If you’re among the privileged few to get a chance to see a never-publicized concert of the ‘Ensemble’ at Alaska Pacific University, your first takeaway might be that the whole concept was inspired by the 2003 Jack Black film ‘School of Rock’.
But your assumption wouldn’t just be wrong; it would be 180 degrees wrong.
“I remember some student came in and told me, ‘dude, there’s this Jack Black movie about exactly what you’re doing’, except it was grade school kids instead of college-aged,” said APU music director Eric Redding, after the 40th performance of the ‘Ensemble’ at Grant Hall last Thursday night. “I watched it and said, ‘they stole my idea!’”
It was about 20 years ago Redding launched the two-credit program at the small private university adjacent to the University of Alaska Anchorage campus.
“My music schooling failed me in many ways,” Redding said. “(Traditional) music education doesn’t cater to you when you’re 22.”
So, with the blessing of the school’s administration, he launched the ‘APU Ensemble’ program, which teaches kids not only music theory, and the playing of instruments, but how to be rock stars.
“In a traditional program you learn music theory, read notation — all the hard skills that are helpful… but in the Ensemble, you walk right in and you learn how to be in a band, you make a band together, decide what songs you’ll play, set up and perform,” said Ryan Conlin after performing in his third Ensemble show. “You’re thrown together in an ad hoc band that performs once and disappears… You learn how to have fun on stage and relate to a crowd.”
The Ensemble performs once each semester and each semester, the members give themselves a new name. This semester’s band, which played its one-and-only show Thursday night before a raucous core of mostly APU students hoofing it over from the dorms, was the Benign Hemiolas, in reference to an arcane musical term relating to overlapping rhythms.
“It’s like if you have a song in basic 4-4 percussion playing along with you but each beat would be 3 instead of 1, so it sounds like a triplet but you’re still playing in the same time,” said senior Kiana Slone after completing her 10th show. “It’s definitely a music nerd term.”
In the Ensemble, students don’t get to hide in the comfort of the instrument they’re most comfortable with. Each student plays pretty much every instrument.
“I played the cello when I was like 10,” Slone said. “I do really like music so I started taking bass lessons with Eric, which turned into piano lessons, which turned into drum lessons, which turned into clarinet lessons until I’m slightly OK at everything.”
The band’s playlist features hits from most every decade of rock music, and, when relevant, hits its crescendo with music from artists in the news presently. With ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ a hit in box offices worldwide, Queen was the obvious favorite and playing the role of Freddie Mercury was rocker emeritus alumnus Nick Jenkins. Leading the band in ‘Fat Bottom Girls’ and inviting the student section to the stage for a giant chorus in ‘We Will Rock You’, Jenkins, whose earned his masters degree in outdoor studies since aging out of the APU music program, commanded the stage like a veteran rock star.
“If everyone is cool with it, I come in the day before and we learn all that shit in five minutes,” Jenkins said. “It’s like a pop quiz right at the end. We typically try to get a rocking song that as far as music theory goes, is easy to learn.”
Jenkins said that in terms of lasting life-lessons, the Ensemble is the two best credits a music students can get.
“In no other class are you up there in front of friends and family and God, fucking giving it your all,” Jenkins said. “Sometimes it sucks, but you can’t run away; you can’t crumple up paper and throw it the trash — you’ve gotta fucking do it.”
Having been an honorary member of more APU Ensembles than he can count, Jenkins has seen timid souls find confidence they never knew they had.
“The transformation you see on an individual level is incredible; you watch people go from zero to hero,” Jenkins said. “For the shyest person in the room, you put the spotlight on them and they’re the lead singer of a cover band. From a group level, everyone starts as a stranger; everyone says what they play and Eric throws that out the window and you become a family.”
Slone said the program has helped her confidence in ways beyond music.
“Even something just like public speaking, I’m so much more comfortable now,” she said.
Redding said the APU music program has produced a number of success stories, highlighted by Matt Brenna of the national touring band Big Fat Buddha and members of local hit the Super Saturated Sugar Strings.
“The end result of the success story of the Ensemble is they graduate and start a band,” said Redding, half of the popular jazz duo Blaze and Eric. “They go gig and they’re a weekend bar star.”
Redding said he knows of no other program like his at any college or university anywhere.
“One show and it’s over; the band dies,” Jenkins said. “It’s a crazy, organic process where a group of strangers turn into a rock band and then into a family for one fucking hour. It’s like the craziest art installation on the planet.”