Rockit Academy—Empowering New Jersey’s Future Vinny Cecolini January 8, 2020 Buzz, Features Auditioning, especially for adolescents, can be terrifying, scarring, and demoralizing experiences. Being verbally poked and prodded by overly critical sour-faced judges can cause both established and aspiring artists to lose his or her confidence. The Rockit Academy auditions happening on January 11th at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey, however, is starkly different. At this audition, aspiring musicians, age eight to 18, will be encouraged by the judges will to succeed. “Auditions can be intimidating, especially for children,” explains Bruce Gallipani, who founded the non-profit charity in 2004. “But Rockit is not American Idol. We’re not judgmental. We are looking to see how we can help these aspiring musicians be a part of what we do.” Academy judges are not just looking for prodigies, but aspiring musicians of all talent levels. Even if the adolescent is not as skilled as some of the other talents, if he or she is determined to learn, the staff will take notice. Even if the potential student is “not ready” to enter the academy, the judges will not crush anyone’s dream. Those who will not be invited into the tuition-based program, but those aspiring to be musicians, will still be offered individual lessons and guidance to help them reach their personal and musical goals. They are also invited to a band rehearsal to witness the work and see that the participants are serious. Bruce smiles. “Nine out of 10 of these kids will return for the next audition and they will make it in.” Yes, the heart and soul of the program is about the students who have a passion to learn and move on to a professional level, they are not required to pursue a career in the performing arts. The Academy is about team building and empowering students with the tools to succeed in whichever roads they choose to follow. Those wishing to audition on January 11th can log onto www.rockitacademy.org to sign up and find more information. While the academy is tuition based, during 2020, 10 students will be offered full-scholarships. This will include weekly one-hour private lessons and 90-minute band classes. This semester will culminate with an April 4th performance at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey with not only their peers, but also their rock star mentors. When applying, potential students are asked about their favorite musical genres and how long they’ve been playing their respective instrument. Auditions usually result in the addition of 60 new students. The staff will then confer over the new students’ musical tastes to determine the semester’s curriculum and theme of the big show. “We may have five students who love to play Beatles songs,” Bruce explains. “We may have another bunch that love to play heavy metal. And we may have another group that likes pop or Motown. From that [feedback], we might create a seventies or eighties-themed curriculum. We may do a lot of Beatles songs or perform the entire Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. This three-week process can be difficult for the instructors, but it is our job to work around the students.” A few themes of past performances include 2014’s Tribute to Woodstock and last year’s Tribute to The Who’s Tommy. It was during the 2014 show at the Academy’s previous home, Red Bank’s Count Basie Theater, that they attracted the attention of two major Artist Advisory Board members: Maureen Van Zandt and her husband, E-Street Band member and actor, Little Steven “The Count Basie Theater started an annual vanguard award ceremony and Steven and I were the first to be to be honored,” Maureen recalls. “The Rockit kids, who were part of the Count Basie Arts and Education group, were the entertainment. Their tribute to Woodstock was in our honor, since Steve and I are sixties people. We grew up with that music. We were not only impressed by the musicianship, but also by how much love and respect they had for the music that was written so many years before they were born.” The couple, who have dedicated much of their time, energy, and money to music education, “fell in love with the group and the dedication and passion of Bruce and his staff. “We just wanted to get involved at that point and we did,” Maureen continues. “So we started attending their annual fund-raising galas.” While their name and reputation has certainly drawn attention to the Academy, their participation does certainly not stop there. After first becoming involved with Rockit, Maureen and her sister Laurie stopped by a band rehearsal with racks of clothing to outfit the kids for their performances. In addition to Little Steven performing a few songs with the students during their Tribute to The Who’s Tommy, Maureen took on a more specific role. “I played Mrs. Walker,” the actress laughs. “Luckily, I only sang a little bit. I didn’t torture anyone.” In addition to their work with Rockit, Maureen and Steven also maintain the Teach Rock Web site, which provides free lessons and curriculums for teacher to use. It is free and available to anyone to see, read, and use. To access them, register at www.teachrock.org. “With Steven’s program, it all gets traced back to