SOUTH WINDSOR — Two local music teachers have given “School of Rock” a run for its money.
Dennis Cotton and Mike Kevetos, who have run the Rock Band 101 program since 2015, may not look like the substitute teacher Jack Black character portrayed in the 2003 comedy. But just like the movie, their students are definitely learning how to play. live music in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Kevetos, who runs local guitar school Mach 1 Music, said Rock Band 101 brings students together in bands, where they rehearse together and perform live shows for various local events and causes, such as the local festival of the strawberry and the relay for life. “We’re trying to branch out and get into other areas,” like Sonny’s Place amusement park in Somers, Kevetos said.
Rock Band 101 now has six bands, one made up of older adult students and others that have members as young as 9 years old. Cotton, owner and operator of Cotton Drum School, stressed that bands are nothing new.
“It’s not a mission statement, but it almost is – we don’t want a good ‘kids band’, we want a good band that happens to be kids,” Cotton said. .
One group, FastBack, has six members including high school and college students. On Monday, they came together to rehearse for an upcoming performance, demurely clashing as they ironed out details on the bridge of a song from their 40-plus-track roster.
Tristan Houle, 17, plays guitar and vocals, but started out as a drummer. Houle, who is heading to the Hartt School of Music in the fall, said the program taught her a lot about playing with a band in a real way.
“You can learn all the Led Zeppelin riffs, but playing with other people is another story…it’s not sweetening — it’s not just about playing music,” Houle said.
Dylan Mooney, 20, is the band’s drummer and also plays keyboards. He said the program honed his craft and changed his focus. “Going into this, I thought, ‘Do I want to make music?’ and now I’m thinking, ‘what do I want to do with the music?’ said Mooney.
Eighteen-year-old Stephen Isherwood is one of three guitarists in the band who also plans to attend the Hartt School of Music next semester. This program was much more intensive than his experiences with other groups, he said.
Dennis Cotton’s daughter, Anna Cotton, 21, takes on bass and vocals for FastBack. She said the group had served as her “point of contact” since the program began in 2015. “Even when I could barely sleep, I could be here,” Anna said.
The band’s new guitarist Kyle Bourgoin, 17, said he looks forward to the program every week, as he learned much faster than if he had never joined.
“I feel like I’m 100 times better than I was before being here, not just on guitar, but everything else,” Bourgoin said.
Sarah Cadman, 19, is the band’s bassist and vocalist. She said one particular element of the class that she enjoys is learning about sound equipment.
“This program has been really great for my knowledge of sound design and engineering in a live environment,” Cadman said.
But a band is only as good as its instruments – and as any parent of a musically inclined child knows, they don’t come cheap.
To that end, Dennis Cotton posted a Facebook post on May 2 looking for drum kits to restore and donate to students. He said being able to lend drum kits removes a major barrier for students.
“Buying a drum kit is expensive, and when the kids start, you don’t know if they’re going to stick with it or not,” Cotton said.
Cotton said he takes the kits to students’ homes and installs them, on the sole condition that the students return them if they stop playing or outgrow them.
Kevetos said the duo are looking for instrument donations, including electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitars and keyboards. But he would like new students more, since younger members tend to graduate and go to college.
“We’re always looking for new people…there are a lot of kids who want to do this stuff, and they don’t know it,” Kevetos said.
Cotton said that during the height of the pandemic, when bands couldn’t meet in person to rehearse, he and Mike taught students how to record music. He described the process as “interesting and frustrating”, but testifies to how technology has broken down barriers.
“(For) a driven, tech-savvy kid who isn’t afraid to get started, it’s all there,” Cotton said.
Cotton said that through Rock Band 101 and his private drum lessons, he found many “bubble kids.” “These are kids who are interested in something that (mainstream) school doesn’t offer – we’re kind of an island of misfit toys,” Cotton said.
Cotton said younger students sometimes aired their issues during class and he blocked extra time for those who needed it.
“We started with the idea of helping our students musically,” but it became a place of mental healing, Cotton said.
Cotton said that regardless of age, musicians often deal with emotions differently than others.
“Musicians, we are wired differently; we are raw, our emotions are closer to the surface than others,” Cotton said.
“It has to come out somehow, so it comes out on their instrument,” he said. “Whether you’re 10 or 50, it happens the same way.”
A friend of Kevetos who works as a social worker told the couple they were doing “therapy work” for their students.
“We teach music, we teach life,” Kevetos said.
Joseph covers East Hartford and South Windsor. He joined the JI in July 2021. Joseph is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and he is an avid guitarist and coffee enthusiast.