From the Innovation Unit Vaults: "I owe my PhD to the Sherwood High School Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival" (January 19, 2010)

This summer, I'm re-posting some of the blog posts I wrote while I was working at the Innovation Unit in London, which disappeared when the Innovation Unit discontinued its blog: 

My High School, Sherwood, had an annual event called the Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival, a revue of about fifty songs, broken up by a single intermission – played, sung, and in many cases, arranged, by students (just shy of 200 in total, not including the ones who build the set, and run the sound and lighting). When I first auditioned in 1995, it had been going for 25 years. I started out (like everyone) as a backup singer, then played saxophone in the band, and sang the lead on ‘Money (That’s What I want)’ and the Guess Who’s ‘Shakin’ All Over’. But my favourite moment was playing the tenor sax solo on Louis Prima’s ‘Jump Jive and Wail’ – actually, that’s not quite true. My favourite moment – or at least the one that most sticks in my mind, was at the beginning of the show – standing in a row with the rest of the horn section, back to the audience, hearing the drummer’s count-off, spinning around as one (you had to have choreography) and kicking in with the horn line, greeted by a screaming, sold- out crowd of 1000... but I’m getting bogged down in nostalgia. It’s only since my colleague Dave Price started talking about High Tech High that I realised how much I owe to Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival. The title of this post is no exaggeration. I have a PhD in English literature (and I completed it on time), and the reason I was able to do it has more to do with Rock ‘n’ Roll revival than with any of my High School English classes.

This isn’t a slur on my English teachers, some of whom were great – but I already loved reading critically, and writing critically, when I arrived – and the curriculum felt like it was geared towards mastering concepts that could be demonstrated in exam conditions – not a skill that I ever drew on as a PhD student.* 

On the other hand, these are the skills I learned from Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival:

1. Hitting deadlines: There is absolutely no deadline like a performance: you get no chance of an extension, and no partial credit for late completion.

2. Working consistently, year-round, with no visible reward: When I was practicing saxophone in June, I wasn’t preparing SPECIFICALLY for Rock ‘n’ Roll, which wouldn’t take place until March – but I wanted to keep my chops up, and I knew I would be set back if I took a break. So I practiced all the time, whether or not I had a gig coming up. This skill is key, because when you do a PhD in the UK, you’re only assessed twice: at your upgrade viva, which happens at the end of year one, and at the final viva – when you go into a room and defend your thesis against two examiners for a few hours, at the end of which they decide whether you get a PhD or not. So if you can’t work for long stretches with no imminent deadlines, you’ll never finish. Those are the skills that applied directly to my PhD, but there are others whose significance is much wider:

3. Working in a heterogenous group: It’s no secret that when you segregate according to academic attainment, you segregate, to a large extent, by social class. This is not the case with singing and dancing – and as a result Rock ‘n’ Roll was very nearly the only time in high school that I didn’t spend surrounded by other middle- class people.

4. Working towards a publicly-validated result: I’m going to get very High-tech High here. Rock ‘n’ Roll revival is a venerable institution in Sandy Spring, Maryland: lots of people now performing in it are the children of past performers – and tickets for the six annual shows (over two weekends) sell out so quickly that many people who get in line before the box office opens leave disappointed. The upshot of all this is that I spent rehearsals terrified that I wouldn’t live up to the standards that the community expected – and I think this was good, productive fear.

5. Developing secondary skills that were unrelated to my primary skill: I was in Rock ‘n’ Roll revival because I could play saxophone. I also had to learn to dance – which I was less good at – and I needed to procure a set of vintage costumes for myself – which I had absolutely no skills or experience in. But I got it done, because I had to. It’s an important characteristic of projects that they force you to acquire skills that you came to the project with no knowledge of, or indeed interest in.

6. Accomplishing something that seemed impossible: At thebeginning of rehearsals, it’s impossible to imagine that you will accomplish what was accomplished the year before – a seamless run of songs, on a great-looking set – and in fact, I’ve never known of another school that has pulled off what Sherwood pulls off ever year. 

Now it’s always satisfying to achieve more than you thought yourself capable of, but what’s amazing about Rock ‘n’ Roll is that whatever role you have played in accomplishing it, almost all of the credit DOES NOT go to you. Everybody involved – musician, singer, dancer, lighting designer, carpenter, sound technician – has contributed only a fraction of the whole. There’s no question that playing music onstage to cheering crowds is good for the ego, but perhaps the most powerful lesson of Rock ‘n’ Roll revival is that it’s not all about you. 

*I should note that editing the school literary magazine, under the endlessly serene and compassionate supervision of Mr. Deitchman, DID provide me with some of the skills I needed... a pattern is developing here. 

