I'm not an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, but it became more interesting when two of the more goth-inclined bandmembers (who were big Tim Burton and Rocky Horror fans) started plotting ways to disassemble the Phantom with “Time Warp” and Willie Wonka.

This band camp, officially called the Battleground Academy Summertime Songwriting and Performance Clinic (with Kids on Stage), was geared toward kids between the ages of 11 and 17 who had demonstrated some proficiency playing, singing or writing.

Cotton helped make Lloyd's challenges with Battleground's first year of camp be a bit smoother. “Gene has been doing Kids on Stage for 10 years and he does an amazing job,” says Lloyd. “Gene is so organized and I was surprised at how many areas Kids on Stage covered: music, songwriting, performing, acting, choral work and jazz band. Since this is our first year at Battleground, we tried to keep it small.”

In addition to Lloyd, Cotton and myself, other teachers include Walter Egan, Mark Horn, Brent Ware and Thom McHugh. It was held at this outrageous facility called The W, which was part industry showcase/video complex and part rock history museum. Almost every room contained some vintage or historic gear. There was a room with one of Jimi Hendrix's amps, a John Bonham drum set and Lynyrd Skynyrd gear. There was a Kustom amp room, which literally had two walls of stacked Kustom amps 20 feet high — floor to ceiling — while every wall that didn't have amps and guitars hanging on them had loads of vintage concert posters.

This was the environment in which we worked, and while the kids may have had an inkling of what surrounded them, we old Baby Boom — era rockers were in heaven.

Another band camp that has been quite successful in the Nashville area, the Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp (SGRRC), focuses on aspiring female rockers and songwriters. Founded in 2003, it was inspired by the Portland, Ore. — based Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls and began as a project of the feminist student organization Women for Women with the June Anderson Women's Center at Middle Tennessee State University. Since then, it has grown into an independent, off-campus business with no organizational affiliation to any group at MTSU. Courtney Wood and Anna Fitzgerald are SGRRC's directors.

Volunteers for this year's summer program included Holly Gleason, Beth Cameron, Mary Mancini, Cosette Collier and Kelly Anderson, as well as a surprise performance by the Indigo Girls, who were recording at Blackbird Studios during camp week.

In addition to music lessons, the camp provides workshops on recording, songwriting, music journalism, photography, screen printing and D.I.Y. arts and crafts. Campers learn how to promote their bands, book shows, create their own T-shirts and merchandise, publish songs they have written and record their own music. The empowerment workshops encourage campers to learn new skills and become self-sufficient musicians and well-rounded individuals. As with Kids on Stage, participants form bands and rehearse for a big showcase for parents and friends at the end of camp.

Finally, one of Nashville's best and longest-running music schools for kids ages 7 to 18 is the W.O. Smith Nashville Community Music School ( It was founded in 1984 by musician and teacher Dr. William Oscar Smith. A professor at Tennessee State University and a member of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Smith dreamed of a nonprofit school where children from low-income families would have high-quality music instruction. This school is a fulfillment of that dream.

To be accepted, students must qualify for the reduced or free lunch program in the Metro schools. Then, for the nominal fee of $0.50, the more than 350 students currently attending receive instruction from members of the all-volunteer 100-member teaching staff.

Throughout the years, the Nashville music community and related businesses have done much to support W.O. Smith. “We've received quite a bit of support from Wynonna Judd and Rondal Richardson from her management team,” says executive director Lynn Adelman. “Also, producer Paul Worley taught guitar here for several years.”

Each year, the school holds a hugely successful fundraiser called The Birdhouse Thing ( where volunteers build about 150 birdhouses and give them to recording and visual artists, area architects and music industry folks to decorate. Then they are auctioned off. “We had an out-of-pocket cost of about $2,500 last year and we raised $50,000,” says Adelman. “This will be our fifth year to do this project. The next one will be March 9, 2006.”

Anyone reading this who loves to mentor and hasn't checked out these programs — or those in your city — should do so. These programs are always in need of good people to become involved. Adelman's experience drives that point home: “I was a musician all my life and had a desire to work in the service field. I started teaching private piano here at W.O. Smith in 1984 while I was in graduate school, and my piano instructor advised me to or I would fail her class. I did, and I then I got hooked. It is easy to get hooked over here. It is really a fun place to be. It's a calling.”

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