Kent Nelson believes music is meant to be shared. Whether that’s loud, soft, slow or speedy he leaves to his students.
At CDA Rock School in the Guitar Stop in Dalton Gardens, Nelson instructs aspiring musicians. They come ages 8 to 17 and display a range of musical tastes and abilities. Some of the youngsters have a penchant for the head-banging riffs of Metallica and AC/DC; others prefer the country and pop ballads of Keith Urban and Taylor Swift, and a few dip into the classic rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Queen and the Rolling Stones. The students play a variety of instruments, including piano, drums, bass and vocals.
But they all have one thing in common when they take the stage: they rock.
On weekday evenings, a building behind the Government Way store is transformed into a makeshift studio. Amps, microphones and mixers are flanked by a drum kit, keyboard and foam padding to contain the often-raucous sessions. Students are matched into bands according to interests, skill level and age, said the 41-year-old Nelson.
“Our focus is on kids – we’ve got some amazing talent in this area and this provides an opportunity for a lot of kids to grow as individuals and musicians in a way that they don’t have anywhere else in the city like what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re very excited that we can be a part of creating a positive place to go to work on being musicians and on being people, and provide the community with a great way of bringing families together to enjoy good family entertainment.”
There are several classes offered at CDA Rock School, including open enrollment for larger groups and band lessons for smaller groups. Most of the equipment is provided, with students only required to bring guitars, drumsticks and other accessories.
Nelson has decades of experience in the music industry. At 14, the Moscow native and longtime guitarist formed the heavy-metal band Chaos with several friends.
Around that time, the Seattle sound of alternative rock – or grunge, as it was later coined – was building in the region. Shortly after, it would sweep the nation in the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney, among others. Nelson and company moved to Seattle in the early ’90s, forming the hard-rock band Scatter Creek, which achieved modest success for a number of years, he recalled, performing in venues across the Northwest.
“I’ve been performing and writing and playing for 25 years,” Nelson said. “In the process I got tons and tons of experience, not only in how to run a band, how to play covers and how to write music, but also how to book shows, how to kind of market yourself and performance experience. We really got a good sense of how to make a band sound good and have success at it, but also how the business works a little bit.”
That knowledge carried over to the guitar lessons Nelson began offering after moving to North Idaho in 2007, where he met his wife, musician Debbi Hahn. His tastes have expanded through the years to include bluegrass and other styles (Nelson also plays in the classic-rock cover band the Renovators), and last spring decided he wanted to share his love for music with others by offering lessons out of his home under the CDA Rock School name.
What began as garage jam sessions grew into a business. The school brings together kids who share an interest in music and want to nurture their talent, he said. Nelson contracts the school out of the Guitar Stop, a relationship that has worked well for both parties.
“When I started teaching at Guitar Stop, that’s when I noticed that you have all these kids coming in and they are practicing on their own at home, but they are not improving and getting as good as they could be as musicians because they don’t have anybody else to play with,” he said, “and that’s really what becoming a musician is all about.”
At CDA Rock School, students are immersed in band-related lessons. They cover everything from timing and how to adjust rhythms to staying in key and the discipline it takes to be in a band.
“The band situation is like a team sport – you are working intensely with different individuals who may have different personalities, all for a common goal,” he explained. “There are compromises that need to be made, there’s communication that needs to happen, and it’s a great opportunity and venue for that.”
The rock school offers a lesson on band basics.
During the weekday rehearsals, students take turns performing covers and original tracks in a handful of bands. The kids jointly decide on songs to perform and names, such as Unrated, ExcuZed Absence and Exit Sign.
“They make as many of the decisions as possible about the band; it really empowers them and really puts the responsibility of working as a team and making those decisions together,” Nelson said.
Of course it wouldn’t be rock and roll without concerts to showcase the talent. The students perform throughout the year at Guitar Stop, as well as at Cherry Hill and other local parks in partnership with several local associations, including the downtown and BMX associations. CDA Rock School bands have also performed at the North Idaho Fair and Rodeo and at Lakes Middle School.
For every tale of the glamorous life of a rock star, there are tragic accounts of fallen musicians. That is why Nelson encourages his students to make the right choices in life.
“In the rock world in the early ’90s in Seattle, we all know that we unfortunately lost some musicians due to some bad choices,” Nelson explained. “I try to share that with the kids, too, and really support their parents’ goal of making positive choices in life.”
Rhett Howell, a third-grade student at Sorenson Magnet School of the Arts and Humanities, was rocking out to AC/DC’s “T.N.T.” on guitar with his band Unrated in a recent rehearsal while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the famous band’s logo. He’s been playing the instrument, which stands nearly as tall as his 8-year-old frame, for about two years and in the CDA Rock School for half that time.
“When I was little I always used to play air guitar, and I thought it was really cool,” Howell said after the song. “I’ve always wanted to play guitar. I want to play when I get older. I like to play stuff like (Ozzy Osbourne’s) Crazy Train, Korn and Metallica.” When asked what he likes about CDA Rock School, he said, “You get to do a lot of cool stuff and jam with your friends.”
Jodi Johnson’s three children, Cameron, 18, Ford, 13, and Hannah, 12, have all enrolled at CDA Rock School at different times. Once they joined, she said, she no longer had to pester her kids about practicing their instruments.
“I don’t have to ask them to practice ever – it’s a passion and something they really enjoy. That’s really nice for me as a parent because it’s not something I have to push, it’s something they really love. Kent really makes it fun,” she said. “Kent is amazing with kids, he really is. He is ultra-patient and he is so knowledgeable.”
“I always knew what I wanted to do, and it has always involved music,” Nelson said. “All that time and experience and skills has allowed me to offer this program for kids, not only through the musical part of it but also for the personal part. This is something I love to do.”