Next generation rockers

Students prepare for this weekend's Youth Rock Orchestra.01

Youth Rock Orchestra continues to grow.

Shea Stewart
The moment 130 high school students have been waiting on all year has nearly arrived. In just a week, the students will spend a night converting rock and pop tunes into classical works of music as the Youth Rock Orchestra with the Mark Wood Experience revisits Robinson Center Music Hall.

It’s the third year the orchestra — comprised of students from Mills University Studies High School, Conway High School and other schools across central Arkansas — has teamed up with Wood at Robinson in delivering a charge of classic tunes put to strings, brass, woodwind and choir vocals. The music includes works by legendary artists such as Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica and the Beatles along with original pieces by Wood, a former member of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and Juilliard-trained violinist and Emmy-winning composer.

And since Lady Gaga currently rules the pop world, the orchestra, who will kick off the night’s music with an opening set sans Wood and his Experience, will include the current queen of pop’s tunes right in their set.

“It’s a really good mix of so many different genres of today’s music, classic rock and classical crossover rock,” says Heather Isbell, director of the orchestra. Isbell is assisted by Arkansas Symphony Orchestra associate conductor Geoff Robson and ASO violist Joe Joyner in directing the orchestra.

“To have somebody like [Robson and Joyner] believe so strongly in what we’re doing and also want to volunteer [their] time is pretty powerful,” Isbell says.

The 130 students in this year’s orchestra is up from 100 students last year, and Isbell jokes the Youth Rock Orchestra will have to move to Verizon Arena for future performances if it gets any larger. And a move to a larger venue in the coming years is not impossible, considering the energy and fire created by a mob of classical-instrument-playing students.
“It’s a really good, positive, enriching program for these students,” Isbell says. “Adult, professional orchestras cannot pull off the energy on stage that the youth rock orchestra pulls off. It’s impossible. What you get when you come to a concert like this is 130 students who are literally having the time of their life on stage. It’s not staged. It’s not choreographed. It’s not, ‘You kids have to act this way.’

“It’s uncontained, pure, unadulterated bliss. They dress like rock stars. This is really their moment to having 2,000 people on their feet screaming for them. It totally changes their lives. I have seen transformations in so many students.”

Isbell started reworking rock, pop and soul music as orchestral pieces about 11 years ago while practicing the cello along with her violin-playing son. And growing up, she was surrounded by music. Her father is the late Ed Cobb, a Grammy-nominated songwriter, producer and musician who wrote “Tainted Love,” a soul tune reworked by synthpop band Soft Cell into a Top 40 hit in the early ’80s.

Isbell met Wood six years ago at an American String Teachers Convention, and told him she was always arranging rock music for cello but really had no one to play with. Through chatting with Wood, inspiration struck.

“[Wood] was the inspiration to start doing this,” Isbell said. “I came back and got some parents together and got Mark to do a little concert at Mills. It inspired the kids to want to do this full time. I knew the only way that would happen is if I did it. So I volunteered my time, and got a grant to get it going.”

The Mark Wood Experience is Wood and five other world-class musicians, including vocalist and Wood’s wife Laura Kaye and the couple’s 15-year-old drumming sensation Elijah Wood. During his career, Mark Wood has worked with artists like Celine Dion, Lenny Kravitz and Billy Joel, and created the revolutionary Viper electric violin. Mark Wood walked away from Trans-Siberian Orchestra (He was a founding member.) to focus on his own music-education program, Electrify Your Strings. But first and foremost is his passion for orchestral music and getting youth excited about it.

It’s a passion Isbell and the students of the Youth Rock Orchestra also share.

“It’s something they really love to do,” says Isbell of the orchestra students. “And whether they are playing classical music or rock music is irrelevant. They’re playing and developing a passion for an instrument. Whether it becomes a profession or they just love to play because it’s a getaway and their escape, it’ll be with them for the rest of their lives.

“I have to give the kids credit. They are the reasons why the shows keep getting better and better. They’re always thinking about what they can do to make it better. And they do it. They pull it off. It’s amazing.”

94.1 The Point’s Youth Rock Orchestra is once again teaming up with the Mark Wood Experience for a night of classical reworkings of rock, pop, metal and soul standards. The show is March 10 at Robinson Center Music Hall, starting at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25. Tickets can be purchased at the Robinson Center Music Hall Box Office the evening of the concert, or in advance from, Celebrity Attractions at (501) 244-8800 or at (until Sunday).

School of rock is in session
Youth Rock Orchestra, Mark Wood present night of orchestral rock.
By Shea Stewart
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Mark Wood Experience plays Thursday at Robinson Center with the Youth Rock Orchestra.

LITTLE ROCK — You can hear the chugging rhythms of Aretha Franklin's classic "Chain of Fools" from the parking lot of Mills University Studies High School. The tune's sassy stomp is perhaps a little too saggy at this particular moment, but the deep groove is there, holding the dismissal tale in line.
Inside the school's band hall, a sneaker and T-shirt wearing mob of students armed as an orchestra is bent over their instruments, intently focused on loosening up, being less mechanical and finding the tune's soulful, kiss-off groove. But it's only a rehearsal for the Youth Rock Orchestra, a collection of 65 students, mainly from Mills and Conway high schools, who recreate classics like "Chain of Fools" as orchestral music. And the need for rehearsing? Thursday's gig with The Mark Wood Experience at Robinson Center Music Hall, a concert where the orchestra will assist the former Trans-Siberian Orchestra violin master and his band in running through a collection of classic rock covers, original music and classical crossovers. There'll be Led Zeppelin classics such as "Black Dog" and "Kashmir," pop tunes by The Beatles such as "Eleanor Rigby" and other classic rock staples re-imagined with soaring strings, brass, woodwind and singers.

