By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
New York City is a bastion of educational institutions, but one of its most innovative educators doesn't even have a teaching certificate. What he does have is a lifetime of experience as a rock musician, a passion for imparting real-world skills to kids, and two schools—one in Hell's Kitchen and one in Brooklyn.
He goes by Tomato. His school: Tomato's House of Rock, or THOR.
"It's kind of like a bullshit detector," the 43-year-old, born Chris Harfenist, says of his professional nickname. "It's become a fun thing for me, signing up new kids and talking to new parents. If they get 'Tomato,' and they get what we do, then they're right for the school."
THOR is in its third year and, according to Harfenist, has always been a creative experiment—more an artist collective than a structured curriculum. Parents pay a $200 monthly membership for their children, ranging from elementary to high school ages, to attend weekly classes and to have access to rehearsal space. Every semester, each student brings in one song by a favorite band that he or she wants to learn, and Harfenist builds five-piece student groups around the tunes. The process gives every kid the opportunity to play a chosen song with a full band while challenging him or her to learn songs picked by peers.
The idea of empowering kids to choose what they want to study sets THOR apart from other NYC rock schools. Thirteen-year-old Jake Harrison has attended two similar schools of rock, but he explains that in other programs: "You don't get to pick your songs. They choose you for the song, and they choose you for the instrument you play on it."
For Harfenist (who has a degree in psychology from Syracuse University), teaching kids real-life skills is equally as important as allowing them to take ownership of their education. Working hard is a favorite theme of his. "I think the sense of entitlement is a little bit gross these days," he says. "I think people have to understand that you have to work."
He expects dedication from his students. "We don't spoil our kids," Harfenist says. "Even though their parents are paying for it, it's somewhat of a job. They have to accept the responsibility and the commitment to it."
Harrison's mom, Deanna, agrees that Harfenist instills lessons in kids beyond how to rock. "He's teaching them how it is to get along in a band, respecting one another," she says. "It's everyone practicing on their own, and that's what makes it work."
Harfenist, a seasoned drummer originally from Rockland County, knows well what it takes to survive as a musician: His band the Sound of Urchin has been recording and touring since 1998. When the music industry started changing (some might say tanking) in the mid 2000s, he found a steadier income teaching at the Paul Green School of Rock in Manhattan. After the school became a franchise of the international School of Rock corporation, Harfenist left to found his own program in 2008.
A career's worth of music connections has earned Harfenist the ability to bring in other professionals to share their experiences and to play music with the THOR kids. A Web series called Louder Education, filmed by the website Metal Injection, features metal heavyweights including Alex Skolnick (Testament), Richard Christy (Death), and John Gallagher (Dying Fetus) inspiring students with their own stories as well as discussing the realities of the music world.
Drummer Leo Didkovsky, a 15-year-old who has attended THOR for a year and a half, says he counts these opportunities to play with "artists that we worship" as some of the best in his life, but he also finds value simply in being around kids who share his tastes in metal music. "It's great to be in a high concentration of them once a week," he says.
Harfenist describes his students (of which there are now 70) as "artsy kids, not the popular kids" and insists that the seedier sides of rock, like drugs and underage drinking, do not exist at THOR, which has a zero-tolerance policy of illegal shenanigans.
Didkovsky concurs: "It is made very clear that the whole party-and-drug thing is completely unrelated to making music," he says.
A school of rule-abiding youngsters from families who can afford extracurricular tuition might not sound very rock 'n' roll, but the original music some of these kids create suggests otherwise. Skeptics should check out ShitKill, a thrash metal band of THOR teens opening at Webster Hall in November, and Diabolicus, Didkovsky's death metal group, which recently performed live on WFMU.
While the THOR kids learn the basics by playing famous songs written by others, Harfenist remains committed to encouraging students to find their own unique voices. "The whole thing that drives me," he says, "is the hope that these kids will grow up and not be clones and will make their own sounds—in whatever they do."
Kids of THOR will perform Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin covers at Drom on October 27.