Upstairs in the carriage house behind the East End Arts Council in Riverhead, seven local high school students are becoming rock stars.
On a recent cold Wednesday night, as other students began to arrive, guitarists Noah Gorman and Nick DiSalvo and bass player Jon Rizzo were up on a makeshift stage in the corner of the room, tightening up their collaboration on an intense descending rock riff as drummer Jake Schott kept them in line with a driving beat.
Many of them had never even met before a few weeks ago. They’d all been selected by the superintendents of their schools to participate in the arts council’s Music Masters Fellowship, chosen for their musical talent and their enthusiasm. Over the next six weeks, they plan to write and arrange enough songs for a concert and recording. Their mentor will be Corky Laing of Greenport, drummer for the band Mountain, whose constant gentle coaxing will keep the songs flowing.
The arts council plans more such “master class” fellowships, focusing on different genres, in the months ahead. Steve Watson, education director for the council, said the concept for the series arose from a discussion with former Southold Town supervisor Josh Horton, a friend of Mr. Laing.
“We talked about the idea of an artist-in-residence, and we came up with this idea of a master class,” said Mr. Watson, who has made it his mission in the last year to develop partnerships between the EEAC and local schools.
“If a kid is a natural sprinter, you want to get them to the Olympics,” he said, “but if a kid is a musician or an artist, what do we do for them? That’s what this program is trying to address.”
During that recent Wednesday night session — only their second together — the guitarists, bass player and drummer of the current master class had a great acid-rock sound developing, while saxophone player Jessie Sisti and singers Katie Loper and Dakota Cohen waited for a chance to jump into the mix.
Jessie had a sax solo prepared for the occasion, and the sound of her horn weaved in and out between the other musicians for a few minutes, then she decided to switch to an electric keyboard, playing chords to highlight lyrics that Nick, one of the guitarists, had brought along to share.
Nick was nervous at first. The words were scrawled in a little spiral-bound notebook and Dakota and Katie were first a little shy about singing them, But as Nick stood behind the singers, playing the chord changes on Mr. Laing’s spare acoustic guitar and quietly singing the melody, they gradually found their voices.
The lyrics tell the story of a man lost at sea, praying to the goddess of the ocean to keep him alive.
“For this ship has its own captain,” they sang, “and it’s not me.”
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They sang it again. Nick suggested they try a call and response. They tried again and their voices played off each other as if they were pros.
Nick turned to Mr. Laing.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“If I didn’t like it, you’d hear from me,” Mr. Laing answered. “You can turn the seafaring idea into an epic. Everybody’s lost at sea. We’ve all been there in our minds.”
“Wow. A rock star likes my music,” said Nick, who kept playing rhythm guitar with a driving backbeat behind the singers. Mr. Laing stopped him, reluctantly. What he was doing was pretty advanced, tripping up the singers so early into their learning a new song.
“I work like this all the time,” said Nick. “A lot of people don’t understand it. It’s so cool that someone can tell me exactly what I’m doing.”
“Off the beat is a bit more sophisticated. It’s a percussive thing. Make it happen. But what I don’t want you to do is think about it,” said Mr. Laing.
“We decided to make this a fellowship, because we wanted to keep it non-frivolous,” Mr. Laing said of the program. “We want to give the kids self-esteem. Performance has a lot to do with everything in life. They’re writing it, performing it and recording it and they’ll sell the CD as a fundraiser. If their families have 60 to 70,000 members, we’ll have a hit record.”
The students go back to working on the lyrics, mastering the first verse and chorus and then singing them into Mr. Laing’s iPhone to listen to later.
“When you learn new stuff, if you learn too much at one time, you start bumping into yourself,” he said.
As everyone sat down on the stage for a quick breather, Mr. Laing approached them all with pencils and scraps of paper. Their next task: Write a punk song.
“There’s nothing like a song that’s a jab down the throat, though you’ve got to understand parents will be listening,” he said. “Political works, if you want to be political. I like the idea of a dictator, but it’s hard to rhyme that word.”
The students’ first Music Masters Fellowship performance will be held Tuesday, April 26, at 7:30 p.m. in the carriage house behind the East End Arts Council, 133 East Main St., Riverhead. It’s part of EEAC’s ongoing Tuesday night composers forum, an opportunity for living composers of all genres to showcase their music.
For more information, call 369-2171.