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.