These Timberlane teens know how to rock

This high school’s ‘School of Rock’ gives musically inclined students a new creative outlet

It’s the end of the school day at Timberlane Regional High School and the halls are filled with students rushing from classrooms, making afternoon plans and piling onto buses for the ride home.

When things begin to clear, however, the sound of a single guitar begins to echo through the recently deserted hallways. Notes bend and skip up and down the fret board as Alexander Gray, a senior at the Plaistow school, tears through a note-for-note version of Sublime’s “Santeria” on his Fender Telecaster as his fellow bandmates begin to arrive.

It’s a typical Wednesday, which means it’s rehearsal day for the Timberlane Rock Ensemble. For a good 90 minutes at this time every week, the school’s Performing Arts Center becomes southern New Hampshire’s own “school of rock.”

For four years now, a rotating roster of musicians have tuned-up, plugged-in and rocked through set lists ranging from Santana to the Rolling Stones – all under the guidance of music teacher John Zevos.

“It’s something that’s not really being done,” Zevos said of the unique after-school program. “It’s just another one of our strengths here – the amount of different offerings that we have. I don’t think there’s a lot of high schools around that are doing this kind of thing.

“We meet once a week and we do amazingly well for just getting together once a week,” Zevos continues as other students arrive to set up equipment. “I think this is an important kind of music that I hope expands their horizons a little bit, and is still a good learning experience at the same time.”

His influence has rubbed off on at least a few of the musicians.

“I’ve been listening to the Beatles my whole life,” said Demetrius Shew, a sophomore from Sandown who cites John Lennon as his favorite guitarist. “But Mr. Zevos has been showing me new songs that I really like, so it’s pretty awesome.”

Zevos – who also teaches music theory, guitar 1, guitar 2, guitar orchestra and assists with the school’s orchestra – draws from his own musical past to guide the young rockers.

“I get charts from a guy in New York City and then I see what we have for instrumentation and I go from there,” Zevos said.

Rachel Paradis on keyboard, Kate Burke on bass, Brendan Kelley on guitar and Justin Livingston on drums.

As the rest of the group arrives – Justin Livingston on drums; Gray, Shew and Brendan Kelley on guitar, Rachel Paradis on keyboard and Nick Pigott on vocals – Zevos gets them focused on attempting the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” Before trying the song for the first time, Zevos talks the group through the sheet music, pointing out codas, returns and making sure each student is comfortable with the arrangement. He counts them off, Paradis provides the lively intro, and the rest jump right in.

“Playing ’Lady Madonna’ has been the most challenging so far,” Paradis said of her key role in the song. “In the past I’ve had more of an organ part where there are more chords and figuring out patterns. This part is the signature of the song. I start it out by myself so I knew I had to get this down.”

Learning that focus is just one of the benefits of making like a Beatle, said Bill Melanson, owner of Northstar Music in East Hampstead.

“The kids get so much out of learning to play an instrument,” Melanson said. “They learn determination, they learn practice skills, they learn how to work within a group and they build confidence.”

Melanson’s shop has grown its own lesson program over 14 years, organizing groups and ensembles for in-store, student performances and concerts. The shop-owner has amassed an impressive list of teachers, including guitar teacher Brian McKinnon, who has strong Berklee College of Music experience, bass and ukulele teacher A.J. Pappas — also known as guitar slinger Gary Hoey’s bass player — and renowned jazz flutist Roger Ebacher who teaches piano.

When multi-instrumentalist Melanson started out, he’d drop the needle on a record, try to recreate what he heard, back the needle up and do it all over again. It was a laborious process that was a far cry from organized rock lessons guided by noted teachers – let alone being included in the local after-school curriculum.

“If I had been taught a proper foundation back then, if I had proper lessons and was taught how to read and taught proper positioning and scales back when I was 16 instead of learning it along the way by accident, I would’ve advanced a lot further a lot faster,” Melanson said of students’ access to programs like those at his own shop and at Timberlane, which is known for its music program. “But it certainly gave me determination.”

Having that access at school is something that has built enthusiasm among participants.

“It’s just a really nice environment,” Paradis said during a break. “I like it because we get to play different songs from what you usually get to play in school, which is usually classical stuff or based around the concerts we play. I think it’s just a lot more fun and friendly since we know each other.”

Livingston has taken the opportunity to polish his drum skills in the Timberlane Rock Ensemble and has joined several bands at a studio in Derry. His percussion-focused YouTube channel, JTLdrums, is growing followers and views, and he’s taken on the more difficult pieces with enthusiasm.

“The most challenging for me was playing ‘Black Magic Woman,’” Livingston says of the tune Carlos Santana made famous decades ago. “There were some funky grooves in there. The whole thing was made for three percussionists – one for cymbals, one for timbales and the other for conga. But we play a lot of interesting songs in here. It’s super fun.”

Vocalist Nick Pigott, who had some stage experience in the high school’s drama productions, found himself recruited thanks to his involvement in the school’s music department.

“I just roped Nick in,” Zevos said, laughing. “We needed a singer and he’s in my theory class – I’ve known him for a long time, anyway – so I said, ‘Nick, you sing – want to try?’ He said he would, and he’s been doing great.”

For his part, Pigott has enjoyed his time as the front man of the group, which included a winter concert that included a gig at the school’s Performing Arts Center.

“It was a little nerve-wracking at first,” he said. “But after a while I kind of got it. My freshman year I was in ‘Sweeney Todd’ and I had three solos, so I was used to singing on stage, but I had never been in a band before.”

It was just the latest accomplishment for the ensemble, which has seen a number of benchmarks during its fouryear run.

“I can’t really pick the most rewarding moment,” Zevos, now in his 19th year at Timberlane, said. “But every Wednesday I go home smiling. It just gets me in such a good mood.”  

Bill Burke lives in southern New Hampshire with his wife and daughter. He is the managing editor of custom publications for McLean Communications in Manchester. Also, check out his award-winning Dad on Board column every month in PNH.

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