Rock Enroll: West Virginia's School of Rock is In Session

Jun 21, 2017

People ask, “It’s a rock school. How do they graduate from this?” And I always say, “We win (and they graduate) when they go make music, play in bands and go out into the community on their own. That’s when everyone wins.” 

From West Virginia Public Broadcasting and A Change of Tune, this is 30 Days of #WVmusic, the interview series celebrating the folks who make the West Virginia music scene wild and wonderful.  

And today’s interview is for the young rockers and the young rockers-at-heart. In the words of Jack Black, “you are not hardcore, unless you live hardcore,” and this School of Rock-esque facility is definitely hardcore. From Morgantown, West Virginia, this… is PopShopWV.

PopShopWV is currently in session. You can rock enroll and learn about the classes and summer camps on their website and social media. Hear more #WVmusic on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Connect with A Change of Tune on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic and subscribe to our RSS / podcast feeds.

PopShopWV during their Springfest 2017 in Morgantown.
Credit Emily Sarkees

Interview Highlights

On what PopShopWV is:

PopShop is a non-profit arts academy located in Morgantown. We take students in the area that want to learn music. Specifically, our vehicle to teaching them music and the musical instruments is popular music, country music, rock music, metal, hip-hop and blues. The goal of PopShop is to not only teach them how to play their instruments, but the underlying goal is to bring students in the area (age eight to adult) and put them in groups together and let them work together.

The major thing that a lot of these students are doing in school is playing in large ensembles, and they can kind of hide behind something if they don’t know their part as much. We stress that it’s a small group, and everybody has their own part; if that part is not there, then the final song does not sound the same, so it’s important to be courageous in how you play it, whether it’s singing or playing a solo or even just supporting the band and sitting in the background to do your part.

I’m a product of the public school system in music, and it was a little bit of the folk stuff every now and then. You got some James Taylor every now and then, but it switched around middle and high school to classical music. I love that stuff and love listening to [classical], but what kept me in music and what brings me back are the Billy Joel’s, the Elton John’s, the Beatles. And a lot of these kids are finding the same things from their parents. We’re teaching them artists, and they’re teaching us about new artists. It’s a great thing for everyone.

PopShop's SpringFest 2017 in Morgantown.
Credit Emily Sarkees

On the formation of PopShopWV:

PopShop is the product of a band I was in from the late ‘90s called The Argument. We were all teaching music whether in schools or privately, and as we were touring, we had days off. So we decided, “What if we contact the schools and see if we can teach what we know using popular music?” Like vocal blending, the business of music and maybe the students and teachers would want to hear it. That started in 2003. In 2004, the Appalachian Education Initiative helped us find a grant through the Justin Timberlake Foundation that opened some doors and helped us find some of the hardest hit arts schools in West Virginia and allowed us to go to these schools, put on concerts and teach them about popular music.

In 2010, after the band had broken up, I started the actual school itself. It was a small affair. We had 11 kids, all homeschooled. It’s grown to this day, almost seven years later, with over 90 students of all ages and 20 groups. We’ve had a lot of students in-and-out [over the last seven years]. What’s cool about that is some of them teach with us now. From students to now teachers, they’ve been a great asset to our program.

On how PopShopWV operates:

PopShop is for students of all ages. We take students that have no experience or years-and-years of experience. We expect for them to come in and want to play with us, to learn, to want to play with other people and use it as a group effort to make something great. They might not be great players after a six-week session, but we’ll want them to want to know more, maybe pursue lessons.

Most of the younger students have their eyes set on an instrument [before they start], but we give them an opportunity to try anything. We have a very young group called The Blackouts, some seven-year-old’s in the band, and they are happy playing anything you put in their hands. They’re actually becoming a good little band; every time I see them, they blow me away.

PopShop's Springfest 2017 in Morgantown.
Credit Emily Sarkees

We have students that come as far as away as Buckannon. We have students from Fairmont, Maryland, Pennsylvania and a lot of students in Morgantown (of course), but we’re always blown away when a student finds us from a little further away and wants to drive to let us teach them music.

Our instructors are not necessarily schooled musicians, but they have a lot of performance experience so they can actually relay that to students that things might not always go right; sometimes, you have to find a way around things. As a performing musician, that’s one of the important things you can do: overcoming problems, not using shortcuts to being a good musician, but learning how to handle when things aren’t exactly as they should be. They also do a good job of introducing music to these groups, and we all come from different musical backgrounds. Brian Spragg is one of our music technology instructors, as well as Walt Sarkees. Those guys couldn’t be from more different musical backgrounds, and I love hearing them talk about their passions for music.

Recognize the musical faces inside PopShopWV HQ?
Credit Jesse Wright

On PopShopWV’s relationship with #WVmusic:

We have never done a series or session on just West Virginia musicians, but we have used Bill Withers’ music. He’s one of our favorites. Our students really, really relate to songs like “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” It’s been great to use him as a model and also have some time with him. We actually got to Skype with him in December 2015, and we all were really blown away. He talked about perseverance and working through everything and wanting to make it happen. A lot of students needed to hear that.

PopShop students Hazel Iafrate and Zorrah Lawson.
Credit Jesse Wright

The thing we strive for here in West Virginia (and whenever we Skype with musicians around the world), we get to ask them the question, “How were you shaped by where you grew up musically and as a person?” And we always get really great answers from that because a lot of students in West Virginia may think, “Well, I’m just from West Virginia, and I can’t do anything because I’m from here.” And Bill Withers might be the perfect example of what you can do as a West Virginian. We want to produce musicians (and people) who think that they can do anything and be from anywhere and work hard enough to do [what they want].

PopShop student Sydney Wiley.
Credit Jesse Wright

Young rock’n voices featured in this #WVmusic chat:

Sydney Wiley (15-years-old)

Zorrah Lawson (8-years-old)

Hazel Iafrate (8-years-old)

Support for 30 Days of #WVmusic is provided by Made in WV, a specialty apparel company made by and for proud West Virginians. Online at madeinwv.com.

Support for 30 Days of #WVmusic is provided by Kin Ship Goods, proud supporter of DIY music and the arts. Locally shipped worldwide at kinshipgoods.com.