Howard Citron isn’t just the co-founder of the “irocku” website, he’s also a client.
Several years ago, Citron received an electronic keyboard from his wife for his 40th birthday. Citron had taken piano lessons a few times during his life, but as a lifelong rock ‘n’ roll fan, he had little desire to learn the compositions of Chopin or Liszt -- or the contemporary music his teacher offered.
“My teacher sounded like Neil Sedaka, so I quit,” he said.
What Citron really wanted to do is to play like rock keyboardists such as Chuck Leavell, the legendary piano player for the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton, among others.
He and Leavell met each other at a seminar that Leavell and other musicians were giving for New York City schoolteachers, and the two hit it off.
Leavell said when Citron approached him about the idea of teaching rock and blues-style piano, the concept piqued his interest.
“I spoke with Howard. He was this really intelligent guy who was an entrepreneur,” Leavell said. “I thought at this juncture, it was worth investigating, so we embarked on it.
“He’s passionate about music. He sees the value in it. He’s a great man and a great partner.”
Thus, irocku was born. The concept is relatively simple but a whole lot of fun for budding musicians who would like to be rock stars.
Accredited piano teachers selected by Leavell and Citron teach how to play keyboards for popular rock songs, ranging from the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” to the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove.” There are seven levels of instruction. Someone who has never even sat at a piano would start at the first level, while someone who has years of practice might start higher.
Students learn through video instruction not just the notes to play a song, but how to improvise during solos the way Leavell does when he’s on stage.
“You carry out the levels of instruction,” Leavell said. “But we keep it fun. By the time you get to level 7, you should be virtually a professional.”
“It’s not a song site,” Citron added. “It goes from beginning to advanced. We teach all of the elements in rock ‘n’ roll songs and technique. At the very beginning with someone who has never touched an instrument, the online teacher is like a game. We teach the notes, the note duration, the clefs.”
Citron said it takes the average user a few months to master a song, assuming the student spends time practicing.
Leavell said his site differs from other competing websites in a variety of ways. For one, they secured licensing deals with the acts featured on the website.
“We’ve had a really slow but steady climb,” said Leavell, who had previously released a DVD teaching piano. “There’s been a lot of competition, but they seem to start with good intentions and later fail. ... The licensing is very expensive, but we do the best we can. We tell (the record companies) that the site will promote your song, promote your artist -- this will perpetuate your music. It’s a great way to perpetuate classic rock.”
Citron, who has gone through the various lessons on the website, said that though he’s unlikely to fill in for Leavell during the next Stones tour, he has become competent enough.
“I play piano, but obviously not like Chuck,” he said with a laugh. “It’s probably on my bucket list to get to that level.”
Of course, there’s always going to be an issue of natural talent in any musician that separates the superstars from those who are merely competent on an instrument.
But Leavell said the gap isn’t as wide as someone might think. After all, Leavell said, he didn’t just sit at a piano one day and play at his current level.
He took lessons from his mother and spent hours practicing and learning his craft. His mother would often have him play sections of a song that evoke a certain emotion, such as playing through a thunderstorm outside.
“I worked very hard to learn my craft,” he said. “That’s a point that often gets overlooked. There’s nothing inside you that substitutes for hard work. ... The whole point is that if you want to learn an instrument, you are taking the time to practice. You have to want it. There’s not an easy out -- you have to work at it.”
Leavell said the key to performing a song is not simply reading musical notes on a piece of paper.
“A song can tell you what it wants,” he said. “When you listen to it -- the lyrics, what the other instruments are doing -- it’s not just notes or pace. It’s emotions, colors.”
As the keyboard side of things continues to grow, the partners eventually want to add other instruments to the website, using similar methods for drums or guitar.
Leavell said he and Citron are picky when it comes to planning the lessons and selecting teachers.
“We want guys and girls who get it, but will also enjoy the process.”