Joe Kidwell kept warm through three Alaskan winters by humming "Summertime" while on ski patrol for the U. S. Army. But he recently got the chills singing it at a Van Nuys music school where such pop icons as Linda Ronstadt and Barry Manilow have taken classes.
"Summertime, and the living is easy," croaked Kidwell, 21, wide-eyed and trembling slightly with stage fright during his first performance for fellow students in a class at Grove School of Music. But with the steady encouragement of his teacher and classmates, Kidwell's reedy voice became smooth enough for him to belt out the last few lines of the George Gershwin tune.
During the last two years, Grove's reputation for preparing students such as the clean-cut Kidwell, as well as aspiring long-haired singers, for musical success has enabled it to double its enrollment and to move out of its cramped quarters in Studio City.
The San Fernando Valley's only music trade school, which offers classes ranging from rock keyboard to Latin percussion, occupies the old Daily News building in the 14500 block of Sylvan Street. The school has spent $1.5 million to renovate the building, including the addition of two recording studios.
"It's an outstanding school--one of the best in the country," said Jack Wheaton, administrative director of jazz studies at USC's School of Music.
"They're particularly strong in turning out people who are specifically trained to go out and make a living in music, be it nightclubs or writing for TV and film."
"They have some fantastic teachers," said David Roitstein, a professor at CalArts. "I have a lot of respect for what they're doing."
But the school that trains its 600 students to become, or at least rub shoulders with, some of the world's best jazz, rock and popular musicians, cannot boast of a glamorous campus. The seedy pawnshops and discount stores of Van Nuys Boulevard are just a block away from the school's one-story building.
"This school shouldn't be here," said Swiss drummer Pascal Chollet, 25, one of the 100 or so foreign students enrolled at Grove. "We should be in Hollywood where the clubs are."
But Joel DiBartolo, a bass player on "The Tonight Show" and an instructor at Grove, pointed out that many of the city's movie and recording studios are in the Valley. For example, Universal Studios is in Universal City and Evergreen Recording Studios is in North Hollywood.
"Musicians these days can't just depend on the club scene for work," DiBartolo said.
Despite its unglamorous location, Grove manages to attract students from the East Coast, Hawaii and Japan. Ronstadt took a guitar class there in the school's early days, and Barry Manilow studied electronic music there even after he became famous, according to Todd Ferguson, the school's administrator.
Accredited by the National Assn. of Schools of Music, Grove offers several one-year programs, including general musicianship, recording and engineering, composing and arranging, and guitar. Costs range from $200 for a 20-hour workshop to thousands of dollars for the yearlong programs.
From early in the morning until long after midnight, students crowd the school's gray, carpeted halls, carrying instrument cases and music folders. It is not uncommon for cafeteria patrons to have students interrupt their lunch with spontaneous renditions of country-Western songs or guitar riffs.
Some of the students resemble the members of the rock band Bon Jovi, whose members wear tight black clothes and earrings; others would not look out of place in a business office.
Chip McClelland, 49, still dresses like an accountant on holiday in beige slacks and a button-down shirt. He left his accounting firm and family behind four months ago in Maui, Hawaii, to pursue his passion--playing the keyboard.
"Half the people on the island think I'm crazy to come over here with a bunch of heavy metal guitar players, but my wife understands," McClelland said. "I knew I had holes in my training, but I was almost buried by the work last quarter."
Joe Caruso, 26, who came from Queens, N. Y., to Van Nuys to perfect his guitar playing, also finds the curriculum challenging. Caruso wears his long, black hair in a frizzy halo and said he performs on weekends in a band called Chastity.
"I can get on stage and play rock all day, but I want to be a better musician than that," Caruso said. He said he doesn't have the discipline to learn to read music on his own.
The professional music world has become so competitive that to have an edge, even rockers have to be able to play a variety of styles, said Rob McConnell, a well-known trombone player and band leader who teaches at Grove.
"Ideally, a guitarist should know the whole electronic side of things, synthesized music, doing solos, acoustic, 12-string and maybe even how to play another instrument," McConnell said. "Otherwise, with the turnover in the popularity of rock groups, you could be a hot rock player today and some bum on the street tomorrow."
Since the school was established in 1974, its philosophy has been to make its students marketable, said founder and President Dick Grove, 61. A well-known composer, arranger and pianist, Grove still teaches at the school.
John Campbell, 28, of Claremont said his education at Grove has paid off. A free-lance keyboard player, composer and arranger, Campbell was able to build a home recording studio this year with his $85,000 salary. Attending the school "changed my life," Campbell said. "I'd never be this successful otherwise."
Jerry Gates, 33, of Canoga Park said he has only made $17,000 as a free-lancer during the nine months since he graduated. But he credits the school with teaching him how to write music, including jingles for Bank of America.
Being a musician "is not like being a lawyer or accountant," he said. "It takes years to build contacts, but I love music and that's what drives me" despite the constant rejection and low income.