Ready to rock: Young musicians shake off performance blues

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PITTSFIELD — When Valerie Campsie first walked into RockOn, a two-week summer program for young musicians, she was nervous.

"My first year here, I would stand around all shy," Campsie said, recalling her start as a student at RockOn three summers back. "As it went on, people would tell me, `Don't be nervous, it's all in your head.' You really build a family here."

RockOn meets at the Berkshire Music School on 30 Wendell Ave. in Pittsfield from noon to 5 p.m. The students, ranging from 10 to 18 years old, workshop a variety of skills, including songwriting, guitar playing and singing. At the end of each week, the students perform a public concert as a band.

Several students said that RockOn teaches them how to collaborate with others. Through music, they are able to connect with each other.

"You can put feelings into music, and people of all different languages and backgrounds can understand it," said student Katerina Livermore.

"Music is a different way to express emotion," said student Cameron Bencivenga. "It's a way for me to tell you who I am."

Mary Talmi, who founded RockOn in 2003, said that the program can be a life-changing experience for its students.

"They get a sense of belonging," Talmi said. "It's a very necessary feeling for young children and teenagers."

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This is the first year that RockOn is hosted by the Berkshire Music School instead of Berkshire Community College. Talmi said the move will help implement year-round programming. While the summer program ends Sunday, Fall Rock, which also is for young musicians, will begin Sept. 26 and meet once a week at the Berkshire Music School for eight weeks.

Tracy Wilson, executive director of the Berkshire Music School, said that hosting RockOn is transforming the school's reputation.

"For so many years, we were thought of as presenting and teaching classical music," Wilson said. "To really blow the roof off of rock and roll has been great."

As she spoke, music resounded from every corner of the building. Two boys one room over jammed out to "Holiday" by Green Day on their guitars, while a group of singers practiced vocal exercises nearby. Downstairs, in a room crowded with speakers and drum sets, Emil Werstler taught young guitarists technique, while Jerry Giguere conducted a deafening drum lesson at the American Legion across the street.

"The teachers are nice. They're not like, `Aw, you suck,' " said student Matthew Johnson, holding a pair of drumsticks in one hand and tugging at his Pink Floyd T-shirt with the other. "They're like, `Let's work on this together.' "

Students also listen to daily lecture demonstrations from artists like Madison Vandenburg, a 17-year-old who placed third in "American Idol" this year. Before she sang, Vandenburg admitted that she, too, got nervous onstage but advised the students to fake self-assurance until it becomes real.

Talmi said that performing each Friday in a band helps the students increase their confidence.

"I cannot tell you the number of times I had students come in, legs shaking — you can see their shorts shaking — and by the end of the week, they come for that final concert, and they're decked out: different clothes, they've done something with their hair " Talmi said. "They feel a sense of accomplishment."


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