It’s a Saturday afternoon at Complete Music Studios on St. Marks Avenue and the members of The Messed Up Hobos have a problem.
There are just 24 hours until their big performance at Rockwood Music Hall in the East Village, but their guitarist, Joel Rader, is nowhere to be found. Though the Hobos have been preparing for this show for 12 weeks, one last rehearsal wouldn’t hurt. After all, moms and dads and uncles and friends will be in the audience tomorrow. Not to mention they all just learned to play their instruments within the last year. Then there’s that whole part about how they’re all eight- and nine-year-olds.
Luckily Jason Domnarski, the lanky 30-year-old founder of Park Slope Rock School — the children’s music program that's behind both this rehearsal and the next day's show — is there to take the reigns. He picks up a guitar and starts practicing with the present Hobos: mulleted drummer Max Bassin, skater-boy base player Dylan Bonovitz, and baseball jersey-clad pianist Julian Kudlack.
Finally Rader arrives (“We lost our car,” he says). He grabs a guitar and the microphone and soon they give their original song, “Inside,” a go. All at once, comes the music. Rock music.
“I’m so lonely I have no one to play with,” Rader sings away from the mic as his bandmembers work their instruments to a lingering Tom Petty-ish tune. “Sometimes I wish I could fly away/ I’ll take a taxi all the way to the airport/ I’ll grab a ticket and jump on the plane.”
It’s a little tough to hear him, but it’s clear the band can jam. Domnarski stops them.
“Is your voice coming out of your ear?” he asks, shifting the microphone to Rader’s face. “No, it’s coming out of your mouth.”
For Domnarski, you see, jamming is just a small part of the PSRS program. Since the former Park Slope resident started his children’s rock school three years ago, he’s built its curriculum to ensure students learn both the technical and performative skills it takes to play rock music.
The program is divided into 12-week semesters and is offered to eight- to 16-year olds. Each semester costs $480 and ends with a live performance. Students are sorted into bands according to their age and skill set. They meet with fellow bandmembers each week to learn classics (Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Green Day) and write an original song. At the same time, Domnarski also encourages students to play a variety of instruments and develop a strong stage presence. He even arranges recording sessions and photo shoots.
“It’s about finding a way to really ignite the fun in music,” Domnarski said after the Hobo practice. “A lot of these kids, I don’t think, would’ve been playing these instruments if they didn’t see how fun it was. That just hooks them and then they actually go home and practice because they want to be better for the band. It’s self-motivating.”
You could argue that Domnarski is to Park Slope what Jack Black (or rather his character) was to School of Rock, though the former tends toward constructive feedback rather than unbridled intensity. Still, there’s no denying Domnarski’s ability to bring out a certain musician’s confidence in his students. Rader’s dad Ben, for instance, saw Domnarski’s instruction make a noticeable difference in his son’s life.
“Off the bat, the classes had a big effect on his confidence,” Park Slope resident Ben Rader said. “It really kind of brought him out of his shell and gave him a lot more confidence in other settings too—not just in the practice room or at the concert.”
(Rader's dad, by the way, made a website for his sons band. Check it out at www.muhobos.com.)
A musician himself, Domnarski began teaching at an afterschool arts program in Manhattan around the time he moved to Park Slope in 2004. He’d been playing piano most of his life, and spent his free time performing in a jazz electro-rock trio named JDT. Eventually he decided to start his own rock school, advertising his services on the Brooklynian blog’s listings. He snagged a few students from the Park Slope area, and has been expanding — hiring additional instructors when need be — ever since.
“There are so many kids here,” Domnarski said. “It’s the Mecca. And the parents are artists, writers, musicians. The parents are half the reason why the program is successful. The kids have to like it, but the parents have to really have an appreciation for what were doing.”
Though PSRC’s semester came to a close last week, Domnarski plans to hold summer camp from July 25th until the 29th. The program will cost $500 and consist of 5-hour days filled with instruction, musical guest appearances, and band rehearsals. In the meantime, Domnarski is launching Park Slope Rock School in Paris, France, where he now lives with his wife.
Sunday at the Rockwood Music Hall, the Messed Up Hobos take the stage before an audience of beer-wielding parents and squirmy kids. When it comes time to play “Inside,” Rader adjusts the microphone so it’s pointing right at him. The song comes to life behind him as he slips into the first verse.
This time you can hear him loud and clear.