Trading Licks at the School of Rock : Musicians Institute is noisy and counts Prof. Van Halen among its visiting lecturers. School's mission is to help students make careers in music.


They come to Hollywood from around the world, struggling and working part-time jobs while waiting for that big moment when fame and fortune is within their grasp.

All the while they practice and study the reigning stars. And, of course, they take classes so they can learn the right technique and maybe meet a few important people who can show them the way.

Actors? Nope, not in this case. They are, for the most part, skinny, longhaired rock 'n' roll and heavy-metal musicians with tattoos on their arms, stars in their eyes and visions of groupies, limousines and fat recording contracts.

Every day, hundreds of the aspiring rock stars file into the Musicians Institute, an accredited music school established 13 years ago to help guitarists--and more recently, bassists, percussionists and vocalists--make it in the commercial music world as recording artists, studio or film industry musicians, or even local hotel lounge acts.

To be sure, the institute offers those who pass the rigorous entrance requirements things besides rock and metal music, such as jazz, country and Western and classical music. And there are conservatories and four-year schools like Boston's Berklee College of Music that aspiring musicians can attend.

But what draws the aspiring rockers to the institute, housed in a massive, nondescript building at 1655 McCadden Place, is its mission of teaching students the nuts and bolts of what it takes to become a commercial musician and maybe, just maybe, a star.

The school not only boasts a stellar list of visiting lecturers but has graduates who have gone on to fame and fortune, including guitarists for Michael Jackson, Chick Corea, and the heavy-metal group Megadeath.

Like many of the students, Richard Mamcarella was walking around last week with his electric guitar strapped tightly to his torso. Many of the students wear their instruments all day long; after all, at the institute they use them most of their waking hours--taking classes, jamming, talking about music or practicing in one of the many high-tech music labs.

"Like a lot of people here, I want to become a professional player," said Mamcarella, 23, who came all the way from Sicily just to study in the school.

"My dream," Mamcarella said, "is to become a session man, so when a rock star needs a guitar player, he will call me."

Lars Andersson, 24, came from Sweden to attend the institute, not just for its reputation and curriculum, but to be in Los Angeles. "This is more or less the capital of the world when it comes to music," he said, as he dodged and weaved his way through the guitar strummers and plinkers that had congregated outside the school, located just off Hollywood Boulevard.

Mamcarella and Andersson are among the 1,500 students who each year have plunked down $6,000 for the traditional yearlong course; hundreds more pay $1,250 for the summer course, often so they can learn enough sight reading and other skills to pass the entrance exam for the annual course. One in three students come from outside the United States; the majority are males younger than 25.

"I wanted to come to where the rock scene is at, and to get out of Minnesota," said Brenda Radloff, an aspiring bass player who is "almost 19" and from the small Minnesota town of Austin. "I'd like to play in a good band that makes decent money, or get a job in a (recording) studio."

Outside the building on any given day, the rockers plink their guitars and thump their basses while waiting for a class or rehearsal. They speak in rock terminology of such things as the best shredders (lightning quick lead guitarists), woodshedding (practicing hard), gigging, phrasing, riffing, playing scary (impressive lead guitar), fretting, getting chops down and trading licks (guitar solos).

Inside the building, cacophony abounds, as thumping and crashing sounds seep out of the 50 drum labs, each with a complete drum set, and electrically induced shrieks and wails pierce the walls of the 50 guitar labs, practice rooms, classrooms and computer stations where students practice their arpeggios.

Through courses, seminars, live rehearsals and gigs and informal consultation, institute students are taught everything from advanced musical techniques, harmonies and theory to recording industry laws and business principles. They learn audience interaction, stage presence and showmanship, and how to dance like Mick Jagger and use fog machines and lights.

"I think the Musicians Institute is fulfilling a definite place in the musicians' education spectrum, and I think they are doing a real good job of it," said Robert Myers, associate dean of curriculum at Berklee. He said the school offers a good learning and networking environment and a sense of community for aspiring commercial musicians.

"It's just not like any other music school at all," (said) the institute's chief executive officer, Ken Wilson. "It is much more complete."