On this Saturday midday, one of the hall's boring, brown double doors is open to spring in all its greening glory. It's a glancing reminder to the youth bowed over their instruments in the tightly packed rehearsal hall of the sacrifices needed to become rock stars. A handful of parents either quickly pop their heads in the door before retreating, or walk in and start snapping cell phone photos.

Leading the youthful horde is Heather Isbell, the volunteer director of the Youth Rock Orchestra. Her purple-streaked hair is topped with a Fidel Castro-styled military patrol cap, and she marks time with handclaps and punches the air with her right hand on down notes.

Between tunes the rehearsal hall breathes with the meaningless chatter of youth, and gentle reminders from Isbell such as "This is our entrance piece so you want to know your riffs," and "This is a piece in the show that is really beautiful, but if we don't play it in key it's going to kill it."

The piece in question is "Requiem," a lush tune that fosters images of an airborne camera slowly panning over the countryside of Victorian England.

Two and a half hours after the rehearsal commences, it ends. Isbell’s comment, "I don't want to keep your parents tied up," is met with a smattering of "They don't care." See? Rock stars don't care what their parents think at any age. Well, perhaps these rock stars care a little bit more about their parents' thoughts rather than the average, everyday rock star. After all, they are still middle and high school students.

Rehearsal complete, the students quickly exit the hall, leaving Isbell and Mills orchestra director James Hatch to tidy up the room. This year's Youth Rock Orchestra first started rehearsing back in the fall semester, practicing twice a month on Fridays after school. Wood, who arranges all the music, forwards MP3 clips and sheet music of the tunes to Isbell, who distributes them to the students. The songs are broken down by instrument, allowing the students to practice their parts in their free time.

"The music is not easy," said Isbell, after the students have left the hall. "It's definitely challenging. It's performed at a professional level.

"Trying to teach them to groove is a new concept. Rocking with it is something new to teach them."

Isbell first discovered the joy of rock music recreated as orchestral pieces about 10 years ago after she started practicing the cello along with her violin-playing son. But growing up, she was surrounded by music. Her father is the late Ed Cobb, a Grammy-nominated songwriter, producer and musician who wrote "Tainted Love," a soul tune reworked by synthpop band Soft Cell into a Top 40 hit in the early '80s.

Isbell first met Wood in 2007, enticing him to perform at Mills in 2007. Wood returned in 2008 and played Robinson Center Music Hall with the Youth Rock Orchestra.

"It was really fun to do, and the kids were blown away," said Isbell of the 2007 show. "The kids thought it was great."

Wood is an odd sort of rock star. The sort who walks away from the money-pit stocking Trans-Siberian Orchestra (He was a founding member.) to focus on his own music-education program, Electrify Your Strings. Of course, he's not lacking in funds. The Juilliard-trained violinist and Emmy-winning composer has worked with artists like Celine Dion, Lenny Kravitz and Billy Joel, and created the revolutionary Viper electric violin. It's simply that this is a man who is passionate about orchestral music and getting youth excited about it. Passionate enough to walk away from the glitz — and fire, lots of fire — of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to help create 50 student rock orchestras around the country.

For months out of the year, The Mark Wood Experience — Wood along with vocalist Laura Kaye, guitarist Jon Bivona, bassist Paul Ranieri, keyboardist Sean Meagher and drummer Elijah Wood (Mark Wood's son) — play shows around the nation with these student rock orchestras.

"He's so kind and patient," said Isbell, who will join The Mark Wood Experience on cello for the show. "He connects with the kids. Even though he was a member of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, he doesn't come in playing the rock star card. He has a passion for music education and trying to help save these string programs. He doesn't have to do this."

What started in Little Rock as a one-off production became a year-round gig, with the orchestra students at Mills and Conway high schools, and Fuller Middle School along with students from other schools in central Arkansas forming the Youth Rock Orchestra. Isbell, who is also co-owner of Izzy’s Restaurant with her husband, is assisted in directing the orchestra by Geoff Robson, associate conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, and Joe Joyner, ASO violist.

"It's important for the students to have this outlet," Isbell said. "If we expect for them to appreciate composers such as Mozart and Beethoven then we need to appreciate what they want to play. This is the best of both worlds."

Beyond the musical benefits, the Youth Rock Orchestra serves other purposes, Isbell said.

"For the parents, they see their kids excelling in a regular school program," she said. "The teachers in regular classrooms see improvement, and the students have a new confidence. The students who were formerly skulking down the hallways are now the rock stars. They feel great. They have a new-found confidence."

And let's not forget these students will grace the stage at Robinson Center Music Hall, grooving their way through a by then well-rehearsed and steady version of "Chain of Fools" and other tunes.

"This is a full-scale rock orchestra," Isbell said. "It's not a kiddie orchestra. It's absolutely mind-blowing. It’s the feel of Trans-Siberian Orchestra without the fire."