School of Rock

Spokane Valley's Rock Club is teaching kids how to be in a band

School of Rock
Kirsten Black
Teacher Sean Burgett (left) rocks out with students (from left) Drake, Jesse, Claire and Blake at his Spokane Valley studio.

He says he's 80 percent like Jack Black. He's loud and self-assured. Sometimes, he belts out daring notes he has no business attempting.

"It's all about attitude," says Sean Burgett, 27. "If you believe you can hit that insane note from a Journey song, then maybe you will."

But the way that Burgett is mostly like Black (or his character Dewey Finn in School of Rock, a film-turned-musical and soon-to-be TV show on Nickelodeon) — he runs a music school for kids wanting to play in a band. Not the symphonic band you'd be a part of in middle school, but an actual rock band, complete with drums, guitar, bass and vocals.

"Google said James Hetfield is lead guitarist for Metallica," says Blake, a tenacious 10-year-old guitarist who has come with his solos well prepared.

"I've been listening to Metallica since I was your age, and I can tell you that Kirk Hammett is the lead guitarist," Burgett counters into a microphone he uses to be heard above the fray.

Tonight, in Burgett's cozy Spokane Valley basement, one of the Rock Club's six bands is rehearsing. He's explaining to the kids (ages 10 to 15, whose parents prefer their last names aren't used) about Metallica, before teaching them "Enter Sandman." A pair of the students are well aware of the metal act. The other two seem vaguely familiar.

"Oh yeah, I've played this on Rock Band," says Claire, the singer.

"The video game?" asks Burgett, who's playing bass for the group until that position can be filled.

She nods.

They start into the song, which they'll learn in its entirety tonight. With parents sitting in an adjoining room, the kids are free to tackle this music head-on. Rock 'n' roll, with all of its angst and danger, is beginning to mean something for them. Burgett guides them through the paces, stopping to fine-tune rhythms, but also urging them on with a smile and head nod, even when the notes aren't spot on.

Burgett grew up in a home where Pink Floyd and the Beatles were deemed the best bands in the world. But Tool was the act that changed his life, starting his obsession with drums at age 11. By high school, Burgett was teaching the instrument to kids as a way to earn extra cash. During college, Burgett attended the audio engineering program at Spokane Falls Community College; he expanded lessons to guitar and bass. As his family grew — he's married, with two young children — it didn't make sense to drive long distances every day. A new idea was forming.

Performances for his studio were once few and far between. Kids would show up the day of a recital having their individual parts memorized, and play in temporary bands. It never sounded on point.

But what if the kids could rehearse together all of the time? Experimenting with some early formations, no one ever wanted to go home. The kids wanted to jam all night.

In 2014, Burgett officially started Rock Club, a style of teaching that currently doesn't exist elsewhere in the area. Now kids would travel to his basement studio for lessons. While there was turnover with the format change, he maintains 25 to 30 students in his bands, along with continuing to teach private lessons.

Last month's Rock Club show brought in more than 100 fans (read: family and friends) to the Pinnacle Northwest. While none of it was perfect, each band, full of mostly middle schoolers, impressed.

"We're still all learning," says Burgett, who enlists volunteers for all of the club's shows and puts any money a performance might earn back into the business.

So far, the Rock Club has played at Liberty Lake's Pavillion Park and served as Bloomsday on-course entertainment. Now with a couple of Pin shows under their belt, the kids are working toward a performance at the Bartlett next month. Burgett is glad that his students, who come from all over the area, get to play a variety of venues. Rock bands must be ready to play anywhere, he says.

When it comes to song selection, Burgett lets each band member pick one tune. There's a lot of classic rock chosen, as well as grunge. He has a hodgepodge of backgrounds to contend with: Mormons, liberals and everyone in between attend his school.

"We're rated PG here," says Burgett, who recently started playing in a Blink-182 cover band, Barker Bridge. "If a kid gets super excited about Dr. Dre, I tell him that's awesome, but Rock Club isn't the place to make that music."

In the future, Burgett plans to convert the basement into a larger space, adding a recording studio and bringing in more teachers. Playing bigger stages is a goal as well. "Why not the Spokane Arena?" he asks.

After teaching for the past 10 years, Burgett says he's learned a lot.

"I've made students cry," he admits. "I don't want to upset or scare the kids, but my job is to make sure that everyone is learning something. But mostly, it's about having fun."

The biggest lesson? Admit when you don't know something.

"Be human, not a robot teacher," Burgett says. "Kids always know when you're not being real." ♦

Rock Club's next open-to-the-public show happens at the Bartlett on Sat, Feb. 20, at 5:30 pm.