Give the Drummer Some …


This article by Steve Hochman first appeared on the Causes and Effect: My Year of Giving Daily blog. Reprinted with permission.

It was Sunset Strip night at a Chicago-area club recently — local musicians honoring the ‘80s hair-metal heyday of the genre’s Ground Zero, the West Hollywood stretch of the famed boulevard.

Behind the drums, Todd Kiefer was playing it up for all it was worth, glammed-out in Spandex pants, a zebra-striped shirt and make-up, his blond hair teased out in a rock ’n’ roll lion’s mane. Twirling his sticks with rock ’n’ roll flare, he powered the band through such era-defining hits as Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” and Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.”

Todd is 12. The other musicians, too, were adolescents and teens, all performing as a culmination of the program they attend at the local School of Rock, a franchise of the music education chain spun from the success of the Jack Black-starring movie that gave it the name.

The thing is, just a couple of years before this concert, it was unthinkable that Todd could do such a thing. It was unthinkable that he could do much of anything.

“He was diagnosed some years ago as developmentally delayed,” says his mother, Lesa Kiefer.

There were some special programs at his school, but they were suspended a few years ago.

“He had to go into a special gym class, had no body control,” she says, noting that while he has never been diagnosed as such, he likely would be considered to be on the autism spectrum. “He doesn’t have friends.  He is an odd child. I love him for it, but he’s a unique human being.”

And that presents a challenge.

“We were looking for something for my son to participate in. His older brother is extremely musical, extremely smart. We had to find something that is individually Todd’s.”

Then, a little more than two years ago, the School of Rock outlet opened just a block from their house. And despite his lack of physical coordination, his parents had a hunch.

“We thought, okay, with his different way of thinking, drums would be his thing.”

There was one big hitch. Care for Todd and the tight economy left the tuition out of reach. But Amy Renzulli, owner of that School of Rock in Oak Park, put them in touch with the Rock School Scholarship Fund, a Los Angeles-based non-profit helping kids get access to music education with a rock emphasis.

“We would not have been able to afford it without that,” Kiefer says. “No way. Neither my husband nor I was working then. It’s not something that even with the most frugal budget we could have put in. I’m an attorney, but reduced my hours and moved my office into the home after Todd was diagnosed so I could help with the services he was receiving — speech therapist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, group things. He didn’t even start speaking until after he was three years old. It was a difficult situation.”

Rock School Scholarship Fund was founded by TV executive Wendy Winks and musician Carl Restivo, who together had run the Hollywood School of Rock in the late 2000s. Seeing close-up the great benefits this kind of music education and experience provided kids, but how many could not afford it, they left the school and formed this organization dedicated to addressing the needs, serving as Executive Director and Music Director, respectively. Though it grew out of their School of Rock experience, RSSF is not connected with the chain and aid is available for students at any qualifying music program, not just School of Rock franchises. (I became connected through Laura Grover, who two years ago was introduced to Winks, who in turn asked her to join the RSSF board of directors.)

Check out the video below of the “Welcome to the Jungle” performance. Clearly, Todd’s parents’ hunch was right. He’s a drummer.

“It’s very funny,” his mother says. “He can somehow focus through music to be able to drum, use all four limbs like that. He can’t ride a bike, but he can play drums!”

Arguably, even more remarkable is what this has meant in his life beyond the drum stool.

“I was just checking — he’s on target to make the honor roll for the first time in his life,” she says. “It’s helped him academically. And Todd just said something on Halloween. They were able to dress up for school if you brought a few cans of food. He chose to wear the outfit he wore for the Sunset Strip show, the Spandex, zebra shirt and makeup. And he said, ‘If anyone doesn’t like what I’m wearing, that’s their problem, not mine.’ It’s so great that he feels confident enough. Before, kids would throw him to the floor to watch him have a tantrum. Now he’s gotten to the point where, ‘If you don’t like me because I have long hair and wear black t-shirts with bands on then, that’s your problem.’ Teachers who had him in the third and fourth grade say he’s a different kid. And he has friends now. His confidence is sky-high.”

