Ten-year-old Nick Piescor of Middletown trades licks with the Marshall Tucker Band on stage at the Count Basie in March.
By TOM CHESEK
As hard-touring, highway-tested veterans of the album-rock era, The Marshall Tucker Band has logged enough mileage in its day to intercept its own radio transmissions just west of the Crab Nebula. So to these seen-it-all road warriors, another night in another town with another local musician invited up onstage to jam hardly seemed like one for the books.
But when ten-year old guitarist Nick Piescor took to the boards of the Count Basie Theatre on the evening of March 21 to join Doug Gray and company on “Can’t You See,” it became something of a night to remember; even something of a YouTube sensation.
Barely bigger than his guitar, the precocious prodigy from Middletown is but one of the success stories associated with Rockit! For Kids, a classical music (read: classic rock) instructional program headquartered at The Count’s Cool School and founded by fellow Middletown’s Bruce Gallipani.
Himself a professional musician and a working drummer since his grade-school days in Brooklyn, Gallipani started what became Rockit by organizing talent-show bands for his daughters’ classmates at St. Mary’s School in New Monmouth. Now Gallipani’s community of musicians aged 8 to 16 presents end-of-semester concerts in the legendary Count Basie Theatre a couple of times a year. The latest in the series arrives this Friday night with a showcase event that the founder describes as “positive and encouraging.”
Gallipani slowed down the pace for just a few moments to fill redbankgreen in on the backstory behind the backbeat.
So how did you make that quantum leap from a relatively low-key instructional gig to the Rockit concept, which looks to be competitive with Paul Green School of Rock on the local level?
It was word of mouth and my reputation with children that helped bring Rockit! For Kids out of the garage. I volunteered at my daughter’s school variety/talent show and called for all musicians to meet with me. Not one kid, except vocalists, could play a complete song. Not one student ever even suggested that they would like to play in a band. So I asked students if they would like to play in a band. The look on their faces was like Christmas.
As for the Paul Green franchise, I’m not competing with him. There should be more programs like these available to young musicians. Our mission is to help create a safe and creative environment for young musicians to work as a team and bring their talents to the stage as a whole, but don’t be surprised if Rockit! For Kids becomes a brand name one day.
How did the association with the Basie people come about?
My relationship with the Cool School started when I just happened to walk by the Count Basie and my feet just turned and walked upstairs to their office. It was there I met (Cool School director) Yvonne Scudiery, and explained what Rockit! For Kids had to offer to young musicians and the community. It was a goal and dream for me as well.
For this Friday’s show, do you have a set list that you can discuss in advance? Is the show organized around a particular theme?
Our shows usually cover everything from Patsy Cline to Metallica. This Friday’s show will include songs by The Beatles, Yes, Maroon 5, Van Halen, Jeff Beck, Stones, Bruce. I also love to have great songs by obscure bands like Mott The Hoople and Badfinger. I want the adults to enjoy the songs as well as the young audience and we’ve been very successful with that.
The process of putting a set list together is like an action painting. I am unable to do anything until I can determine a student’s ability and musical interests through the audition process. The day after auditions, I start the set list and I’m usually done in a couple of days. I’m not a big fan of theme shows, but my “dream theme” would be The Who’s Tommy. I’m talking about it a lot these days.
So what’s the breakdown on the kids who are participating how many will be onstage, how old are they, where are they from?
Let’s say 45 students, ages 8 to 17. The program is for ages 8 to 16, but we have a couple of graduates who volunteer and we’re letting them do a song or two. Many of the students are from the surrounding areas, Red Bank, Rumson, Middletown; as well as South Jersey, Brick, and Staten Island.
Do you take part in the show as musical director, or is the stage entirely given over to the kids?
As I tell the students, I may be nagging you at rehearsals, but when you’re on stage, it’s all you. I will NOT be giving cues from the side of the stage, and I don’t go on the stage to give direction. My job during the performance, along with our Rockit staff is to coordinate groups from the dressing room to the stage and make sure that each group goes out there as quick as possible with tuned guitars and properly set microphone stands and plug ins.
The band change over should be smooth and only take twenty seconds. At the end of the evening, I’??ll introduce the musicians.
It’s one thing to get a young player to hit the right chords, but what does it take to move this endeavor beyond the realm of cute novelty?
If the students don’??t feel the song, I don’??t let them play it. It’??s got to come from within to perform it. This is what makes things complicated at times, and can also create magic. I like the kids to stay true to the song. It’s not an easy thing. No, I don’t want it to be just a cute kid playing classic rock.
Here’s a good example of how I bring this out… this is one of my secrets, Ha! My iPod just played the Blue Cheer version of “Summertime Blues,” and the first thing I thought was ‘Wow, a version like this will blow the roof off the Count Basie Theatre!’ I wouldn’??t dare give the Blue Cheer version to the kids. They wouldn’??t be able to relate to it, and the parents would think I’m crazy unless they knew this version. So I gave one kid the Rush cover version and told him he’??s playing a Rush song. The drummer was given the Who version along with the Rush version, and I sent the singer’??s mom different YouTube links with other vocal versions (including Rush). This song is going to blow people away Friday night because it has the authenticity of the 60s sound, along with the 50s slickness of Eddie Cochran, and they love playing it.
Nowadays every aspect of the way music is recorded, marketed, distributed has experienced a tremendous upheaval. The only real constant is the live relationship between performer and audience, and that’s where you’ve chosen to put the focus. But, given that the music you’re teaching developed during such an altogether different era, what advice do you give your students in preparing them to navigate this new landscape?
Be yourself and stay true to yourself. Develop a style that’s right for you, and go with it while exploring other avenues. Competition is OK, but two of the best guitarists Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison ?? could never have competed with each other, other than record sales. But they both had the same thing in common; their love for what they did and how they each brought out their own individuality.
Tickets for the 7:30p Rockit! For Kids Spring Concert are available to the general public and priced at $10. Rockit! For Kids will hold its next round of auditions on Saturday, May 31 at 11a; auditions and rehearsals will be held at the Count’s Cool School facility on Monmouth Street in Red Bank.
The kids of Rockit return to the stage this summer for an August 23 concert at Red Bank Regional High School, as well as other appearances in Point Pleasant Beach and Long Branch’s Pier Village. For full details, rockit on over to the organization’s website.