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Smells Like Teen Spirit

Rocking the school day away with Pin Oak Middle School's Stage Band class

The Gloryhounds are onstage right now at a Surfside bar and, truth be told, they're not great. Matter of fact, they fall firmly into the "middling bar band" category and play mostly covers you'd expect of such a group: Cheap Trick's "Surrender," Cowboy Mouth's "Jenny Says," "Hazy Shade of Winter" more like the Bangles than like Simon & Garfunkel. But they happen to be quite entertaining.

Jason Rossiter is a long, thin fellow whose arms and legs manage to dangle even when he's sitting still. He plays bass and drums in the Gloryhounds, but at the moment he's playing neither. He's just sitting in the crowd, quiet and unremarkable, in a pink T-shirt two sizes too small. In about 20 minutes he'll take his place behind the drum kit and become an entirely different person. When he's playing, he's the Gloryhounds' leader, their showman, and he'll say as much after the show.

Hasanthi Seth won't say anything after the show. She's the Gloryhounds' other drummer, a little more Abbott than Costello, and talented. She'll play whatever her bandmates ask her to, but that's it; no stick-twirling, no resounding fills, no mid-solo swig of vodka, nothing. Stoicism is her birthright; if Epictetus were a drummer, he'd aspire to be like her.

"No, it's 'You! Shook me all night long'": Al Hayes (right) instructs Pin Oak's stage banders in the finer points of rock and roll.
Daniel Kramer
"No, it's 'You! Shook me all night long'": Al Hayes (right) instructs Pin Oak's stage banders in the finer points of rock and roll.
Matt Foster (left) shows Joaquin Buitrago how to wail like Eddie Van Halen.
Daniel Kramer
Matt Foster (left) shows Joaquin Buitrago how to wail like Eddie Van Halen.

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Pin Oak Middle School

4601 Glenmont St.
Bellaire, TX 77401

Category: Schools

Region: Inner Loop - SW

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The most capable (and paradoxical) of the trio, Drew McMillon strums through lick after lick, song after song, with nonchalance. His eyes shine bright with confidence, but despite his obvious ability, Drew plays with a cautious awkwardness. (He may well be too tall for his own body.) Save those eyes, no other part of his body even seems aware of what his hands are producing; his frame hardly moves from the wrists up.

The Gloryhounds will play past midnight tonight, but the crowd won't dissipate. They'll stay to the end of the show and make sure they give high fives and hugs to the band. They'll also give the Gloryhounds rides home, because Jason, Hasanthi and Drew are all ninth-graders, alumni of Pin Oak Middle School's pilot Stage Band class — a true-life School of Rock where the curriculum is designed, figuratively speaking, to teach kids how to rock their faces off.

Matt Foster and Al Hayes co-teach Pin Oak's Stage Band class because they love music, which is about where the similarities between the pair end.

Foster looks just like you'd assume someone who teaches 14-year-olds about music looks. He's tallish, 29, with facial hair. His dirty blond hair toes the line between hip and professional, hanging forward over his forehead but stopping before it gets to his eyes. The top buttons of his shirts, complemented by well-worn blue jeans, are never fastened. The only things that seem to change about Matt from Sunday to Monday are his shoes, from flip-flops to weathered brown Steve Maddens, and his first name from Matt to Mr.

Foster has been at Pin Oak for four years, and Stage Band is his baby. He was hired by Principal Michael McDonough in part because of his artsy background (UT film degree, brief Hollywood stopover, occasionally wears a hemp necklace), but he originally taught math.

Stage Band was solely an after-school club in its formative years. It grew organically in popularity for two years until McDonough, sensing a would-be problem, elected to upgrade it to an Actual Class.

"One of the focuses of our school has been saturating the kids with opportunity," says McDonough. "If you're going to do that, you have to be committed to it, so when we had kids potentially having to choose between Stage Band and another after-school program, we decided to make it a class."

Enter Hayes, an immediately likable, ponytailed man who resembles Steve Carell. Besides Stage Band, Hayes also teaches a percussion class on his own.

He's what some would call a jack-of-all-trades, most of which have something to do with music. Besides teaching at Pin Oak, Hayes gives private lessons, runs a small recording studio, plays in a band and creates soundtracks for various Web sites and independent films. However, one nonmusical trade is kicking serious ass — Hayes is also a full-time professional wrestler, putting on between 160 and 180 shows a year across the South.

Hayes can power-bomb a 200-pound man with ease, so discipline isn't really an issue in his classes.

Stage Band operates a lot like an actual band practice. The kids have to audition to get in, so there isn't much time spent actually teaching them how to play instruments. They come in, set up and, after a 15-­minute or so lecture on the history of a specific aspect of music, begin to play.