And it should be. He recently won a statewide audition for honors from the Illinois Music Educators Conference and performed in the band at their conference. He beat out 600 others, most of them older.

At home there’s been a nice change as well. “His brother is very musical, plays saxophone,” Kiefer says. “They didn’t get along, but this really brought them together. My other son isn’t in School of Rock, but he sits in and plays on their shows. Now they have something in common. They’re still brothers, they feud. But they have this musical respect for each other.”

Meanwhile, Todd is finding new musical horizons and challenges. Of late he’s been obsessed with a new-progressive rock band called Animals as Leaders, which works with unusual time signatures and complicated passages. And next up with School of Rock?

“They will be doing a Queen show,” she says. “He’s very excited. He’s working with the music director. It’s challenging. Queen is a lot more difficult than you’d think. They don’t follow the rules.

About The Writer: Steve Hochman has covered the worlds of popular, and unpopular, music for more than 30 years, most of that time as a core member of the Los Angeles Times team (including 14 years writing the popular Pop Eye column). These days he’s heard yapping about a wide spectrum of music on public radio station KPCC’s “Take Two” program and KQED’s “The California Report,” as well as writing for their respective web sites. He’s a regular contributor to the BuzzBandsLA site and serves as host and interviewer for various programs at the Grammy Museum. Over the years his writing has also appeared in an array of publications, including Rolling Stone, Billboard and Entertainment Weekly, and for four years he wrote the weekly Around the World global music column for AOL’s Spinner. In addition to living in L.A., he’s a part-time New Orleanian and an avid global traveler.



Los Angeles, CA, October 1, 2015: Rock School Scholarship Fund (RSSF) Co-Founder and Executive Director Wendy Winks has announced multiple Grammy-nominated record producer, songwriter, musician, and mix engineer Greg Wells ( as Chairman of the BoardWells will work to build the 501(c)3 charity’s profile in the entertainment industry and broaden fundraising opportunities.

“We are so honored to welcome Greg Wells to the Rock School Scholarship Fund team,” says Winks. “We have immense respect and admiration for his talents and accomplishments, and we love his passion for music scholarships.  It will be exciting to work with him to build our program into one that helps thousands of kids.”

Wells’ songs have appeared on more than 85 million albums. His many credits include Adele, Twenty One Pilots, Katy Perry, Rufus Wainwright, Pink, Holychild, Mayer Hawthorne, Mika, Timbaland, OneRepublic, Deftones, and the Count Basie Orchestra.

“My music career was made possible with the help of several scholarships, and helping young musicians attend music school is a cause close to my heart,” Wells states.  “I’m frankly on a mission to get as many kids as possible studying music.  I’m both inspired and honored to work with the RSSF and have high expectations for what the future can bring.”

Winks co-founded RSSF in 2010 with musician and producer Carl Restivo, who serves as the organization’s Music Director.   RSSF, which currently works with more than 120 schools in 28 states, is the first 501(c)3 to provide funds for children ages 7 to 17 who want to attend any rock music school in the U.S.  Students apply for scholarships based on financial need.  Rock schools offer interactive rock music courses that include private lessons, performance programs that get students playing live on stage, and curriculum that teaches rock music.  The number of participating rock schools has blossomed from 5 in 2009 to 122 in 2015, and the demand for scholarships is high.

“We – and the schools we work with – are continuously fundraising to try to meet the demand,” says Winks. “With music programs being cut from public schools, families need to pay tuition for their child to receive a music education, and many cannot afford it. We believe that any child who wants it should receive music lessons.”

RSSF’s mission has received enthusiastic support from the music community.  In January 2015, RSSF was chosen by the Foo Fighters as one of three charities to receive donations from ticket sales for their surprise benefit concert—and all-star birthday celebration for Dave Grohl—at the Los Angeles Forum.  The addition of Wells as Chairman of the Board is an important milestone in the organization’s growth.