This post got a bunch of comments:

From Annette:

Alec- I could not have said it better myself. It is amazing thinking back how much we would accomplish from the early December auditions to performances in March. These are some of my favorite memories in my life (so far). I got goose bumps thinking about that countoff at the beginning of the show- especially our very last one senior year- down on the corner. I'll add to the social aspect even more though- working alongside a dance partner for months on end, you grow to adore them! Some of my best memories from RnR were dancing with Afiba and Adam. I'll also always remember dancing with you during the bridge in "Money." It makes me smile just thinking about it! I also completely agree that RnR helped us with our skills for higher education. We all share such a special bond being alums of the show that no other high school students share. Thanks for sharing your perspective. Hope you are doing well, Dr. Patton! love- Dr. K.

From Holly:

Wow, well said. Thanks for sharing. I was in RRR from #19-22 and can say that doing that and the newspaper no doubt helped me gain skills to survive getting my PhD (especially when I lost an advisor to cancer and my co-advisor moved to another university at the same time). Sherwood was great to me.

From Dan:

This was a great blog post to read. I think back to those years fondly with vivid memories of so many of us dedicating our time to hard work for many months in the pursuit of putting on a great show. To paraphrase Jack Black - a great rock show can change the world. I'm not sure if the experience was as much of an obvious impact on my path in life, but Rock 'n' Roll Revival definitely shaped me on a personal level. The dedication that we all put in to this show with our time and hard work was for me probably the first of many times that I started on a path for what seemed to be an unobtainable goal. Standing on that stage in front of a thousand people night after night to dance and sing allowed me to learn how to put aside inhibitions and embrace a confidence in myself I never knew existed before, and that has continued to serve me well in my current career. I will always cherish the time we spent together working on the show, building friendships, building partnerships, making music, entertaining each other as well as the audience, and having more fun in a school sanctioned activity than most high school students will ever understand. Those 4 years went by quickly and I miss being a part of the show, but I'm grateful for the time I had and the role RRR played in my life. Alec - nice post, and Jump Jive and Wail was also one of my most memorable moments, but from the dance perspective.

From David Horwitz:

Written on behalf of us ALL -- thank you, Alec! It amazes my adult friends when I tell them that at MY high school, the football players were also dancers in the annual rock and roll show, students who could sing were given the chance to do so in front of seven sold out crowds of 1,300 people, and 15% of the entire student body was actually involved in this amazing production, year after year! Those of us who went to Sherwood definitely had a unique high school experience, one that will stay with us forever. Thank you to Bill, Gene, Joe, and everyone else over the years who made this time of our lives so special! - David Horwitz '85, RRR #12 and #14

From Afiba:

Well done. English class is only part of what makes a great Dr. Of English. This paper demonstrates that we are the sum of our experiences.

From Tony Jordan

I'm from your Dad's generation but we had Rock 'n' Roll too. I can't say it improved my school work but it sure was a gas. I used to go to parties and dances envious of the guys that played in bands. They had all the girls and seemed really cool. After all I played clarinet in high school band, not terribly glamorous. Then one day I accompanied a friend who was auditioning on tenor sax for a local rock band. He walked into the suburban church basement where they rehearsed wearing shades and a beret. He said "Lay some chords on me, man." and totally freaked out these suburban teens. Later after his audition, which hadn't gone too well I asked if I could try his sax. Since clarinet and sax fingerings are similar I cranked out a version of Night Train. The next day I was asked if I could get a hold of a tenor sax and my Rock 'n' Roll career was launched. Since then I've played in dozens of Rock, Blues and Jazz bands. After my having given your dad introductory sax lessons he and I went to Berklee for a summer course where I began to play bari in their sight reading band. I met your dad's teacher, the legendary Frank Foster from the Count Basie band. Well it's 40 years later and I'm still blowing horn in various big bands, combos, pit orchestras and my sax ensemble. Playing music has been spiritually rewarding and enriched my life immeasurably. Don't let your horn gather dust in the closet. You can always find a group to play with if you want to.

From C Madoo:

Thanks for the memories! I was in RnR #16-20 and there is nothing else like it. It prepared me a lot for the real world. I actually went back a couple a years ago and it broght back alot of memories.

