Lunchtime rock group rattles the halls of Clarksburg High
Students get to expand their talents, learn from each other and perform
Jerry Miller considers himself "the first line of maintenance for anything that breaks" at Clarksburg High School. But for 40 minutes each day, leaking faucets, faulty electrical outlets and dim lights take second place to guitars, a keyboard and students.
Miller, plant equipment operator at the school, invites students to spend lunch in his office, where they sit around a circle of microphones to share their musical talents and hone their skills. They are part of an unofficial rock music class that Miller started when the upcounty high school opened in 2006.
Miller's plan is a simple one.
"This is how it works: I open the door the first day of school and anyone who wants to can come in. We usually start out sitting around the table and then we start singing songs and then we turn on the mikes," he said during a lunch session in January.
Principal James Koutsos said he welcomes Miller's sessions. They were particularly helpful during the school's first year as a way to encourage connections among the 1,700 students, Koutsos said.
"We knew that we were going to have to work really hard to build successful relationships with students because we were pulling from other high schools and middle schools," he said. "Music is something a great number of people would be interested in. Since Jerry is such a high-energy individual and someone who would go out of his way to work with the students, I was on board."
Miller, and keyboardist Sean Kelly, a special education teacher who usually joins the group, have a loyal following of students who drop in to jam. Along the back walls of Miller's office are posters and magazine centerfolds of rock bands and singers. One section is full of posters, mostly created by Miller, that announce performances of groups that have come through his sessions.
Miller estimates that he has taught more than 100 students since the sessions began.
On Jan. 19, Miller and Kelly were joined by three students: senior Taylor Qualls, 17, who sang a song she wrote; junior Jonathan Varghese, 16, played guitar; and senior Kyle Mitcham, 18, beat-boxed and played percussion.
The music traveled into the hallway, pulling in the curious and the interested.
Ryan Felix, 16, a junior, watched.
"It's a lot of fun to watch them, and by listening, it improves my skills," said Ryan, who plays guitar and is trying to become a singer. "And it's a great way to make new friends."
Making music helps Taylor deal with bouts of depression, she said.
"Music helps a lot. I write lyrics and I say what's bothering me and it's like a load is lifted," said Taylor, who wants to major in performing arts in college. "When there is something really bothering me, I know where to go."
Kyle joined the group and became a member of his first band four years ago Miller's group also spawns a number of student bands. He said he has grown as a musician because of the lunch sessions and now plays piano in the school's jazz band.
"I get a couple of things [out of the sessions] since I first started. The first thing was just having fun, which is what music is all about. It's also about practice. I can come every day, which is 40 minutes five times a week, and practice," Kyle said.
Sometimes Koutsos joins in for a song or two.
"It's easy to stop by and sit down and see if they will let me sing a song. Their willingness to include me is so welcoming," he said. "That's why it really works: Anyone is welcome to participate. It's not an exclusive club."
In addition to the lunch group, Miller gives free guitar lessons after school on Tuesdays.
"It's kind of free. I'm not going to charge you anything, but you have to practice," he said.
Miller, who said he is basically a self-taught guitarist, considers the time he puts in helping the students a way for him to give back to the community.
Giving freely is a theme that comes up often as he talks about his time with the students.
"If I charged, they would only give back what they paid for. It's free and they are free to give what they can and get what they can," he said.
He is also giving the students something to take with them after high school.
"We're all playing and having fun. That's what I want my high school memories to be," Kyle said.