Foo Fighters Concert Benefits RSSF!

Reprinted from the L.A. Times


Foo Fighters are kicking off 2015 with a surprise: a gig this Saturday at the Forum.

The veteran rockers announced late Wednesday that they will play a special charity gig on Saturday — and tickets go on sale in a little over an hour, as in tonight. Fans can buy tickets through Ticketmaster at 7 p.m.

Tickets for Saturday’s last-minute show are listed at $50. A portion of sales ($10 per ticket) will go to the Rock School Scholarship Fund, MusiCares and Sweet Relief.

General admission floor tickets are limited to four per person, and reserved seating tickets for the in-the-round show are limited to eight per person.

Doors are set to open at 6 p.m., with an 8 p.m. start. There is no opener, so don’t plan on being fashionably late.

Shawnee Fierros Casas Richberger Receives RSSF Scholarship

(Reprinted from the East Valley Tribune in Arizona)

Shawnee-thumbGilbert, Arizona, resident Shawnee Fierros Casas Richberger has two dream jobs in her future: become an FBI agent or perform in a rock band. Training for the first one is a little tricky to receive at her age, but she has already kick started her path to the second one due in part to a scholarship opportunity.

The 15-year-old girl with the rather elaborate name perfects her chops at the School of Rock, a music school with branches across the world, including Gilbert, Ahwatukee and Scottsdale. It’s at the School of Rock locations — she said she visits all of them on occasion — where she takes lessons for bass, guitar and vocals. She also plays the violin for her school band.

The rock, though, is where her musical raison d’être, especially with her aspiration to become a vocalist for a band and become a star like her idol, Joan Jett, who she came ever so close to meeting during a concert.

“We got to open for her this year and it was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. Richberger got within 10 feet of Jett, but couldn’t cover the rest of the expanse thanks to a bout of untimely nervousness.

The opportunity to perform a stone’s throw away from the Blackhearts’ lead singer came as a result from her time at School of Rock, where she has attended classes since summer 2013.
“School of Rock is basically my home … whenever I walk into any location I feel like I’m at home,” she said.

What she’s learned thus far in her musical education is the skills to pick up the two physical instruments and her voice, along with the importance of how those components fit into a song. Without all of the pieces, she said, a song would lose its quality quickly. The other thing she’s picked up in her time at School of Rock is exposure to a range of new musicians she wouldn’t have heard of before.

Thus far, the effort Richberger has put into becoming a new rock legend has impressed the Gilbert location’s general manager, Megan Baskerville, who gave the girl kudos for musicianship and confidence.

“We have watched Shawnee grow into a confident person and, in turn, she has become a leader in our schools,” Baskerville said.
The opportunity for Richberger to rock out at the school on a regular basis is tied to the scholarship she received through the Rock School Scholarship Fund. The money gives students who apply — she said the application process included a short essay and a request for grades — a little extra help to pay for their musical education.

That little lift Richberger received — she is one of eight students in the Valley to earn the scholarship — has proven vital for her to achieve those career ambitions.

“We’re not exactly rolling in the dough and it’s so nice to be helped out with the cost of it,” she said.

She’s found a similar growth in herself, saying the time on stage has reduced the non-Jett related nervousness she has, along with a reduction in stuttering.

Richie Sambora and Orianthi Celebrate the Season and Support Young Musicians!

Rock star Richie Sambora (Songwriter Hall of Fame, and former lead guitarist and songwriter for Bon Jovi) is a longtime supporter of the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade – a nationally televised parade that benefits the Marine Corps’ Toys For Tots charitable holiday season toy drive. Sambora was invited to perform again this year as part of a star-studded event featuring performances from Stevie Wonder, Heart, Taylor Dayne and many more. Joining Richie onstage would be ace guitarist Orianthi, and Michael Bearden, Michael Jackson’s Musical Director for “This Is It.”

Richie wanted to have a children’s choir sing with them on “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s classic 1971 Christmas song/anti-war anthem.

