Events, features and things to do for families in New Hampshire
Northstar Music Center is training tomorrow’s musicians
By Bill Burke
It's a typical Wednesday night and pint-sized, would-be rock stars are filing in and out of a brightly lit music shop on Route 125 in Plaistow.
Parents help haul guitar cases and amplifiers to and from waiting minivans and SUVs as the low throb of a bass line floats out the front door and into a cool fall evening. It's here that kids from around southern New Hampshire gather to start their journey toward fulfilling their rock and roll dreams.
Over the past 11 years, Northstar Music Center has grown into a thriving community that draws young musicians together and puts them on the road to seeing their names in lights.
Under the watchful eye and knowing guidance of co-owner Bill Melanson, youngsters are given an opportunity to take their music far beyond the realms of their bedroom practice sessions.
Melanson and his wife, Kathleen have developed a thriving music education program that works to pass along the love of making music to youngsters who may be full of motivation, but a little short on experience.
For Melanson, who has trained with renowned bassist Victor Wooten, seeing the young musicians that come through his door achieve their goals is the big payoff.
“It's the love of seeing the kids progress,” Melanson said while taking a rare break in the back room of his Plaistow shop. “I've been fortunate enough to have people in my life that got me to understand that – people like Victor Wooten – and really gave me something. That's what inspired me to share that with our students. Those who are inspired, inspire.”
Students fill the shop's many practice rooms learning guitar, bass, piano and drums. A very active musical education program gets kids learning, practicing and playing along to some of their favorite tunes. But it all becomes very real during the shop's Making the Band program. It's there that Melanson channels his inner “School of Rock”-era Jack Black and the kids get to live out their musical dreams.
Patrick Gallagher was 14 when he first took part in one of the Making the Band camps. He was a guitar player with talent, but no band.
“It was a different experience because I had never played with other people up until then,” Gallagher, of Danville, said. “It was a total change of pace compared to sitting in my room and playing guitar by myself.”
Gallagher said playing in a group dynamic teaches skills that one-on-one lessons can't.
“I learned how to really play music with other people,” he said. “You learn to play what other people want to play. You learn to work together and you learn how to compromise.”
The Making the Band sessions are normally held during school vacations and over the summer break. Here's how it works: The camp starts on a Monday when participants are divided up into groups. Band names are chosen, roles are assigned and then the work begins.
“We take the kids from 11 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon,” Melanson said. “We work right here out of the shop, we work out of the back room, some right out on the floor and we do the performances on Friday night.”
That's where things come to life. After hours of preparing, practicing and rehearsing, the kids then take their hard work to the stage – located against one wall in this well-stocked music-lovers haven.
“They play on stage right here in the store,” Kathleen Melanson said. “The idea is to give the kids a safe space to stretch, where you're not going to be criticized, where you can't fail, and where they can progress in what they're doing.”
In that sense, the youngster who may have shied away from the spotlight on Monday can transform into the windmilling guitar hero by the Friday night performance.
“The idea of the camp is to get them playing with other musicians,” Melanson said. “It's about getting them to go from sitting at home playing by themselves to actually interacting with other players. And in that context it's live music – all of a sudden it breathes a little and becomes interactive. It's not just practicing a scale, it's playing that scale in time with the music in a live situation. We want them to have to reach a little bit, but still have the music be accessible for them.”
Kids as young as 10 have found their way into the spotlight thanks to the nurturing environment at the shop.
“The group dynamic as the kids come together is amazing to watch,” Kathleen Melanson said. “Every band we've had has a natural leader who goes out of their way to be inclusive, and our instructors guide that and encourage that. They make sure everyone is comfortable.”
That sense of working together – regardless of skill level or age – is an important part of the experience.
“I was with younger kids in groups a couple times,” Gallagher, who has taken part in three Making the Band camps said. “I was pretty much helping the younger kids work on songs and help them do what they wanted. Obviously they weren't as experienced, but were good enough to play. In the end, everyone has a lot of fun.”
In the end, the big thrill is when parents get to see what their kids have been up to all week. Gig night goes like this: The kids arrive at the shop earlier in the day and start running through their three-song sets until just after lunch. At 2 p.m. the shop's stage is set up and each band gets to play through their material during a dress rehearsal. From that point there's nothing left to do but watch the clock until showtime.
When it's all done, it's easy to see how the kids have grown during their time together.
“At the end they're bouncing off the walls and their parents are hugging them and they can't stop smiling,” Bill Melanson said. “But the biggest thing is seeing the parents. I mean seeing the kids is incredible, you can see when they progress and eventually just get it. But the parents are almost speechless, realizing how good the kids are and how they did it in such a short amount of time.”
A special place for non-traditional students
With a fairly large homeschool community in southern N.H., Northstar Music Center has found itself playing the role of classroom during the sometimes non-traditional school days.
“We've had homework groups in our seating area where a parent will be there with a cluster of homeschool students doing a geography lesson while another one of the kids is taking a music lesson,” Kathleen Melanson said. “Then the kids change places and it turns to geometry. We understand what the unique needs of homeschooling require.”
One of the components of running a music education program throughout the day is the flexibility it provides families who are involved in home schooling. Lessons can be booked earlier in the day, and the shop becomes an impromptu meeting place for families in similar situations.
“The homeschool aspect has always been important to me,” Melanson said. “I'm a former teacher and my oldest daughter home schooled her kids for a while. It's a community here. There's a large homeschool community in southern N.H., and I think sometimes the parents tend to feel a little isolated. It's more difficult for them to get out and network, so when they have a community center they can come to, like Northstar Music, they get to meet other homeschool parents who are doing the same thing they're doing.
It's more than just the experience the child has – it becomes an experience or the whole family.”
It's not uncommon to see one homeschooled sibling waiting patiently for his or her lesson, while another one is in one of the many practice rooms working away on making music.
“With the homeschool families, they'll often have several siblings who come in with different approaches,” Melanson said. “Some families encourage their children to learn the same instruments, while others want the children to learn different instruments. So we'll either do concurrent or consecutive lesson times to make it easier for them to plan and stage their day.”
Besides, if you want your child to bring their grades up a bit – try letting them slap on an electric guitar.
“Music education improves their mathematical skills, their organizational skills, their discipline, and that homeschool population is such an integral part of this program,” Melanson said.
Melanson's husband, Bill – who co-owns the shop with his partner Randy Stevens – cites studies that show learning an instrument improves all aspects of education.
“It's the equivalent of going up a grade,” he said. “If you're a C-student, you can expect to become a B-student just by learning to read music and play.”
Bill Burke is Parenting New Hampshire’s own Dad on Board and a musician himself.