Strike up the band

Young performers learn to take the stage with comfort and joy

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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photoAs students crowd around inside the "jamming room," Rob Melton, owner and primary teacher of the Opus School of Music, plays bass and leads his students in a rehearsal. The students are preparing for the second annual Autumnal Concert on Dec. 9.

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If you go

■ What: Opus School of Music Autumnal Concert.

■ When: Sunday, Dec. 9, 2-4 p.m.

■ Where: Old Liberty Theater, 113 N. Main Ave., Ridgefield.

■ Cost: Tickets are $10 at the door.

■ Video: Getting ready to rock

photoMusic students at The Opus School of Music in Ridgefield prepare for a gig at the Holiday Gift Fair and, eventually, the Autumnal Concert in December, under the guidance of guitar teacher Kyle Williams, right.

(/The Columbian)

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photoHunter Maxson, a student at the Opus School of Music in Ridgefield, plays the drums during a rehearsal for a gig at the Holiday Gift Fair.

(/The Columbian)

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RIDGEFIELD -- Crunchy guitar chords pulsate through the tiny chamber to the rhythmic, staccato time-keeping of a measured 4/4 beat. Cramped together nine strong, the pint-sized rockers wield their instruments with determination and work to transform a holiday classic into something worthy of a rock concert.

As they kick into gear, two young singers belt out the first stanza of a well-known tune. But this time around, it comes with a dollop of attitude. "Frosty the Snowman, was a jolly happy soul," they sing. "With a corncob pipe and a button nose, and two eyes made out of coal."

With guitars clanging and drums beating, it's evident: This ain't Perry Como's "Frosty the Snowman." But then again, the dapper crooner, who gave life to his fair share of holiday ditties, was never mistaken for a guy who could kick out the jams.

Como's staid and stately style would have no place in this rocking room. A sign hanging above the entrance of the room says it all: "Jamming Location Here." Nearly everyone inside is too young to drive.

Playing the bass -- the least popular instrument by far among the music students -- is the pupils' teacher, Rob Melton. He stands at the center of the room, while fellow teacher Kyle Williams roves around conducting the students.

Melton, the owner and chief teacher at the Opus School of Music in Ridgefield, has brought the students together to rehearse their set in preparation for the school's gig at the Holiday Gift Fair at the Clark County Event Center. That early-morning show on Nov. 17 was the school's last before one of its two big concerts of the year: The second annual Autumnal Concert on Dec. 9 at the Old Liberty Theater.

During a break in the rehearsal, Melton becomes animated and offers some advice to his students before they continue: "I visualize

this song like it's Thanksgiving, and you've had way too much food, and you've had way too many energy drinks," Melton says, displaying the type of enthusiasm he expects from his students.

In short, he wants verve and vigor. As the band practices, it's got plenty of that -- in liquid form, at least. In the other room, energy drinks and deluxe-sized cans of Mountain Dew line tables.

After a couple of hours, the rehearsal wraps. "All right, that's nine songs," Melton says, as a couple of parents trickle into the lobby near the small entrance of the apartment-sized school. "That will take us up to 45 minutes."

The kids pack up their equipment and some file into other rooms.

As the date of the Autumnal Concert approaches, the show is proving to be a large and nerve-wracking undertaking for Melton, his music teachers and their students. Despite looking the part of rock stars -- all purple hair and slightly askew neckties highlighting otherwise casual attire -- they're not entirely used to being front and center.

But as much as Opus School of Music is about providing kids with the tools to be good musicians, it also provides an outlet to improve their confidence.

The concert will last two hours, and Melton expects a filled-to-capacity house. The concert will feature two bands -- one of kids 12 and younger, another for kids 13 and older -- as well as smaller groups and soloists.

It will also feature everything from versions of holiday songs to classical compositions, even a couple of modern pop songs. "It could be Katy Perry," Melton says.

Under the canopy

At Opus, Melton emphasizes what he calls the "canopy curriculum," which involves learning a little bit of everything and being comfortable in a variety of styles. Under the canopy curriculum, students of the school learn more than one instrument, including percussion, in addition to music history. They're also expected to sing. That allows the students to understand what others are doing and play better as a group.

But for many of the students, the top challenge is simply performing what they've learned in front of an audience. They fight through the nerves to put on a good show, they say.

Jack Wear, 12, says he's had designs on being a great guitar player for a few years.

"When I was listening to music, I always wanted to be that person playing that awesome guitar solo," he says. "I want to have fun and do whatever I want when I'm playing."

Despite his guitar-god aspirations, Wear says he's nervous about the upcoming concert, even though he's performed in others.

Combating nerves is a struggle for the music students. But as students become more comfortable in their playing, they have an easier time taking the stage.

Ashley Louks, 12, plays the guitar and piano and is also no stranger to performing in front of people. But she remains nervous because she's been thrust into a lead-singing role -- at least at the Holiday Gift Fair.

She's sung in front of people but never "in front of a group this big before," she says.

Dealing with nerves is nothing new for 15-year-old student musician Mikayla Mayhew, who never envisioned herself on the stage. Before taking music classes, the guitar and bass player suffered from stage fright.

Being front and center is not something Mayhew particularly likes. But with a few gigs under her belt, she doesn't mind having the audience's eyes, and ears, tuned to her when she takes the stage.

It's just a matter of keeping her mind in the right place.

"I just try to tell myself that everything will be OK," she says.

Two big shows

When it comes to performing, the old adage remains true: Practice makes perfect. As such, the Autumnal Concert will act as one of the school's two big shows of the year, a complement to the summer concert. That concert is called Polyroux and is Melton's idea of a music festival dedicated entirely to youth acts. Performers don't have to be students in his music school; they just have to be local and dedicated to crafting good performances.

After all, once the kids grow accustomed to performing live, Melton says, they can't get enough of it

"After their first gig, it's like a little fire is lit underneath them," he says. "It's the thrill of playing music, not only as a group but also providing it for a group. It's like they're giving a gift."


Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.