Fiona Russell discovers in an old mill that learning to perform on guitar has benefits for children of all ages.
Ricky Comiskey explains, “We’re next door to the Fun Factory” but when I arrive the door is locked.
“It has to be,” a smiling Ricky explains as he welcomes me in to a spacious reception area. “Given half a chance, the toddlers from next door wander in.”
We are at his School of Rock, a cluster of teaching and rehearsal rooms, a recording studio and a concert room, all occupying part of the second floor of a former mill building in Linthwaite not far from Huddersfield. It’s easy to see why he’s wary. The walls are lined with electric guitars, rock posters and large photographs of pupils absorbed in playing riffs. There’s a comfy corner sofa, a pot of “proper coffee”, even a friendly dog – the school’s mascot, 12-year-old Molly.
You can see immediately why this has become the place to be in the Colne Valley for teen and pre-teens, and indeed adults in search of their inner Jimmy Page.
The school has just taken on more space in order to create a bigger room for performances: “We go from strength to strength,” Ricky says proudly. “We’ve got 300 people coming through the door each week. The youngest kid is five, the oldest kid is 80.”
The bulk, however, are from that most tricky of age groups, 10 to 15. It’s a vital time in life, and Ricky knows all about how hard it can be.
He remembers being totally turned off by school.
Although he knew he had a talent for painting and drawing, he preferred truanting in museums, libraries and art galleries to the normal lessons on offer.
He left school at 16 with no qualifications, determined to find a job, but with no idea what he wanted to do. Everything changed, however, when he discovered the guitar.
“I started quite late really, at 18. It sounds soppy, but I had a girlfriend and we were living together. We split up and I was heartbroken. I was watching a film called Crossroads – which is loosely based on the life of the blues musician Robert Johnson – and I heard Ry Cooder playing “Feeling Bad Blues”. It just sounded how I felt. I was compelled to make those sounds.”
He bought his first guitar in a car boot sale for £7. “It was horrible and it wouldn’t stay in tune, but I learnt to play. And I found I had an insatiable thirst for it. My friends hated me. I was always stealing their best riffs and tricks.”
A couple of years later, a friend told him he was going to music college. Ricky didn’t know such places existed. But he went along to the then Huddersfield Tech for an audition. He knew enough to get in and soon he was doing GCSEs, an A Level in music and then a BTech and a Cert. Ed.
The other big event in his life at this time was becoming a father. Ricky’s daughter was born whilst he was studying. “I loved it. I was an adult learner and I knew why I was there, so I made the most of it.”.
This second experience of full time education transformed Ricky. Until then, he had lacked confidence. To illustrate just how bad things were he tells me the story of his brief experience working in a Huddersfield Bingo Hall.
“I lasted half a day. I was supposed to call out the numbers using a microphone, but I was petrified of microphones. I was so scared I passed out on an old lady. They sent me on a lunch break and I never went back.”
At college, however, he found that he was no longer scared. In fact he discovered he was a natural performer. “I didn’t realise I could sing until college and I ended-up fronting a 14-piece soul band, a bit like The Commitments. Then one of the tutors heard me and he poached me for his own band.”
Soon Ricky was out four nights a week playing in clubs and over the next 10 years he played in and managed bands, worked as a sound engineer and an events promoter, all the time teaching the guitar from home, in further education colleges and in rehabilitation institutions.
A family bereavement brought this period of his life to an end. He tried to settle down to a “normal job”, but he’d got the bug of teaching.
“I was working in a gas yard, lugging canisters, but then I began teaching a couple of kids again. I was just going to buy a nice guitar with the money. But then I thought: ‘I love teaching, so what could I do if I took it seriously’? He quotes Yodi’s advice from Star Wars: ‘Do or do not. There is no try’.
The £500 earmarked for the fancy guitar became the starting capital for a business. Ricky counts himself lucky: “Tons of adults still don’t know what they want to do. Teaching the guitar has given me a calling. I’m on a mission. It’s all about stripping away self-limiting beliefs.”
About 10 years ago, Ricky discovered what is known as neuro-linguistic programming. He thinks that if you can remove a person’s self-limiting beliefs they are capable of just about anything.
It’s a controversial theory, but whether you believe in its wholesale application or not, the idea that self-limiting beliefs are crippling is a pretty useful way of thinking about the ages 10 to 15 – when the self-belief of childhood gives way to the often stifling self-consciousness and insecurity of adolescence.
“It’s a difficult time,” Ricky acknowledges. “Perhaps more now than ever before. There’s so much peer pressure. Kids are pushed and pulled, this way and that. It’s so important to be seen as cool.
“But at the same time they’re striking out on their own. It’s about getting them through that, keeping them away from negative influences and activities, and forming positive habits of behaviour.”
It’s a formula whose outcomes are certainly impressing one dad, Martin Caufield, whose 12 year-old daughter Fran plays bass at the rock school. Fran followed her brother here, Brad, who is now on to songwriting lessons.
“ I would massively recommend Ricky’s,” says their father. “Both of my children have come out of their shell and their confidence in performing, communicating and social skills have all greatly increased. It’s superb experience.”
Which seems to endorse Ricky’s claim that his Rock School is about far more than teaching kids to play a bit of guitar or the drums.
“We get them up on stage and after all life is a stage. If you go on a date you’re on a stage, or for a job or university interview. They learn that if you are on a stage people are going to be looking at you, and the more you do it, the more you will get used to doing it, and the easier it will become.”
His poor opinion of conventional schooling hasn’t changed much. He is particularly critical of the UK education system’s attempts to engage adolescents. He dismisses that as so much jargon. “Kids already are ‘engaged’,” he protests. “That’s how they are. They’re just not engaged in the kinds of things us adults want them to be engaged in.
“Educators need to innovate more. Present things differently. Not just the same old didactic way they’ve always done it. Otherwise kids’ll just say: ‘This is boring. Where’s me phone?’ We make things more interesting than screens here. That’s why they come back.”
Gillian Crozier whose children, Jacob and Caleb (aged 16 and 13) have been learning guitar and singing at the Rock School says, “‘It’s given them such a confidence boost, really helped to bring their inside out. And I’ve had so much fun watching them become rock stars.”
The school’s foundation beginners’ guitar courses take as the starting point individual songs: “That’s the point of inspiration, and we work from there”. Another course called RiffMasters (popular with adult learners as well as kids) focuses on learning classic rock riffs (“last time we got through around 140”).
Graham Smith and his wife Derise have done the adult beginners and were enrolling onto the Adult RiffMasters course after Easter. “It has been a lot of fun and Ricky’s enthusiasm for his craft is highly infectious so watch out!”, said Derise.
But all the kids, whether eight or 80 (classes contain either adults or kids), learn as much from one another as from the tutors who, as Ricky proudly points out, have over 100 years musical experience between them. “It’s really quite organic.”
I tell him it sounds quite tribal: “We are a tribe and I suppose I am the chief,” he laughs. Then he directs me to his all-singing all-dancing website (surprise, surprise: Ricky is also a computer geek), where I find it all summed-up: ‘Dare yourself to be AWESOME. We can help.’
For more information see www.rock-school.co.uk , tel. 01484 846838.