“I’m throwing you into the fire,” Eric Nichelson half-shouts to the young guitar student to his right. The amplifiers are fired up in the studio, which means the teacher has to project to be heard.
“Sorry about that,” Nichelson said, “but see how you do with it.”
The student flubs a few bars, but catches up to the tempo.
The place is a modest but well-appointed studio in downtown Denton — Denton Music Workshop. It used to be a recording studio leased by Midlake, the popular Denton band that criss-crossed the country and Europe playing folk rock and gathering some high-profile fans (see actor Jason Lee, whose friendship with Midlake played a part in his decision to move to Denton).
When the band took a break, Nichelson, Midlake’s guitarist and keyboardist, said he couldn’t see letting the space go.
“I just couldn’t do it,” Nichelson said. “It’s a great spot. We spent so many years building up the gear and the inventory. So I took it over.”
Nichelson comfortably walks around the Tuesday afternoon rehearsal, chipping in on a rehearsal of Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” to coach the young guitar student he’s “thrown into the fire.” The group of young musicians have gathered to rehearse for their performance at the Denton Blues Festival.
Nichelson tells the guitarist the upcoming chords, then he spins on a heel to coach his own 7-year-old son, who’s keeping time gamely (and without a click track) on the drums. A few measures pass and the kids are starting to jell when Nichelson strums and steps over to a girl playing the piano and singing lead. She’s on the shy side, but punches the next line (“He got the action/He got the motion/Oh yeah/The boy can play”) as her teacher adjusts the microphone.
Next up is a pair of boys who switch verses on Imagine Dragons’ “Believer.” Some of the notes are high, and when one of the young vocalists forgets the lyrics and sort of crumbles in embarrassment, he gets a lesson on one of the most important parts of rock music: attitude.
“If you had just fallen down on the floor and sung through it, I never would’ve known you messed up,” Nichelson said.
Denton has long been short on affordable rehearsal space for ambitious local bands and solo acts. Nichelson said he knew he could share the space with musicians who need a good room to practice in. And another perk: The studio includes Midlake’s old recording studio.
It seemed natural to Nichelson to open the studio for lessons. In January 2015, Denton Music Workshop opened with a mix of old and new, as far business models go.
“We’re not doing anything new, really,” Nichelson said. “We absolutely teach private lessons.”
Students — beginner, intermediate and advanced — can shop for lessons on the ukulele, acoustic or electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, piano or keyboards. Students can also study violin, clarinet and saxophone. Those with technical curiosities can study recording and production, which puts them on the other side of the glass and in front of the mixing board.
In that sense, Denton Music Workshop is one of many music schools in Denton, Dallas and Fort Worth.
What sets the workshop apart, though, is the steadily growing rock band program that Nichelson has curated in the studio.
“That’s newer, probably,” he said. “I guess in the last 15 years or so there have been music schools that offer students — especially kids — a way to be in a band. You’ve got School of Rock and places like that that are teaching that.”
Locally, guitarist and educator Thad Bonduris developed a rock band curriculum and class at his business, Bonduris School of Music, as part of his own work in getting a Master of Music Education at the University of North Texas College of Music.
Nichelson said he has a library of method books for parents who want their children trained in a specific teaching style. But Nichelson said he prefers to teach the student, not the method.
“You come here, I’m going to ask a lot of questions. What instrument do you want to learn? Do you know what instrument you want to study? Do you want to perform or do you want to enjoy playing music?” he said. “The way I teach really depends on what you want to get out of it. Some parents want their child to learn the Suzuki method. I can do that — I have the books. Other parents want their kids to decide what they want from lessons.”
Nichelson said the rock band program grew and evolved from a laboratory to get kids together in the studio, where they could play as a band and learn to listen to each other. They get to play familiar music they hear on Top 40 radio (or the songs they put in their playlists). And in the studio, a student might play keyboards on one number, then cross the room to grab a guitar or swap out behind the drum kit for the next number.
Denton Music Workshop students also get to move out of the studio and try their chops in local venues — Harvest House, Andy’s Bar and other music spots.
It’s one thing to bring children and teens to a studio, where the gear and sound system are on standby. It’s another to have young students actually do the band thing — load a van (“make them figure out that Tetris,” Nichelson said), pull up to a venue and load in their gear. Then there’s the load out, when bands brush past the next act to get the van repacked.
In the middle of those logistics of playing live, workshop musicians are also learning professionalism: Show up on time, get your gear set up, perform, and then get off the stage so the next band can get on stage.
“If you can do a gig and no one talks about your band getting that wrong, you’re going to get booked for another gig. It’s part of it,” he said.
But the experience is an education, Nichelson said. Performance is the point of making music, he said.
“A great analogy is sports,” Nichelson said. “You would never just practice and not play a game. You’re doing all that work. Putting in all that time and spending all that money. Not to do it, not to perform, wouldn’t make any sense. These students play once a month in local venues. I look for chances for them to play. All of the venues I’ve ever had them play in have asked us to come back.”