Wilson, a former studio musician who speaks in the lilting brogue of his native Belfast, was a student at the institute who liked it so much he never left. "There's just an energy here I've never seen anywhere else. . . . In the world of music, this is really unique, and everybody knows that."

The institute is often featured in the musician trade magazines, and its alumni seem to be everywhere.

It wasn't always that way. In fact, it used to be that contemporary musicians learned just by listening to records and watching others play. But there has been a growing sophistication, fueled by classically inspired musicians like Edward Van Halen, the lightning-fast guitarist of Van Halen fame, Yngwie Malmsteen and many others.

In 1977, musician and entrepreneur Pat Hicks saw the need for such a school as students sought to keep up with the increasingly complex music; after all, there were 18 million guitarists in the United States alone and few places for them to learn their craft. Hicks mortgaged his home and with the help of Howard Roberts founded the Guitar Institute of Technology.

The institute opened its doors in March, 1977, to 57 students and three faculty members. Things progressed quickly, and bass, percussion and vocals "institutes" were added by 1987. The schools, all grouped under the Musicians Institute, now even has its own referral service to help students get gigs at local bars and with studios and major bands.

Because of rapid growth, the school moved in 1987 from Hollywood Boulevard to its current 60,000-square-foot facility. It now boasts a faculty and staff of 170, and because it is accredited by the National Assn. of Schools of Music, its students are eligible for financial aid and loans, Wilson said.

Hicks likes to describe the school as a trade school for aspiring professional contemporary musicians, with an emphasis on rock; a place where musicians can study "in the same way they might study auto mechanics or computer programming."

Once students pass the music theory and performance test to get in, they spend several months on fundamentals. The core curriculum includes ear-training, sight-reading, theory/harmony, single-string and rhythm techniques, improvisation and live performance. Students must log 300 hours per quarter of classes and practice. To graduate they must maintain a curriculum average of C+ or better.

They often form their own bands, which play at weekly mega-concerts and get feedback from instructors. In keeping with the racy tradition of the Hollywood club scene, some have opted for such interesting names as Timeless Mutant Ninja Gurus, Tofu on a Ritz, Spaztic Luv Children, Flaming Beef Rockets and Gutter Slut. "We have to censor them all the time," institute library services staffer Kara Bjornlie said of the bands.

Major attractions of the institute are its instructors and the talent of musicians visiting Los Angeles. Van Halen himself has lectured there, as have other rock stars and famed jazz, fusion and blues musicians like Pat Metheny, Albert Collins, Joe Pass, and Larry Carlton. John Entwistle, the renowned bassist for the Who, lectured recently, and legendary guitarist Eric Clapton even sponsored a guitar scholarship competition at the institute.

Institute success stories like Jennifer Batten often return to teach. Once denied admission to the school because she flunked the entrance exam, Batten later graduated, became an instructor and landed a lucrative gig as a guitarist for Michael Jackson's latest 18-month world tour. Such gigs, said institute staffers, can pay more than $6,000 a week.

One day last week, Batten was playing some crunching guitar solos in one of the lecture rooms, as her five awe-struck young pupils doggedly tried to keep up on their unplugged guitars. "We're just having a riff-a-thon, basically," Batten explained.

Most students, like Colorado Springs resident Scott Patterson, 28, are thrilled with the program. "I've been saving my money for 10 years to come here," said Patterson, as he tried to match his guitar fret-board positions with those of the guitar pictured on his computer monitor.

"I think it's the greatest thing I've ever done," said Patterson. "The wealth of information here is unbelievable."

Charles Mumford, 25, of Pensacola, Fla., however, said he was "not terribly happy" with the program, perhaps because its curriculum was too varied for his tastes. He grumbled about an upcoming test on reggae music, and said: "It's not bad to know these things, but it's not what I'm crazy about. This is a performance-oriented school; I wish I'd known that before I came."

Besides helping its students, the institute has helped Hollywood at a time when the area needed business. Pompea Smith, project director of the Hollywood Economic Revitalization Effort nonprofit group, said the institute brings about $20 million in annual revenue to the area, as well as art, culture and a positive message for local youth.

"It's impact has been amazing here," Smith said last week.

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