On a blistering morning in August, the stage at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts felt like a cave, providing relief to the dozens of people gathered there.
Downstage was a drum set, stacked amplifiers and monitors, an electric bass in its stand, but all attention was focused on a man with a guitar slung around his torso, arranging seven people in a line.
He assigned them letters: C, D, E … He explained that each person symbolized a note in the C major scale; that the spaces between notes were called intervals; that these intervals were like the spices in a dish, and that with practice, anyone could learn to identify their flavors.
The man, Bryan Ewald, was an Annapolis-based guitarist and educator, and he made a valiant effort of condensing several weeks’ worth of music theory into an hour-long session.
The students ranged from preteens to retirees, from novice learners to semi-professionals. Regardless of skill level or prior musical experience, they had all enrolled in the debut of a summer music school hosted by the renowned guitar maker Paul Reed Smith.
It was the reputation of Smith as well as his colleagues that drew many to the week-long program.
Smith heads Paul Reed Smith (PRS) Guitars, which makes some of the most respected instruments in the industry: Clients include the likes of Carlos Santana and John Mayer. Based in Kent Island, he’s also a pillar of Maryland talent, and the $500 workshop offered access to and coaching from some of the more successful professionals in the area.
Partnering with Smith were Greg and Gary Grainger, drummer and bassist respectively. Together they make up the Grainger Brothers, and, over careers that started in the 1970s, they’ve played with artists including Whitney Houston and John Scofield.
Today, though, the star teacher was drummer Dennis Chambers, best known for playing with Parliament-Funkadelic, the collective of pioneering funk musicians responsible for hits like “Give Up The Funk” and “Can You Get To That.”
After Ewald’s session, Chambers riveted students with a demonstration on the drum set — then invited the drummers in the group to play for him.
For 17-year-old Ezra Geissler, drummer in the band The Wayward Locals, the opportunity was “nerve-wracking” — but also the main draw of the program. “It’s nice to have one-on-one time with a pro who will really nitpick your playing,” he said.
Geissler’s nerves weren’t apparent. Chambers grinned and nodded along as he played, challenging Geissler to play fills on demand and to keep track with a metronome whose tempo he kept modifying. “Try to get more creative with your fills,” Chambers suggested. “Otherwise, you’ve got it.”
At lunch, students ate quickly, then drifted off to strum guitars on their own, chat with instructors or — popularly — jam with each other onstage.
After lunch, they split up into four breakout sessions, implementing what they learned during morning lessons and practicing for the Saturday showcase that would conclude the workshop.
Smith and the Graingers admitted that the daily structure of the program was a work-in-progress, but their sights are set long-term: The summer school is something they’ve discussed for a decade, and they’d like to see it expand.
“Nobody over 50 wants to go down with a skill and not pass it on,” said Smith.
While he acknowledged that it would take “years of private lessons” for a musician like Chambers to truly pass on his skill set, the workshop is meant to provide a fundamental understanding about how the elements of music — rhythm, harmony and melody — operate both separately and together.
That may sound obvious — but there’s a difference between understanding a musical concept and executing it.
Greg Grainger remembered multiple incidents of musicians approaching him and his brother after shows, seeking advice for how to “lock in” with their own groups. “We found out that we were telling professionals [that] they had to practice with a metronome,” he said.
Beyond laying the groundwork, Smith and his colleagues hoped that the workshop could help provide some of the atmosphere that nurtured their own musical growth.
In an interview, Chambers and the Graingers remembered growing up in musical families with active bands: The Graingers’ sister was such a talented percussionist that other drummers would come to her to learn rudiments; Chambers’ mother, who had been a singer for Motown Records, started a band when she moved back to Baltimore with her then 2-year-old son. When there wasn’t live music around them, they’d play along to records.
Formal instruction certainly figured into their development — Greg Grainger studied at the Peabody Institute — but all credited actually getting out there and playing in clubs as formative (Chambers played his first gig at the age of 6).
“There were these clubs where the older musicians were teaching the younger musicians,” said Smith. He remembered Washington, D.C. as having a fruitful blues scene while Baltimore was great for jazz and funk. “It was all being taught in a cauldron.”
Not only that, Gary Grainger added: “When we were coming up, we had music in schools. We had bands, jam sessions, talent shows. They took that all away,” he said, referring to cuts in music and arts education that have become increasingly common over the last decade.
The fight to secure music education in school is something that workshop attendee and 16-year-old bassist Rorie Garland is familiar with: She transferred schools to be able to attend one that offered a string music program.
At Colonel Richardson Middle and High School in Caroline County, Garland was able to continue playing the upright bass. Her high school music teacher, Thomas Cheezum, even encouraged her to try out the electric bass so that she could play across more genres.
But there, too, Garland feels a lack of institutional support. Cheezum, for one, is the only full-time music teacher at the entire school.
Garland, who looks up to musicians like Esperanza Spalding and wants to be a music teacher herself, said, “When I see the music teachers around me struggling to keep their students and keep everyone passionate about the arts, it hits me, because I want to be them one day.”
From this perspective, Paul Reed Smith’s workshop becomes more than a supplementary opportunity to learn from professionals: It’s taking part in the fight to preserve music education in the first place, and to pass on musical legacies that are specific to Maryland.
“The fact that Maryland Hall has given us an opportunity to give the kind of teaching that we got when we were young is extraordinary,” said Smith. “Some of these kids can really play. Thank God somebody’s going to carry the baton when we’re gone. Thank God.”
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.