- BC Games
Coffee With: School of Rock in North Van
The dynamic mix of drums and electric guitar emanating from inside Mountainside secondary bounces off the parking lot pavement.
In the immortal words of rock pioneer Chuck Berry, “It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it.”
On an otherwise idle Wednesday afternoon, the rhythm is palpable and the music resonates with a trio of teenagers jamming in a multi-purpose space cordoned off by a partition powerless to the sound waves.
On lead vocals is Matt Bell who, wearing a plaid flannel shirt and long blond locks, channels Kurt Cobain. Manning the drums is Demetri Schembri sporting a backwards cap, black sleeveless T-shirt and a stretched ear piercing.
Caddy Pattison is in another corner plucking her pink electric guitar, the sleeves of her long knit cardigan rolled up. A black toque holds back her long hair so she can look down at the notes. Mountainside music teacher Sean Kelly is standing beside her, showing Pattison some new chords.
Kelly is in his element. When he started his teaching career 15 years ago, he couldn’t have predicted he would be paid to play rock music in the daylight hours.
In the ’80s Kelly toured B.C. with a Top 40 duo called Glass Apple. When asked what inspired him to become a musician, the response draws some smirks from the sophomoric group.
“To get girls. It’s how I met my wife,” says Kelly unapologetically.
Rock Band 12, a four-credit fine arts course, recently got the stamp of approval from the North Van school board. The idea to start a school of rock in North Van was inspired by students at Terry Fox secondary in Port Coquitlam.
Kelly, along with Mountainside principal Jeremy Church, was blown away by the high caliber of Terry Fox’s rock school and recording arts program, which culminates in a professional full production rock show at the end of each semester.
“We are happy to start small,” says Kelly.
Mountainside’s rock band students bring a variety of skill levels.
“It would be nice if we could pull off Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but there’s no way we are going to,” says Kelly. “The goal is to keep finding songs that we like to play.”
And the songs the students choose span the many decades of rock history — from rhythm and blues to Brit pop to psychedelic rock — which blows Kelly’s mind.
He was surprised when one of the teens, who was born in the mid-’90s, suggested the 1970s classic “Rocky Mountain Way” by Joe Walsh. Kelly is acutely aware of his age, saying the term classic rock didn’t exist when he was a teenager in the ’70s.
For these three students, rock band has inspired them to stay in school. Pattison figures Mountainside is the first place she’s actually felt comfortable after attending 11 other schools.
“Some students learn differently,” she says. “I really like singing. It’s something I have worked up to. I put my heart into singing and it makes me happy.”
Schembri agrees, saying the North Van school district does a good job of connecting with students and shaping the instruction around them.
“I could miss every course at my school and I would still show up for this class,” says Schembri, who travels an hour and a half by bus from East Van to get here.
Kelly, who has spent his whole career in the alternative school system, knows what it takes to engage students.
“It’s about finding successes in students and building on those successes,” he says.
Andrew Chong is a North Van youth worker with a organization called Youth Unlimited that runs extracurricular programs in the local high schools. He always joins the Mountainside rock band for a jam session.
“Sometimes, I tease these guys because they come to class groggy. Then I see them come alive when the music starts,” says Chong of what he has observed.
Bell, perched on a window ledge, has been particularly quiet. He lights up when it’s revealed who Pattison’s dad is. That would be world-famous rockabilly and blues recording artist Cadillac Bob, who has collaborated with the likes of John Lee Hooker and BB King — and even appeared in the movie Davey Crockett alongside Johnny Cash.
“My dad is your dad’s biggest fan,” Bell excitedly tells Pattison.
Pattison beams proudly. Her dad made her prized pink guitar for her ninth birthday and taught her how to play it.
“He still jams every night,” says Pattison smiling as she walks to the microphone — and the band resumes playing.