Local hard rock legends grow musicians of all ages
Rik Parks is a guitar player who played in rock bands in the 1990s. His strength though, he said, is being an agent and promoter.
“I've just been in the rock 'n' roll world for a long time,” Parks said.
He has ties to the Hagerstown-based, hard rock band Kix, which experienced considerable popularity and commercial success in the 1980s and '90s with songs like “Don't Close Your Eyes.”
“I'm friends with the lead singer. They broke up in 1995 and I helped reunite the guys in 2003,” Parks said. “It snowballed from there.”
Meanwhile, Rik's son Justin Parks, now 26, who attended Williamsport High School and Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, grew into a skilled musician.
“He travelled to Hollywood, played on Sunset Strip. He opened for Kiss in 2010, recorded with members of Kix and L.A. Guns,” Parks said.
Justin taught at Evolution Rock School in Hagerstown, which offered music lessons and band performance programs before it closed its doors in 2017. That's when Parks got an idea.
“With all my friends and family involved with music, some of them being rock stars with Justin's musical background, I figured it would be no problem to open and maintain a school,” he said.
"From the day I thought of it until the time we opened the doors was 35 days.”
Since then, he and his wife Traci Parks have been co-owners of the Maryland Institute of Music.
Jumping in with both feet
The 35-day span included remodeling the inside of the school building on York Road in Hagerstown, as well as procuring equipment and staffing.
“It was insane,” Parks said. “It went really fast. From the time of the idea to keys in hand was literally three days.”
The 45-year-old graduate of South Hagerstown High School said he has always worked a full-time job and has been an entrepreneur “forever.”
“My motto is, 'Successful people don't always play it safe.' I jumped in with both feet, sink or swim,” he said.
The community got on board to support the school, which Parks said garnered in the neighborhood of 3,000 likes on its Facebook page within its first days.
“Justin had students following him. The guys in Kix announced they were teaching there, so that generated a lot of interest. The first month we had about 50 students and it grew from there,” he said. “We are thriving even now.”
Within his roughly month-long period of getting the institute on its feet, Parks talked to the guys in Kix. Singer Steve Whiteman had taught before, but a couple of the others had not.
“It took a little convincing to get them to come on board. Once they did, they really helped establish the school,” Parks said.
Maryland Institute of Music offers private instruction in guitar, bass, drums, piano, ukulele, harmonica and vocals, as well as a performance band program. Currently, the school has roughly 10 teachers and 140 students.
Most lessons occur with the same teacher weekly for a half hour with charges depending on the instructor. Recitals take place onstage at the institute.
“Some kids when they come in, don't know where they want to land. You own a lesson a week. I usually recommend to start with piano because that's a basis for the others. They can try piano, guitar, bass, drums, whatever they want until they find their thing,” he said.
In addition to in-person lessons, the institute offers video lessons, which students have taken from other areas of the U.S. During the COVID-19 outbreak, all lessons are being offered via video.
In the performance band program, the institute takes students and groups them together in a band which rehearses an hour-and-a-half per week with an instructor.
“Then we take the bands out to do shows at different places in the Tri-State area,” Parks said.
His background as an agent and promoter gives him contact with club owners and festival organizers.
“It all-around makes sense and I've been able to get some pretty decent shows,” he said. “Other places do shows that are really small for parents. My idea was to team the students up with bigger acts, to make the students opening acts for shows. They've played for hundreds or thousands of people instead of just parents and friends. It gives them a real rock 'n' roll experience.”
The first show including Maryland Institute of Music bands was for an audience of around 2,000 people playing with Kix during the summer of 2018, Parks said.
The institute currently has six bands, including Amnesia, Paradox, Copperhead and The Time We Lost. Members range in age from 10 to 58.
“We group them up by talent and skill level. We also try to do it by students' taste in music,” Parks said. “We look at age, but it's not a definite requirement. It's a good time for all involved.”
One band has a 14-year-old singer and a 26-year-old guitar player, as well as a 58-year-old member.
Prior to venue closures and gathering restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Parks had band performances scheduled for the months ahead including one at Knob Hall Winery with Jester, Rock Me Don't Shake Me – Musicians Against Child Abuse benefit at Breakaway II Sports Lounge, and Interstate BBQ Festival at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center. Rock Me Don't Shake Me has been rescheduled for August and the Interstate BBQ Festival for October.
Watching people become musicians
Parks named the school Maryland Institute of Music to appeal to a wide demographic and to convey that it is not genre-specific.
“I was throwing ideas around to friends and I thought the word 'institute' would, you know, catch more parents' eyes than a rock school. You don't think of taking piano classes at a rock school, but you would at an institute,” he said.
Curriculum is designed by instructors for individual students.
“We don't have one curriculum that students have to follow. That can be boring. If the student just wants to play a Conway Twitty song, they learn a Conway Twitty song. We find out where they want to be in three months, six months, next year, and we tailor a curriculum for them.”
Students include classically-trained singers who want to continue vocal instruction, classical and blues guitarists, country artists and rock-n-rollers.
Payton Waltz, 14, of Chambersburg, Pa., is a drum and vocal student who performs with two of the school's bands.
“I love the people there and everybody that teaches there. It's tight-knit,” Payton said.
Payton's mother Stephanie Moyer said between private lessons and band program, Payton spends about four hours a week at the school.
“I love that she has the opportunity to play at different festivals, and she gets the opportunity to network with other musicians,” she said.
Last year, Payton's band Amnesia played a show opening for Warrant at Rocky Gap Casino.
Having Kix members who teach at the school also is appealing.
“She gets to interact with hard-working musicians who have been in and out of the music industry practically all their lives,” Moyer said. “Learning from such experienced musicians, I think, is unique.”
Ryan Kaiser, 27, of Waynesboro, Pa., is a guitar student who participates in the performance program with the band Paradox.
“It's definitely a draw for me that Kix is there. I've been a fan of the band and seen them in concert. It's really cool to sit down with them one-on-one in a room and talk with them,” Kaiser said.
He also likes the quality of the lessons and the way they are structured.
“It's flexible. If you go in and say, 'Will you teach me the parts to this song?' they'll teach me the parts. They find out what you want to do and learn, then they do what they can to help you go as far as you want to go with it,” he said.
Parks said seeing students making those strides is the most gratifying aspect of owning the school.
“I don't want to sound cliché, but I really and honestly believe with all my heart and soul, I think everybody should be introduced to music. It is the most powerful, magical force there is in the world.”
His biggest accomplishment through Maryland Institute of Music, Parks said, is watching students who have no musical experience develop skills and grow, and receive support in doing so.
“That really is the best part of this business. It's not monetary gain or popularity, or having rock stars. It's watching people become musicians. It's amazing.”
Top photo: Kix lead singer Steve Whiteman, right, is an instructor at the Maryland Institute of Music, which is owned by Rik Parks, left, and his wife Traci Parks. (Submitted photo)