3 O'Clock Rock, by SarahJayn Kemp
It’s early evening, but time seems irrelevant in 3 O’Clock Rock’s cluttered basement practice space nestled in the belly of downtown Oakland. Instructor Donn Spindt is leading a student through the steps of proper snare drum maintenance. He’s paused the tuning of a snare drum to share a story.

“Well, at one gig we decided to pour lighter fluid all over the cymbals, so they were on fire while I was playing,” a beaming Spindt exclaims from the couch. “I was surrounded in flames. At the end of the show, we doused the snare drum; it made the most amazing noise as the head melted.”

Spindt casually adds that the flames ruined the temper of the metal, and $2,000.00 worth of cymbals became scrap metal in an instant.

There was no regret in his voice, capping his story with an enthusiastic, “Man, did it look cool, though.”

His student, a young person barely qualifying as a teenager, picks up a drum key and eagerly reaches for his drum.

It’s moments like this that really define the feel of 3 O’Clock Rock, a rock school for kids and, occasionally, adults. 3 O’Clock provides private and group instruction at their downtown location and outreach programs in select Oakland schools. Stories like Spindt’s are not interruptions but valued enhancements to the lessons. It’s the rock in rock and roll that so many other School of Rock-like outfits are missing.

3 O’Clock Rock fills a very real void. In a practical sense, 3 O’Clock Rock is keeping music accessible to young people by providing a sense of security. Tré Cool of Green Day got his start banging on a nearly-abandoned drum kit on Lookout! Records founder Larry Livermore’s property in the mountains. Livermore was thrice Cool’s age at the onset of their relationship – a fact that might trouble contemporary parents in this age of constant protection, but at 3 O’Clock, parents have the peace of mind that their children are in a safe space while potentially finding their Livermore.

Additionally, in an age of instant media access, this music program brings music back to its raw form – the communal live event. There is a heavy emphasis on listening. The small practice space is stuffed with records and cassettes into which the students can delve. Students are encouraged to bring music they are interested in to play, and teachers share musical connections with the kids. Even when a student is playing music solo, there seems to be a constant reminder that you’re playing along as part of a grand history of rock.

Like all good teachers, the instructors at 3 O’Clock Rock do a fair amount of listening, too. Instructor Billy Ribak buzzes around a practice lesson with a novice bass player, asking a string of questions.

“Do you like the way that sounds?”

“Remind me, how does that part go again?”

“What if you were to hold it this way?”

Ribak listens intently to the student’s answers – even the ones that he probably already knows the answers to. He believes that listening is a paramount aspect of his instruction. “Well, what we’re really teaching is listening,” Ribak tells me over an after-lesson beer. “How do you pick out those bass notes in a Violent Femmes song? Can you tell how this song was recorded? It starts at an early age – you just listen to music and think about how to play it, how to make it sound a certain way. You can always pick up on nuances that you didn’t hear before each time you hear a song. It’s so important to just be able to listen.”

Ribak is a master listener. He’s constantly adjusting the lesson plan based on how the young person responds to his questions, prompting the student to think deeper about the decisions he is making. Direct instruction on how to produce a certain chord is interwoven with the facilitation of artistic choices. Even though this is only the student’s third or fourth lesson, he’s being asked to make creative decisions. Ribak’s keen ear picks up on what students are expressing, and he pushes them to be as attentive a listener as the one he models.

Though it is somewhat intense, there’s nothing overly precious about Ribak’s process. Before any real decisions have been made about a song, Ribak says, “You know what? Let’s just play it and see what happens.” The student dives into the music, and Ribak ends the song with a celebratory high-five before giving some critical feedback and asking more questions. There’s a real emphasis on learning to be a musician, and not just learning how to play music.

Beyond the basement, students are prompted to play publicly – often and soon. Senior students are given the same respect and time as brand-new students. Sometimes the students play sets that are tight. Krüdwerk, one of the bands spawned from 3 O’Clock Rock, is one of those bands. At a recent First Friday celebration at Chabot Space and Science Center, the band played a slick set that made passersby stop and notice. 12-year-old musician Zane says he really values playing together.

“The band experience is really fun.” he says. “We vote on the music we bring in and decide what to play.” He moves his bangs to the side. “It’s good to play with people you like and respect.”

9-year-old Julian, a newcomer to 3 O’Clock Rock, agrees, “Yeah, it’s fun to be in a band.”

Not all bands that 3 O’Clock Rock brings to the stage are as tight, but Ribak creates playable scenarios for all students to experience playing for an audience. 3 O’Clock Rock students don’t wait until they are rehearsal-ready to play in front of an audience, they bring what they have to the stage. In this respect, playing music becomes more of an organic act, and the learning aspect of musicianship seems to be never-ending. Students don’t reach a point when they are finished with the music. There aren’t formal checkpoints that you pass through to earn the right to perform.

“I think everything has been in the moment. Music captures people like that, in a good way. When I listen to music, when I go to a live concert, I don’t think about other stuff. Music just does that. It brings you in.”

Perhaps his devotion to the craft of teaching music comes from his own upbringing as a musician. Ribak’s brother is Marc Ribak of the underground band Rock N Roll Adventure Kids; the brothers grew up playing music together. Billy began giving drum lessons to neighbors and friends, and this occasional gig eventually dominated his time. When Marc moved to the Bay Area, Billy did, too, in the hopes of continuing to make music with this brother. Though the two are not directly involved in a project together, their musical paths are often intertwined. Billy works on 3 O’Clock Rock and other projects, such as his bands including Gravys Drop, a Burger Records artist. Marc has his hands in several projects as well; organizing Burger Records showcases and Oakland-based music festival Burger Boogaloo, which he founded, among them. This past summer, students of 3 O’Clock Rock attended Boogaloo to see the twisting, throbbing, sweat-covered stage antics for which the festival is famous. “In all the years I took piano as a kid, no one ever encouraged me to go out and see a concert,” said one of the 3 O’Clock Rock students’ parents of the unorthodox field trip to Boogaloo. “It’s great they’re getting to do this.”

Even when students are not playing a particular 3 O’Clock Rock show, Ribak asks them to come along for the experience and to help as a roadie for the gig. Students get experience setting up in places around the area – bringing rock and roll to the masses in unusual venues like Aburaya Fried Chicken, a public library, a campground, and the aforementioned Chabot Space and Science Center. They’ve also played more traditional spaces like the stage at 924 Gilman. It feels like there’s an earnest nature to 3 O’Clock’s will to really be part of the community and for the community to be part of the 3 O’Clock Rock experience. Shows are not done in sanitized rehearsal spaces with only parents in attendance. They’re open; they’re accessible. It’s a great lesson in the connectivity and vulnerability that are part of playing live music.

This summer’s camps at 3 O’Clock Rock ended with a show in a very public forum – playing the second stage at MAGFest West in Santa Clara. Gamers dressed as Sonic the Hedgehog, Princess Peach, and Call of Duty infantrymen strolled past the small stage, poking their heads in to check things out. Ribak, smiling ear to ear, lead a band of adolescents dressed in those iconic Devo hats constructed of stacked red circles through “Mongoloid,” “Jerkin’ Back and Forth,” and “Gates of Steel.”

“These kids are pretty good,” a man costumed as the Super Mario Brothers character Bowser whispered to his female companion, who looked like a cross between Sailor Moon and Rosie from the Jetsons.

Sailor Moon Rosie nodded enthusiastically in time with the music.

Looking around the room, there were people from all walks of life, coming together, keeping time with 3 O’Clock Rock.

3 O’Clock Rock is currently accepting new students. For more information, please check out their website.