Today's lecture, delivered by Hayes, revolves around the (surprisingly) storied history of "Louie Louie," one of the two songs the kids were assigned to learn as homework.

Hayes's interpretation of the Kingsmen classic's history includes references to the FBI, communism and the "two fundamental topics of every rock and roll song: girls and cars." Foster and Hayes aren't just trying to teach kids to rock, they're trying to teach them about rock. It's not enough for the kids to play the songs, they need to understand them.

According to McMillon, it works like gangbusters.

"Al and Mr. Foster really helped me learn music," the Gloryhounds guitarist says. "Taking lessons [before], sure, I got all of the stuff I needed to play guitar. And when I went into the class, I knew my stuff, but I didn't know how to use it. I knew stuff, but it was useless, because I couldn't show it off. They taught us how to play. That's really just as important as knowing what you're doing."

"Our basic idea is to take information and teach kids how to apply it," explains Hayes. "For example, I can tell you about a scale, and you can say 'Okay,' but if you don't understand the scale, then it's no good. Other places teach what a scale is, but they don't teach them what to do with it. That's what we strive for."

Thirteen kids, in either the seventh or eighth grade, constitute this year's Stage Band class. Throughout this "practice," they're substituted in and out like players on a basketball team. A group of five or six plays together, while another one or two fuss with the soundboard. The others sit to the side, silently strumming along, rehearsing their lyrics or debating whether a saxophone player is a saxist, saxophonist or saxophoner.

Stage Band is kinda like Fight Club. Eventually, all the students are required to perform, and must be passing to do so, but low grades aren't typically an issue. The vast majority of Stage Band students, past and present, laugh in the face of rocker stereotypes and are found extremely high up in Pin Oak's GPA rankings.

That might be because of the potential of receiving an Al Hayes powerbomb, but it's more likely because the kids feel highly invested in their school and, as a result, their grades. This seems to be Foster's proudest accomplishment.

"[Stage Band] gets a different kind of kid's attention," says Foster, with a clear sense of accomplishment. "Someone who might not get involved with choir or another school function feels comfortable in here. Now he's in Stage Band and loves it, but he's gotta pass math to play."

With this one massive thing — rock and roll — in common, you'd expect the students to show a certain degree of camaraderie. But despite the relatively small sample size, the way Stage Band's students reflect the social hierarchy of middle-school life is startling. Let's meet some of them:

Jimmy Gomez, the wildly talented guitarist whose bent is only matched by the neatness of his hair and the crispness of his polo shirt. He's The Clean Cut One.

Joaquin Buitrago, the athletic and soft-spoken football player with the perfect smile and mysterious eyes. He wears blue and white wristbands on his forearm, ostensibly to show school spirit, but really just to show you that he's cool enough to wear wristbands on his forearms without looking silly. He's The Heartthrob, because heartthrobs are always named Joaquin.

Alana Tristan and Seth Uzman, who come in, set up, play and leave. That's it. They seem to always be prepared, quick to learn and keen to try. They don't say much, but when you can play the keyboard and saxophone like they can, you really don't have to. They're The Quiet Ones, also referred to as The Potentially Great At Something Ones.

Pierce Frazier, the quirky little guy who makes friends without trying because he does things like admitting to literally getting dressed in the dark, then giving his outfit a grade once he gets to school. He's The Funny One.

Laura Jimenez, Milka Garza and Brooke Sharretts, the gaggle of "introspective" girls who collectively laugh at each other's inside jokes in a way that says, "We're hip and you're not." This clique seems to have formed out of necessity — there are but four girls in the class — so they lack a purposefully ironic name like the MySpace Mafia or the Wolfpack. They'll all hate Joaquin when he inevitably breaks one of their hearts in high school.

Theodore "Ted" Springborne, who looks born to co-star on a Disney Channel sitcom as The Awkward One. He sports denim shorts that stop above the kneecap, bushy blond hair and oversized feet, which is why he plays The Surprising One so perfectly. His role is unclear until he opens his mouth to sing and reveals a gruff alto that resembles a preteen version of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. It turns out he also plays running back for Pin Oak's football team like a full-grown Marion Barber.

The students continue to rotate in and out, with Hayes or Foster periodically stopping them to correct a mistake or chide them for "not playing together." So goes the rest of class. Shortly before the end, Frazier wanders over and explains why he started playing guitar — and why Stage Band is a No. 1 hit with its students.

"Every kid wants to be a rock star," he says, not being The Funny One at all now. "I was so excited when I found out about this class at Open House, I asked every teacher about it.

"It's been so great," Frazier adds. "It gives me the opportunity to really learn music. I take it seriously now, and I think my parents know. I think it makes my parents proud of me."

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