Michael Morales’s Rockstar Academy Concert
7:30pm Fri, Aug 6
Leon Springs Dancehall
1515 Rogers Ave.
Watching Elora Valdez sing Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” is humbling beyond calculability. Sure, she’s still working out the kinks of handling Axel Rose’s range and her delivery is a little on the close-eyed, focused, and mannered side. But as she taps her foot and traces her voice along the trail of dead that is Rose’s vocal, I’m impressed, and she’s still got eight weeks to practice before she performs the track to a packed house. She’s 11 and sounds better than half the screamo vocalists in town. Valdez’s talent is obvious, but the context of her performance is just as important. She’s one of the leading students at Rockstar Academy on West Avenue.
The Rockstar Academy is exactly what you’re picturing, minus Jack Black (obligatory reference achieved) — an informal music school run by Michael Morales, an ex-hair-rock chart-topper — “a soft version of Def Leppard” goes one description on YouTube — who conceived the Academy as a way to get his kids off his back.
“My kids wanted to do music, and I couldn’t talk them out of it,” he explained post-rehearsal in his Studio M, where Academy classes are held. “I decided … we were going to cut to the chase, and we were going to teach them only what they needed to know. We’re not going to do sight-reading or theory; we’re going to do rock. I developed a no-holds-barred, no-filler curriculum for my sons.”
His boys formed the Zots, a post-cursor to the straightforward, monster-riff sound Morales built his career on in the ’80s. (Side note: Watching tweens play a musical style once fit for trashing hotels is surprisingly endearing.) The Zots’ performance at Oyster Bake prompted several parents to ask Morales how they learned to play, prompting Morales’s wife to encourage him to teach a few Castle Hills kids.
Now the school, barely open a year, is booked with more than 60 students who meet once a week for an organized band rehearsal. Morales assigns his students, some of whom have never held an instrument, songs tailored to their skill levels. The students practice with hired pros, including Emilio and Diego Navaira of San Antonio’s own Von Army. Then they book a gig and play it.
The students learn everything from Dio’s “Holy Diver” to Flyleaf’s “Fully Alive.” Morales’s abundant muscles and direct demeanor hint that he’d be icy with kids, but he’s the cool uncle during class. The mood is loud and loose as he passes out earplugs and sets reasonable goals.
“We’re just gonna get the first two minutes,” he tells his students as they attempt Metallica’s epic mosh-maker “Whiplash.”
There is no sheet music, mode booklets, or even tablature in sight — just wires, amps, and rugs. Morales teaches the kids from memory or someone pulls a tune up on an iPhone. In the case of “Fully Alive,” Morales learns the song from one student then begins working on it with another. The Academy is all about stripped-down playing and performing, and the pursuit of collaborative art.
“If you don’t get the students involved with one another, or with school or church … I find that they don’t do much with `their musical talent`,” Morales said. “We’re teaching them how to be part of something bigger than themselves, musically. Every day, it’s like watching a bird take flight.”
Morales isn’t the only adult having life-affirming experiences here. Jim Valdez and wife Beverly used to watch Morales perform with his band the Max in the ’80s. Elora is their daughter, and her brother Nicholas, 9, joined his sister at RA last June. Elora is the natural talent, having performed pop and rock tunes since age 5. But Nicholas, quieter and shyer, had never picked up an instrument. Now, the siblings play in the same band (Gasoline Alley) and their parents couldn’t be more proud. The Academy is a wonderful tool for personal growth and even a nice parental trump card, they said. But when Elora takes the stage this Friday, Jim revealed that his role as parent will shift a little.
“I look up to her,” he said. “She’s my hero. •