Orianthi, an honorary board member for Rock School Scholarship Fund (RSSF), reached out to RSSF’s co-founder and Executive Director Wendy Winks for help in rounding up young vocalists.

“RSSF is very grateful for Orianthi’s ongoing support,” says Winks. “We had such a great time when she headlined a benefit concert for us at Center Staging in 2012. I wanted to do everything that I could to help her, Richie and Michael realize their vision for the parade, and make such a powerful song relevant to a new generation of children.

Winks arranged for students—ages 9 to 15—from rock music schools in West Los Angeles and Burbank to participate. Everyone enjoyed a special day of rehearsals at Richie’s home on Friday, November 28.

And despite some morning rain showers, everyone’s mood was buoyant two days later during the rehearsal on Sunday, the day of the parade. But the rain persisted, and the performance was cancelled.

Richie deeply felt the kids’ disappointment, and approached the Hallmark Channel—a sponsor of the Parade—about turning it into a special television event. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with Richie, Orianthi, and the children’s choir was filmed and recorded at Universal Studios, and broadcast on The Hallmark Channel’s Home & Family show on December 8th and 9th.

Interview with Richie and Orianthi on Hallmark Home & Family

Performance “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with Choir from School of Rock

Thank you Richie Sambora and Orianthi for helping kids rock!

Thank you School of Rock West Los Angeles and School of Rock Burbank for your totally rockin’ kids!

Richie Sambora, Orianthi & Students From School of Rock LA at Hollywood Sound Studios

Thorek Memorial Foundation Grant


The Rock School Scholarship Fund is Awarded a Thorek Memorial Foundation Grant to Fund Scholarships for Students to Attend School of Rock Chicago

$26,730 grant will cover tuition for 15 students for one year


Los Angeles, CA, October 11, 2014: The Rock School Scholarship Fund ( has secured a Thorek Memorial Foundation grant in the amount of $26,730.  The grant, awarded last month, is earmarked to provide year-long scholarships for 15 students to enroll in programs at School of Rock Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.  Founded in 2010, RSSF is the first 501(c)3 non-profit organization to provide and administer scholarship funds, based on financial need, for children ages 7 to 17 to attend any rock music school in the U.S. (including but not limited to School of Rock locations).  All schools supported by RSSF emphasize performance-based programs including lessons, rehearsals, and group shows.

“We’re deeply grateful to Thorek Memorial Foundation and its Executive Director Cynthia Barrera for recognizing the work that we do with music education, and making rock music programs affordable for underserved youth,” says RSSF Co-Founder and Executive Director Wendy Winks.  “Chicago-area students will benefit greatly, and we look forward to seeing their progress.  RSSF is committed to identifying and pursuing similar opportunities for tuition assistance in other areas across the country.”

The grant was brought to the attention of School of Rock Chicago Regional Director Adam Mackintosh by musician, songwriter, and Chicago-area radio and television personality Damon Ranger.  “It’s a thrill to know we’ll be welcoming 15 new students to our school over the next year – young people who otherwise would have been unable to participate,” says Mackintosh.  “We’re honored by Thorek’s generosity.”

School of Rock Chicago, a School of Rock affiliate, employs an immersive, performance-based approach to music lessons in an interactive environment.  They are located at 3043 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL.

The Thorek Memorial Foundation ( is affiliated with Thorek Memorial Hospital, a 218-bed, not-for-profit acute care facility providing quality, progressive health care to Chicagoans.  It was originally founded in 1911 as the American Hospital by Dr. Max Thorek and his wife Fannie as a 25-bed hospital primarily intended to serve members of the performing arts community. Some of its early patients included Mae West, the Marx Brothers, Harry Houdini and Buffalo Bill Cody, to name just a few.

