At this school, students learn rudiments of rock ‘n’ roll

Earlier this week, at a group lesson for students in the Free Spirit Rock School, Sharon Mulvehill was sitting in on bass guitar.

She normally plays a regular guitar, and she wasn’t all that familiar with the bass line for the first song of the night, Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” Bill Dickman, the school’s guitar teacher and musical director, who happened to be sitting in on drums, stopped the song and briefly, a little impatiently, told Mulvehill what she should be playing.

“There’s no discrimination here,” Mulvehill said with a smile. “Everyone gets yelled at.”

Yes, even Mulvehill, who founded Free Spirit Rock School a little more than a year ago.

A specialist in family medicine at RiverStone Health in Billings, Mulvehill started the business to give people, no matter their skill level, a fun way to learn how to play rock, blues and soul music in a band setting.

The school focuses on classic rock songs, teaching tunes by the likes Tom Petty, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Journey, Santana, Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix.

“We try to pick great songs that people can play a million times and still like,” Dickman said.

There are some teenagers in the school, but many of the students’ musical backgrounds are similar to that of Mulvehill. She said she studied classical guitar in college in Texas, but then drifted away from music when she started medical school. She got married, had four children and a busy career.

She started at RiverStone Health in 2005, spent eight years here and then went back to Texas. Three years ago, she said, her marriage dissolved and she was in the process of selling her house and many of her belongings, which included three guitars.

She was going to sell them too, she said, but then “I just picked one up and haven’t looked back since.”

In Houston, she enrolled in School of Rock, the performance-based program that has locations all over the world. Mulvehill enjoyed the experience, and when she moved back to Billings two years ago, she started thinking of offering something similar here.

She considered obtaining a School of Rock franchise, but decided she wanted more flexibility, the freedom to take the School of Rock concept and develop it in her own way. She was taking classical guitar lessons from Dickman at the time and began talking about her plans, hoping to bring him on as the guitar teacher and musical director.

“He gave up saying ‘no’ and we started,” Mulvehill said, launching in the summer of 2016. Other teachers signed on, all of them degreed professionals. “They’re really the best in the business,” she said.

ArtWalk performance on tap

The Free Spirit Rock School band will perform at the next ArtWalk, on Friday, Oct. 6, at the MoAv Coffee House, 2501 Montana Ave., from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.

School founder Sharon Mulvehill said the band will play three sets, the first two with students and several teachers, and the third set with all teachers on hand and any students who feel up to joining in.

They include Robin Martinez, bass instructor; Brad Edwards, drums and percussion; Donna Choriki Ayers, vocals; and Lee Hancock, keyboards and piano.

Dickman will soon be moving to Wisconsin and will be replaced as guitar teacher by another RiverStone Health doctor, Andy Owenreay. Bass instructor Martinez, who also plays with the Billings Symphony, will take over as musical director.

Everyone who enrolls in Free Spirit Rock School is strongly encouraged to take private lessons as well, either with the school staff or teachers of their choice. Then they get together once a week for a group practice, usually preparing for their next public performance.

With about 15 students in the school at present, there have been two to three group practice nights a week, to keep the numbers manageable. The sessions are held in the basement of Mulvehill’s house in north-central Billings, where a drum set, keyboard, music stands, microphones, cables and a control board await the students.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

At the practice session, school founder Sharon Mulvehill throws an encouraging smile to another musician.

They’ve played at private parties, an ArtWalk event in downtown Billings and once at the Shrine Auditorium for United Way — and an audience of 600 people. They’ve also performed at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. and the Thirsty Street Brewery.

“We packed Thirsty’s,” Mulvehill said. “It’s the busiest they’ve ever been.”

All their shows are family-friendly, since they have teens in the band and lots of young siblings in the audience. They don’t play at bars, Mulvehill said, but the breweries are generally welcoming of kids and dogs, so she doesn’t mind playing those venues.

Mulvehill also offers “Beer Guitar” classes every Friday from 6 to 7 p.m. at Thirsty Street. For $12, participants get a quick guitar lesson — two- and three-chord classics only — and a pint of beer. The weekly classes at Mulvehill’s house are $25 a session.

At the practice session earlier this week, the oldest student was Stan Jonutis, 66, a multi-instrumentalist and guitar collector who never really played rock music before.

“It’s a pleasure,” he said. “It’s great to play with people who really know what they’re doing. If it doesn’t sound right, it’s probably me.”

The youngest student was 14-year-old Olivia Tyrrell, a freshman at Billings West High School. She said her mother works with Mulvehill and she was actually recruited because of her background as a singer with school and community choirs.

“They needed me to sing ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’” she explained. “They had a guy, but he couldn’t hit the high notes.”

She said she had never sung rock music anywhere but in her car before joining the school, and it’s been a blast.

“It’s really cool,” she said. “It really helps me develop confidence and stage presence.”

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