its roots,” she continues. “The teachers ask the student who they are listening to. It is not just about older music. It is traced back to the roots of where the current music comes from. Kids are interested. They want to know who influenced Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran. They also learn about other artists and history when certain songs were written. If they learn about the artists and the songs of the sixties, for instance, they will learn about the protest movements.” Like Bruce and his staff, Maureen is disheartened that budgets cuts are forcing many schools to eliminate music and other arts programs. Rockit Academy and Teach Rock are providing a small solution, but she says, “It’s just a drop in the bucket.” “These programs are very positive, not only because arts education is not happening in schools anymore, but also because people say rock is dead. This is not true. I think it’s great that the music is being kept alive by a younger generation, who are learning about, and getting to appreciate, this form of music.” In addition to the Van Zandts, Eddie Brigati (The Rascals), Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge), and Ricky Byrd (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts) are also “hands on.” “[The Academy] is blessed that I can reach out to them,” says Bruce. “And when they come to our rehearsals, they see the work our team puts in and how the students love what they are doing. They feel the passion. We’re like a family and once you become part of the family there is no getting out.” Another major name who is part of the Artist Advisory Board is legendary music photographer Mark Weiss. Currently readying his new book, Decades That Rock (distributed by Simon & Schuster) for publication this May, the Weiss guy laughs that he is “a publicist, promotions representative, and cheerleader for the Academy.” “I first heard about [the academy] when they performed at the Count Basie Theater,” he recalls. “I heard Little Steven would be at the show and thought it would cool if I attended and reconnected with him.” He was so impressed with what he witnessed, he just had to get involved. “At this point, my professional career is about reconnecting and rebranding,” he continues. “Ironically, that is also what I feel my mission is with Rockit. I’m the bridge between the rock stars—the people I hung out with and toured with—and the kids. And Bruce is the guy at the wheel.” Among the artists Weiss has brought into the Rockit family: Ricky Byrd, Carmine Appice, and more recently guitar heroes Zakk Wylde and Steve Vai, and New York Fox-affiliate news anchor Steve Lacy. “Besides being one of Bruce’s closest friends, I am his right-hand man,” the photographer continues. “He will bounce a lot of things off me. I shoot the shows and post the photos online. I also conduct a photo shoot with the scholarship recipients.” He has also used his famous, historical photography to raise funds. In addition to selling prints through the Rock Scene Magazine site (www.rockscenemagazine.com), his Warholian silk-screened collaborations with Lacy, which was recently exhibited at Brookdale Community College, can be found at weissguylacy.com After 11 years at the Count Basie Theater, Rockit has partnered with Brookdale Community College. The college’s president, Dr. David Stout, contacted the Academy about participating in a fundraiser to help rebuild the school’s performing arts center. Bruce immediately obliged. Dr. Stout was later invited to the 2018 Rockit gala where Eddie Brigati was being honored. “He felt the energy and magic of what we do,” Bruce recalls. “We spoke about a partnership. With Brookdale looking to expand their arts programs and with Rockit looking to expand its education programs, it seemed like a perfect fit.” Currently housed in a temporary, on-campus space, the Academy is hoping to soon renovate a large nearby building to become their permanent home. Of course, that takes money. “I have raised thousands for Rockit,” says Weiss. “But I want Bruce to use it to get the word out; to hire publicists who might attract that one sponsor who will see what we are doing and say, ‘I want to get involved. I want to put my name on that building.’” Despite taking what Bruce describes as “baby steps” during the last 15 years, the Academy has had many success stories. Alumni have gone on to tour with Steve Vai and others. Cari Elise Fletcher, also known as “Fletcher,” released several singles last year, with “Undrunk” charting at #16 on Billboard’s Pop Top 20 chart. Christine Meisenhelter joined singer Conan Gray for his 2019 national tour. Vocalist Jacquie Lee starred on The Voice. Some student still attending Rockit classes have also achieved a degree of success. Camille De La Cruz has starred on Broadway in School of Rock: The Musical and, most recently, appeared on comedian John Mulaney’s Christmas Eve Netflix special, John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch.” There is still time left. Go to Rockit Academy and register now for the January 11th auditions. And good luck! The Rockit Academy auditions will take place on January 11 at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey. 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