He first picked up the guitar in the ’80s to play rock anthems, and now Rafe Wadleigh is at the brink of 40 — a schoolteacher, a husband and the father of two musicians.
“Back in college, I was in one serious band, Krusters Kronomid, but we broke up after about four years,” Wadleigh said. “I thought I’d be a rock star. I got my music degree, went the academic way instead.
“But you never give up the dream. I’m still waiting for a tour bus to pull up out front.”
After teaching more than a decade at an all-girls school in Seattle, Wadleigh came to Tacoma with his family in 2011 and became the middle and upper school choral director at Charles Wright Academy.
The summer before his first classes began, the school administration suggested he host a rock ’n’ roll camp.
“I had 14 kids, grades seven through 12,” Wadleigh said. “It was awesome.”
A rock musician and singer at heart, he’s just finished his third rock camp — 17 students this year, including daughter Ava.
Wadleigh thinks it keeps him sane. Those around him just love the results.
“I sent my daughter, Annika, and afterward the kids were asking why we couldn’t have a camp like that at Annie Wright School,” said Lawrence Huffines, a part-time teacher at Annie Wright. “I said, ‘Because we don’t have someone like Rafe to run it.’
“He brings a lot of extra energy. It’s tough for pre-teens to feel good about themselves, but in one week he helps give them confidence, teaches them how to collaborate with others.”
What, exactly, is Wadleigh’s rock camp like?
“We show up at nine and rock until noon,” he said. “Then a band from the community comes in and plays for the kids. We eat a sack lunch, get a rock concert and then have a Q&A with the band.
“We work most on performance. Most of these kids can play, they’re good, but to break down that wall — especially for vocalists — they’ve got to put a little theater into this.”
The camp is open to bands and loners, but Wadleigh is strict about one thing: Before camp ends, most everyone will have played with everyone else. Heavy metal guitarists get matched with balladeers.
Campers may begin as strangers, but at the end of the week they’ll have collaborated on an original song, learned covers of other tunes and cheered one another on. It ends with a Friday afternoon concert.
One of the campers this year was Terence Cooke-Speaks, a 14-year-old bassist.
“Rafe didn’t force anything, but we played different kinds of music,” he said. “One of the things I picked up was how to get along within a band. That was cool.”
The world of rock music has changed since Wadleigh began playing a guitar in eighth grade. For one thing, kids start younger.
“We had a band come last year that had played together a couple of years and was in second grade,” he said. “It would blow your mind how sophisticated these little guys are.”
Huffines once played the bass his 12-year-old daughter now plays.
“I was in a band in seventh grade, and Annika’s starting seventh grade this year,” he said. “The group she’s played with, Fists of Fire, has broken up and gotten back together a few times. This year, their drummer went to a sailing camp.
“I joined a band in seventh grade. Annika’s been in a band for years and has now gone solo.”
Wadleigh loves working with music, whether it’s as his church’s choir director, with the school choirs or with other rockers.
“What sets him apart … is how effectively he draws out the talents of his students,” said Rudy Ford, head of the Charles Wright middle school. “He inserts himself into scenes, plays with bands and sings with his choral students — but these things only serve to elevate those around him rather than bringing attention to himself.”
Wadleigh does find time to rock.
“I’m playing with an all-dads band now, and we’re going to make our first concert appearance at an Aug. 6 block party” at The Evergreen State College Tacoma campus, he said. “The trouble with an all-dads band is, three out of four rehearsals, we’re missing someone who had to take one of their kids to soccer practice.”
Wadleigh’s kids, Ava and Dean, are as busy as their dad with music. Dean is 8 and plays drums. Ava, 12, plays guitar and piano. Their mother, Dawn, is a midwife who meets with her clients in a finished basement — for good reason.
The Wadleigh home is rarely quiet. Dean bangs away at his drums — wearing a high hat for style — in his second-floor bedroom. The piano where Ava plays sits just off the first-floor living room.
And Rafe Wadleigh might break into song with a guitar — electric or acoustic — most anywhere in the house.
Even at 40, a man never knows when a tour bus might pull up out front.
MORE ABOUT CAMP
The 2013 Teen Rock Camp is over, but organizers say people signing up now will be contacted next summer. You do not have to be a Charles Wright student to participate.
charleswright.org/events/Enrolled/ teen-rock-campLarry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/larue