Morgantown’s school of rock teaches music by playing the hits.
The music lessons Chris Russell took growing up were pretty standard— just him and a teacher, alone in a room, working on theory and proper technique. He learned plenty, and stuck with the lessons up through his time as a student in WVU’s percussion program.
But it wasn’t those private lessons that turned Russell into a musician. “I learned so much in the classroom, but I found I learned so much more by doing it in a group,” he says. “You have to do your part or something’s not going to be the same.”
Later, while Russell was drumming for the Morgantown-based pop-rock band The Arguments, he found himself back in the classroom teaching private drum lessons. That became his full-time gig after the band broke up. But after a few years, he decided to take a different approach to teaching music.
It’s only rock ’n’ roll
Russell opened his music school, PopShop, in 2010 with 11 students. He separated the kids into two bands and assigned each member a different instrument: keyboards, guitars, bass, drums. Each band met for one hour a week so Russell could teach them Top 40 hits and classic rock songs— everyone, all at once.
Learning songs as part of a band had several benefits. It taught the kids to work together. They learned to both stand in the spotlight and step back to support their bandmates. The ensembles also were small enough that everyone had to do their part. There was no hiding behind louder, more talented players, as one might in a larger band or orchestra. And playing as part of an ensemble— even during lessons—provided a kind of instant gratification that one-on-one lessons do not.
And the songs? “The things that kept me in music were not Bach and Mozart. The things that kept me in music were Billy Joel, the Beatles,” Russell says. He found it was easier to keep kids excited if they were playing songs they knew, too.
At the end of 12 weeks, he organized the PopShop version of a piano recital: a rock concert at the Morgantown Mall. It wasn’t the best venue, especially in the middle of the holiday shopping season. But after seeing his students onstage, rocking out to music they enjoyed playing, Russell realized he had a hit.
PopShop has grown dramatically since that first concert, mostly through word of mouth. Last spring, the school boasted 96 students in 21 bands. Russell has refined the PopShop formula through the years—the program now holds 90-minute classes over six-week terms. Russell realized longer classes and shorter terms made it easier for bands to retain the arrangements they learned.
At the end of each term, PopShop hosts a concert at 123 Pleasant Street, giving even the youngest guitar gods a chance to play in an honest-to-goodness rock club. Many bands stay together term after term, so some have built their repertoires into full-fledged setlists. A few have even started gigging around town. Parents are buying their kids PA systems.
Russell has watched the bands evolve artistically, growing from cover songs to original material. One student group, Before I Sleep, recently released an EP featuring three original songs.
“I have no idea where I’d be musically without PopShop,” says Annalies Stealey, who sings, plays guitar, and writes songs for Before I Sleep. She joined the school at age 11 after spending a year in her bedroom with a guitar and a chord chart. At PopShop, she found herself in a band with two other girls, working up Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran covers.
She moved to her current ensemble after a year, leaving the pop charts behind for a pop-punk sound influenced by bands like Green Day and Blink 182. That’s when things began to gel. As the band’s chemistry became evident, Stealey started bringing original material to rehearsal. She’d been writing songs since fourth grade, but now she had a way to give them life.
Before I Sleep started getting gigs through PopShop—not just the regular end-of-term performances, but also at promotional concerts for the school. The music school has helped the band in other ways, too. Their debut EP, Miles Away from Home, was recorded at PopShop’s recording studio. Russell even connected the girls with a new drummer outside the program when their old drummer dropped out.
Now the band is looking to add more original material to its setlists, record a full-length album, and start growing its audience. “It’s really cool working toward something they love,” says Stealey’s dad, Bryan. “A kid doesn’t have to worry about getting dressed up in something they don’t want to wear and playing something they don’t want to play.”
Runnin’ down a dream
PopShop isn’t just for kids. One of the house bands, Noodles and the Soup, is made up of two WVU law professors, an educational science professor, and a financial advisor. A rock band with an eclectic repertoire, they play everything from Duran Duran to Warren Zevon.
Another adult group, Controlled Chaos, is made up of a pharmaceutical company director, a few WVU hospital employees, and a federal prison health services employee. Members are into punk bands like Social Distortion and Dropkick Murphys but have also started writing original material.
When students sign up for PopShop, the school has them fill out detailed intake forms: What music do you listen to? What instrument would you like to play? Do you have any previous experience with an instrument? How long have you been playing? Do you have friends already in the program? Are you willing to sing?
Although the school tries to help students achieve their rockstar dreams, instructors also encourage experimenting with different instruments and sounds. If someone wants to play drums, Russell encourages them to try bass guitar, too, since it plays a similar role in music. If band members are really into Panic! At the Disco, Russell might suggest they explore Queen or Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles songs.
Students are welcome to return as often as they like. Some have attended for seven or eight years, content to maketheir music in the safe confines of PopShop. That’s fine, but it’s not Russell’s ultimate goal. He wants to see his students out in the community, making music, playing gigs, and winning fans. “That’s how you graduate,” Russell says. “You go make a band.” PopShop: 918 Fortney Street, 304.906.9336, popshopwv.com, @popshopwv on Facebook. Before I Sleep: beforeisleepwv.bandcamp.com
Photographed by Juan Giraldo