School of Rock School, East Grinstead

Kids have come a long way since they were wearing legwarmers and belting out showstoppers in Fame! Sussex Life meets the young performers of Sussex Rock School in East Grinstead as they fine tune their art...

Kids have come a long way since they were wearing legwarmers and belting out showstoppers in Fame! Jenny Mark-Bell meets the young performers of Sussex Rock School in East Grinstead as they fine tune their art...

DO YOU want to turn it up a bit, dude?” guitar maestro Dave Press asks eight-year-old Aaron O’Donovan. Aaron grins bashfully, and fiddles with the whammy bar of his miniature guitar. “Come on then” says Dave, briskly. “Let’s teach these girls how to play guitar!” I could make Dave look pretty silly here by telling him that in my younger days I knew several chords and could play almost all of Smoke on the Water, but I don’t. I know my place, and in this instance, it’s to sit here looking impressed. In my experience, men are very sensitive when it comes to their guitar-playing prowess, and I see no reason why eight-year-old boys should be any different.

Dave is one of the teachers at Sussex Rock School, an extra-curricular learning environment based at Greenfields School near East Grinstead which attracts students from institutions all over the area. A professional musician, Dave has the enthusiasm of a natural teacher. “It is great teaching kids, especially when they’re younger, because you really feel that you’re empowering them. You have to take it slowly and explain everything a little more carefully, but it’s very rewarding.” Dave has been teaching at the Rock School for three years, but says that during that time he has taught a lot of “these guys”.

In a nearby classroom, four-piece Hope Within Chaos are jamming with guest vocalist Louise Hayward, 13. In a small victory for girl power, Louise has convinced the boys to cover an Avril Lavigne track. Avril Lavigne is a girl, and she plays guitar. Take that, boys! Jordan Calty, 14 and quite the rock god in his plaid shirt, skinny jeans and beanie hat, chews gum insouciantly while playing guitar for Louise’s performance, while 19-year-old brother and bandmate Scott is more earnest. The brothers are joined by Ash Powell, 15, and Justin Eveleigh, 17. Veronica Tupholme, Head of Greenfields School and the mastermind behind Sussex Rock School, is very proud of Hope Within Chaos, and hopes to enter them into a competition judged by Roger Daltrey at Hastings Music Festival next March.

Just down the hall, in another room bedecked with primary children’s paintings and brightly coloured friezes, 15-year-old Jasmine Wullinger is getting ready for a drum lesson with long-haired Allan Vallance, a metal veteran who has been wielding the sticks for 40 years. It’s a touching scene: Jasmine is learning I’m Not Sorry by Taylor Swift, a teenage American popstrel, under the tutelage of Allan, a devotee of rather heavier, and it must be said, more geriatric bands like Manowar, Black Sabbath and Kiss. Asked what musical genre she favours, Jasmine is very definite: “Not metal” she says, looking sternly at Allan from under her fringe. It’s not all bad news for Allan, though: “The younger guys seem to like the same music as me – I do think metal is more of a boys’ thing, really. I’m not being sexist, that’s just the way it seems to be.” Rock School attracts all levels of students, from people who’ve never picked up a drumstick to those who are already quite accomplished and require coaching rather than schooling in the basics.

The school has even attracted older performers, says Veronica Tupholme, who started the school in 1994, when she had one teacher and one student. “The next week there were two students, and it just grew from there”, she says. One year, they had a band of dads, who ended up covering Oasis at one of the school’s concerts, and the oldest student they have ever had was retired.

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There have been challenges, says Veronica: “I had to ask myself how you teach rock or popular music. It’s all done by ear – only one of the teachers can read music, which is how I learned, but children want to play their kind of music. Sometimes that can lead to learning a classical instrument eventually too.” There were many motivations for starting the school, but one thing Veronica was very keen to demonstrate was the fact that drugs are not a necessary part of music. “I am unequivocal about that. Drugs actually destroy creativity, and they have no place here.” It is hard to see how performers as young as eight would be exposed to drugs in any environment, but there is another lesson that may be more immediately useful: “I want them to feel the exhilaration of stepping off stage and knowing that they have achieved something – that’s a real high.”

Many of her students are terribly shy to begin with, and can barely bring themselves to perform in front of an audience, but by the time the curtain goes down at the end of the show, they’re already planning their next gig.  The school has two annual concerts, with this year’s Christmas show taking place on December 2 at Chequer Mead Theatre. The concerts are produced as professionally as possible – a former Greenfields student who studied stage lighting at RADA and now has his own lighting company comes back to help out with the events.

Aaron O’Donovan’s band will be taking the stage at Chequer Mead this month. They are all junior school pupils, Rhys Hounslow accompanying Aaron on second guitar and Tom Clarke playing drums. They are playing Hey Joe, by Jimi Hendrix, and as Rhys’ tiny foot taps his Marshall practice amp and Aaron’s little fingers move over the fretboard, the incongruity of the sultry, bluesy music is very striking. I ask what the band is called. “Well, they’re sometimes called Wild Things – the Troggs song was the first they ever learned” says Veronica fondly. A posse of proud parents smile absently at their tousle-haired offspring, who stare at their own hands with rapt concentration – not wild at all, but quite disciplined and very, very talented.

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