A Special Son


“My son was misdiagnosed as autistic at 2 1/2 years old. Instead, he had a rarely seen language disorder that looks like autism early on but is not. It was a looooong road trying to get to the bottom of it, but I did. My son is 17 soon, and School of Rock has everything to do with why he is a happy young man, flourishing in music, school and in life.” Continue reading

Charlottesville Teen Sits Center Stage at South African Festival

Courtesy of Carmen Day1It’s December 7, the height of the South African summer, and the excitement is palpable as the gates open at a warehouse-turned-music-venue in the popular tourist getaway of White River, Mpumalanga. Concertgoers gravitate to the largest of three stages at the Route 40 Music Festival, as the drummer of the newly formed band Cosmic River counts off into a multi-tempo, cello-driven rock song with unique Middle Eastern influences. At the center of the stage sits the song’s original composer, 14-year-old Charlottesville, VA native Carmen Day. Read more

Rock School Scholarship Fund Co-hosts Youth Songwriter Program

Rock School Scholarship Fund Partners With Carnegie Hall and Casterbridge Music Development Academy to Co-host Youth Songwriter Program

A Panel of VIP Judges Select Six young U.S. Musicians to Participate in South African Festival

The idea for the Youth Songwriter Program came to Rock School Scholarship (RSSF) Co-Founder and Executive Director Wendy Winks in 2012 after she was approached for advice by Paul Bruce-Brand, a founder of the Casterbridge Music Development Academy (CMDA) in White River, Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Winks and Brand presented a concept for an international musical exchange program to the Director of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute Musical Exchange. The Institute helped facilitate a nationwide competition in the U.S. to send six young musicians to South Africa to collaborate and perform with their counterparts there.

In 2013, entries were judged by music luminaries Dave Matthews, Vicki Peterson (The Bangles), Wayne Kramer (MC5), Kay Hanley (Letters to Cleo) and GRAMMY –winner/ Songwriters Hall Of Fame inductee Holly Knight. The winners—from California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia—were: Anna Pearl Belinda, Carmen Day, Dylan De Anda, Abby Hwong, Jason Matkin and Samuel Mayer.

Meet The Songwriters:  Carnegie Hall Youth Songwriter Musical Exchange

From Manhattan to Mpumalanga, a Global Musical Journey

On November 30, 2013, the six winners of the Youth Songwriter Program flew to New York City to attend an Arlo Guthrie and Family concert at Carnegie Hall.  The show also featured Pete Seeger, and turned out to be the folk legend’s final live performance.

The following day, the winners—accompanied by Winks, RSSF Music Director Carl Restivo, and Yasmin DeSoiza from Carnegie Hall—traveled to South Africa, where they were also joined by Christopher Amos, Carnegie Hall’s Director of Media Education & Technology.  At the Casterbridge Music Development Academy, they collaborated with South African students, forming bands and learning each other’s original songs, with arrangements by Restivo. Three days of rehearsals and music and cultural exchange led up to the Route 40 Music Festival in White River.

The three-day festival featured many of South Africa’s most popular rock bands, including Prime Circle, Watershed, The Parlotones, Vusi Mahlasela, and others.  Each day, the U.S./South African student bands opened for the headliners. The first day of the festival was marked by the passing of the legendary Nelson Mandela, resulting in the festival being dedicated to his memory.

Honoring Nelson Mandela

During the festival, workshops were led by artists including Vusi Mahlasela, a close friend of Mandela. Although Vusi had once been jailed and beaten for singing anti-apartheid songs, “forgiveness” was a recurring theme in his stories.  Instead of sadness, the South African community paid joyful tribute to Mandela’s life and legacy.

Two of the U.S. students, Dylan De Anda and Samuel Mayer, were selected to learn the South African song “Weeping,” an important anti-apartheid song from the 1980s. It contains elements from “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” which had been banned in South Africa at the time—inclusion of even the melody violated the law.

Today, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” is part of the country’s national anthem. In concert, “Weeping”—including the formerly illegal lyrics “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo”—featured De Anda on vocals, accompanied by fellow Youth Songwriter Program winner Mayer and the South African band, Vital Crew.


For More On This Story From Carnegie Hall, Please Click Below: