Feature stories

School of rock

Manhattan teacher’s passion rubs off on his music students

Pat Arnow

The band’s all here, along with Chapter Leader Kevin Cusumano (left), 4th-grade teacher Sam Gonzalez (back row, left) and music teacher Ulises Soto (middle row, right).

Pat Arnow

Gonzalez gives some pointers.

Pat Arnow

Soto directs his students to play some Hendrix.

The rock star of PS 34 moves like a dervish among his students, getting them to work through a progression of basic chords. Basic rock chords, that is — a spin on teaching music that has turned blasé students into driven musicians. Students and colleagues at this school in Manhattan’s East Village say it’s all because of music teacher Ulises Soto.

Soto, raised in the neighborhood and a graduate of the school, has fans not only among young rockers, but also among school administrators.

Support from PS 34 came early. The day he was interviewed, instead of describing how he’d fit into an existing program, Soto proposed a fresh schema for hands-on music, combined with connections he cultivated with nonprofit arts support groups Little Kids Rock and Rosie’s Theater Kids, the latter a project of television personality Rosie O’Donnell. The principal and AP went for it.

“When he interviewed for the job, he knew what he wanted to do, and we liked what we heard,” said Rosemarie Gonzalez, the former assistant principal and now interim principal. She said he came with the interest, the talent and the program package.

The world took notice.

Last fall, the school’s rock band performed at the Hammerstein Ballroom with Bruce Springsteen at a fundraising gala for Little Kids Rock that honored musician and actor Little Steven Van Zandt with its “Big Man of the Year” award. They weren’t there just to play, but for the benefactors to see who and what they were supporting.

On a recent day during school hours, band members practiced Jimi Hendrix’s version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” focusing on a signature Hendrix guitar riff, which they performed masterfully. “They’re so motivated; they even run their own rehearsals,” Soto says of the school band, which is so cutting-edge that Hendrix is “as traditional as we get,” he added.

Student Zenibia Butler is just one singing Soto’s praises. “Playing in the band is a way for me to get away from stress and be myself,” said the 8th-grader. “The band is everything to me. I now feel connected.” Still, Butler doesn’t consider rock her métier. “Jazz is my favorite,” she said.

It’s not just band members who benefit from Soto, who’s a bit reminiscent of the Jack Black character in the movie “School of Rock” except that he takes education seriously.

At a class for 3rd-graders, held on the auditorium stage, Soto played a recording of “What I Like About You,” by the Romantics, then had the class work on the song’s E-A-D-A chord progression. Students lapped it up, especially when he reminded them of their upcoming concert. They even got to take their instruments home — after. “I’m old school,” Soto said. “They have to learn four chords and one song; then they can borrow the guitars.”

While the school paid $2,000 out of its own budget for 30 Fender acoustic guitars for the classes — receiving a significant discount from Little Kids Rock — the band’s electric guitars were donations from friends of Soto’s.

Matt Rudansky, who teaches 8th-grade English language arts, sees a connection between Soto’s work and his own. “They talk about music in expository writing,” he said. One student wrote that he didn’t know anything about music until he got to the school, and now it’s his first love. “These are project kids in a Title I school who are so engaged and so excited about school. He’s turned them into enthusiasts.“

So what’s the secret? Soto says that part of it “is immersing students in music and performing not just individually but in something they can do together.” Another part? Technology. Now there are tools that sound out the notes, so tuning is a snap, says Soto.

So intent is he on turning kids on to music, he runs an after-school program, with help from 4th-grade special education teacher and musician Sam Gonzalez, which includes classes by the area’s venerable 3rd Street Music School.

“If kids see that teachers are invested in them,” he says, “they’ll vibe into it.”

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