 From Jim Hofman:

Hey Alec thanks for your great post as well as other who wrote in with memories--cool to read! I am with your train of thought on R&RR under the direction of Bill Evan and Gene Orndorff. Its been 30 years since my first time on stage at the R&RR and they are both still there. Amazing! I heard today one person in the musical dept was let go because of the States budget but that it was Not Bill. I`m wondering was in Gene? Well Alec, when I was in The R&RR, that was 12 years before you set foot on stage there. So yeah the memories last a life time :) I always have said: "These kids have no clue how much they will treasure the fun experiences by being a part of Sherwood High School`s Annual Rock and Roll Revivals. You don`t know it when you are in H.S, but later on in life, you definitely realize how BIG of a chapter in life H.S. and the R&RR was as for fun memories. Alec, you hit it on the nail about how it puts all "classes" of students together to create something--nerds, jocks, pompom chicks, teachers, musicians- whatever Ha, it was all good, and that was that. There was no Bullshit at SHS. Everyone mixed well there. I was not aware of any clicks of kids with nasty attitudes, black white, jocks, freaks, nerds--there was not much of that crap thank goodness. If there was I ignored it. I hated trends except tight Jordash jeans on chicks :) And Definitely was no attitude crap of any type is Bill Evan`s music classes or in his R&RR`s. Bill Evans would kick your ass with his vocal chords alone. He started teaching at Sherwood in 1979 and in March of 1980, which was Rock and Roll Revival #9, Sherwood was blessed with Bills talents as the new musical director. He had mega classical and opera vocal chops but for some reason used it to teach after not gettin the right gig. So, H.S got him instead to all the kids advantage. He would demonstrate how to sing from the lower gut, and the damn walls would shake. He was the force that the R&RR show needed. He was unSTOPable--30 years later he is still there-Ha wow Jesus what a long career. I know Bill was impressed with the talent at Sherwood in my days there. Music was so incredible in the 80`s. Top 40 music was more fun then for sure. Ok I`m STILL stuck in the 80`s according to my wife. I play 80`s at work in Sirius daily. Its fun and easy tunes, the Cars, the Police. I don`t get Boyance and today’s hip-hop craze. Don`t need it personally. Some cool cats I remember going down memory lane during Sherwood’s early 80`s alumni readers might know like Sean Whalen, Bobby Brooks. I know allot of cats from Sherwood that went on to become full time musicians to this day. Its reminds me of a sports team that works hard together at something and wins. The R&RR was a bonding project. I`m 45 Alec, and when I see my old HS pal Kevin Yorke here and there, we have the memories with us still like it was not that long ago. When I did the Rock & Roll Revival #9 thru #12 in the early 80`s, it was all a group thing like you said. It was never about one person. I envy all the people who work hard on Broadway because all those actors and dancers and crew experience tons of fun and bonding with each show. I guess it` probably the same way on a movie set for 3-4 months, and then BOOM it`s over. Does anyone remember Kevin Yorke as the master of ceremonies as a DJ one year I think 1981 I think, or Tom Musgrove as Wolfman Jack in 1980 What great cats. I always loved the shows when they had a DJ weaving things together. You are who you are, and the R&RR brought some of that out in us. Arif Durrani with his keyboard tie on always smiling--he still plays today. He was the keyboard king in HS. I remember thinking I need a keyboard player for my top 40 bank Eclipse. I asked Arif the next day, and then for the next 5 years into college even we did top 40 dances everywhere Exactly 100 gigs. Going back even farther was ninth grade asking my neighbor Tommy Dobridge to join my band with Jamie Fornatora and Paul Betances on drums. Well Tommy, he was always playing my favorite slow song "Stairway to Heaven" PERFECTLT on his guitar, over at Pete and Chris Benoits house. I asked him to play lead for Eclipse and the rest was history. I still have Tapes of Tommy solos from a bunch of our gigs and some back yard Parties. As far back as the 8th grade party at Tim Maddens back field playing Beatles and Van Halen. 

From Mindy:

I was so jealous of all those who had the talent and nerve to perform. I was SHS class of 1984. Looking back, I wish i was on that stage. I still have no talent but it looked like such a great time.

From Beth Miller Buckley:

Hi Alec... Beth Miller(Buckley) here :D I was in R&RR's 7-10!! and I remember when it all started (w/ Sam Andleman and Roger Oliver).. thanks to 3 older sisters that were at SHS before me...but I was the first in my family to be on the stage of the Ertzman...and I will never stop being proud of what we all did together back there...and what a great experience it was......I didn't go off to be anything major..just a mom and a Domestic Engineer..LOL BUT once Bill Evans came in and took over as musical director...the show turned into one of the most professionally done I had ever been in...the encouragement Bill gave to let our talents flow was off the charts...something time can never take... Since my time there..this show has touched more people than anyone can count..and I am so glad to see it is going as strong as ever! SHS was a safe place where we were all very close and to this day remain so....R&RR was an even safer haven...where when you think you're close with aren't until you do this thing together with them...then you are close...and with as much time that passes there has been no erosion at all....that's a good place to be.. Thanks for the great write up..I am sure you are probably one of my very good friends son/nephew etc...Olney itself is a great place to grow up.