When Billy Ribak started teaching music more than a decade ago, he got paid in hot meals.
After impressing a teenaged neighbor with his drumming skills, Ribak offered the young man lessons; afterwards, he’d join the family for dinner. As satisfied parents gave him referrals, he gradually became a full-time music educator, working with schools and visiting homes to give private lessons.
“I got to the point where I had my whole week booked with lessons,” said Ribak, who’d been working as a bartender. “I was having so much fun doing teaching, and it kind of just snowballed.”
For four years, Ribak has operated Three O’Clock Rock, an after-school program that teaches children (and some adults) how to play keyboards, drums, guitar and bass, as well as analog recording and film production. Instruments, amplifiers and recording equipment are located in two studios below Franklin Street.
The walls are covered with memorabilia featuring Ribak’s favorite musicians, alongside posters of Three O’Clock Rock students. “All of the students play in a band,” said Ribak, who produces posters himself, in addition to traditional band merchandise like stickers, buttons and cassette tapes.
To encourage students to think like musicians, he also teaches them how to screen-print T-shirts and produce music videos.
Students learn more than just how to jam; Ribak and instructors give students an historical and cultural perspective on the artists whose work they play. Inspired by what they learned about legendary British rockers The Who, one group of Three O’Clock Rock students formed “The What.”
Keyboard student Francis Lau discovered a love of 80s band Devo, adapting one of their hits, “Time Out For Fun,” for a video that was shot in Ribak’s studio. Within days, the clip went viral after it was shared by Pee-wee Herman.
“We made this video together, so we were really shocked and honored," said Ribak. "Devo is a really big deal to me; they’re the first band that really made me think.”
The school’s YouTube channel features almost fifty videos from bands who’ve attended Ribak’s school of rock.
“Most people are discovered through online video, so I really thought about what we’re doing,” said Ribak. “Just the music element was not enough.” Area bands also use the school as a rehearsal space, which “helps with the overhead,” said Ribak, who plays in Rock N Roll Adventure Kids, The Ogres and Gravy’s Drop.
Ribak said he strives to provide the educational experience he would have liked when he was a young musician, which makes his work extremely satisfying. Since taking on multiple instructors, many of whom are musician friends, he has time to tour.
“As an artist, you’re looking for ways to continue your art,” said Ribak. “It’s a feeling you can get from all sorts of inspiration, but if you’re not open to receiving those things, you can’t get in the mindset to make that art.”
Cultivating young talent gives Ribak creative energy that he directs into personal projects. “It’s fun for me to wake up every morning because I know I have a purpose,” he said. “I’m not trying to do good, I just want to continue doing my art, and this is my vehicle for doing that.”
Instead of performing at recitals, Three O’Clock Rock pupils gig monthly in a showcase at Aburu-ya, a fried-chicken eatery around the corner on 15th Street. Students also perform around the Bay Area, including in-store appearances at Amoeba Records and neighborhood fairs and block parties.
Teaching music full-time has made Ribak’s musician community more close-knit, since “they’ve all been really supportive” of Three O’Clock Rock, he said. It’s also made him feel personally fortunate.
“I have a job, and I have purpose, and when you have those things, you can create a lot of happiness,” said Ribak.
Three O’Clock Rock (510-900-9490) is located at 1305 Franklin St., Suite 102, a block from 12th Street BART. For details, email@example.com
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