Willunga Academy of Rock with Lee James (Founder)


The South Australian town of Willunga is an isolated community with limited public transport and a large youth population. The community has a strong sporting focus but few other recreation opportunities and, until the Academy of Rock began, almost nothing for people with an interest in music and the arts. Founder Lee James’ original intention was to link up with talented young local musicians and establish an environment in which they would be able to teach and mentor other budding young musicians for a modest fee.

The Academy began in 2006 in a caravan parked at the local primary school and was immediately inundated with expressions of interest. Within a year, there were close to 200 students and the organisation had to move into its own building: a former police station and residence rented from the local Recreation Park committee. Now the Academy supports over 1000 people of all ages from the local community.

Describe the Academy of Rock program.

We provide tuition, mentoring, resources and facilities for budding musicians, with training in guitar, bass, drums, piano and singing. We have built facilities including a small shop to provide basic music supplies  guitar strings, etc. , a fully equipped rehearsal studio and five specialist teaching rooms. Our participants have ranged in age from 4 to 83 years old. They include complete beginners, experienced musicians looking to refine their skills, people wanting to rekindle their love for music from their youth and teenagers needing support with their high school music studies.

We run programs for the local high school for at risk students, helping students to develop the skills to form bands and organising performance opportunities for them. Lessons are available every weekday.

We support local community groups and events by providing equipment and performers free of charge. We have organised benefit concerts to raise money for bushfire victims and we provide free community concerts to enhance important local events including the Tour Down Under and the local Almond Blossom Festival.

Loan instruments are available to students for a very small fee to help them with their studies. Our shop is run by volunteers. All of our facilities have been built and decked out with volunteer labour provided by the teachers and students of the Academy, using funds raised from our teaching program.

As a non-profit organisation we receive no funding other than the tuition fees the students pay. Whatever is left after we have paid the teachers and our overheads goes towards accumulating equipment for the use of our students and the wider community. Most of the teachers have extensive industry experience and strong networks which make them valuable resources for musicians wanting to explore a path as performing artists.

How is the Academy of Rock run?

The Academy of Rock is a not-for-profit business. Our core business is music teaching, but we have established the place to support local musicians and, in particular, local youth in a range of ways. We charge a fee for each lesson, the bulk of which goes to the teachers, who are paid for each student that they teach. A small proportion of the lesson fee goes to the rock school to cover rent, utilities, equipment, etc. I oversee the business in what is essentially a voluntary capacity ( I work fulltime at the local school and the rock school is more of a labour of love for me). I take care of all of the administration, coordinate timetables and work with the teachers to develop programs, and events.

We have a couple of volunteers who look after our 'shopfront' while the academy is open. One is a local man with cerebral palsy who came to us for guitar lessons and now helps to run the place. He's a real character and the students love him and, most importantly, it gives him something worthwhile to do each day, a reason to get out of bed (as he says), as he is on a disability pension and unable to formally work due to his condition.

The other helper is a young high school student who was one of our original guitar students and now comes in most days after school to help out, gaining valuable work experience and skills in the process.

Most of the teachers are young, in their early twenties (or late teens in a couple of cases), in line with my aim to support young people through this venture. Although they are young, they are extremely skilled and unusually experienced. A number of them are also studying music at a tertiary level, either at our state Conservatorium of Music, or in a more practical way through the local TAFE. Their youth makes them accessible to the kids that comprise the bulk of our students, who consider them 'cool'.

The teaching side of things generally occurs in the afternoon / evening (after school), although we do work in conjunction with the local primary school to teach some children during school time. We also support a range of local groups, projects and events in different ways, including the local high school, a private school of performing arts and a couple of local festival events that have a music focus.

How do you improve community life?

The Academy of Rock has become a valuable and high profile part of the community and is much more than a music school. For a core group of students, it has become their 'club', the place that they feel they belong. These are young people that didn't belong to any sporting group or team and many of them felt somewhat disconnected from the community as a result. Many of our teenage students have grown with us and been an active part of our expansion, so they feel a very real sense of ownership and connection with us.

We have students who help to run the shop. We have students who cannot afford to pay for music lessons, but earn them by doing odd jobs like helping with the cleaning, gardening and general upkeep of the facilities. At any given time, there will be a group of teenagers hanging around, appreciating the opportunity to spend time with young adult role models with similar interests to their own, people who can show them how to do something worthwhile with their talents and interests.

Our concert showcases are fantastic and allow students to test their abilities and show their family, friends and the wider community how much they have achieved. We buddy them up with other students to form bands, or the teachers back them if they want to perform on their own. We set up a professional stage and a friendly sound engineer provides a full concert P.A. system for them. We hire lights and smoke machines and they get to experience a very real concert experience in a friendly and completely non threatening environment, where everyone is cheering them on. During these events, we have seen students blossom before our eyes, thriving on their own achievement and the validation of the crowd.

We have had many endorsements from parents, telling us how much their child's self esteem and confidence has grown from spending time with a nurturing teacher. One mother spoke of the positive effect we had on her son, who had been suicidal before commencing lessons with us.

Many older community members use our services, including lots of people who previously considered that they had missed their opportunity to learn to play music but have been emboldened to give it a go after seeing others having so much fun with it. A lot of aspiring bands use our facilities or ask us to help promote their gigs and merchandise.

Musicians have begun using us as a network for finding other musicians, with a number of our students joining bands as a result. The local schools, local council and the local recreation organisations have all recognised our status as a valued part of the community, with our manager being nominated for the local Mayor's Community Service award in 2008.

Ultimately, our greatest endorsement is the number of satisfied students we have worked with and the wealth of talent that we are seeing displayed in our community as a result of our efforts.

Is your vision the key here or is it a shared future that would pan out even without you?

Initially, it would be fair to say that my vision was key to the establishment of the academy. My work at the local school showed me that there was a lack of recreation options for kids in the town (aside from the sporting community) and I set out through my job to find ways to address that and offer new things to the local kids. A music program was originally one small part of that. We set up a simple program based at the school and when it took off a lot quicker than we expected I realised that there was the potential to turn it into something really special.

Never having done anything like this before, I was taking a huge risk but, with some community support, we decided to go for it. It has exceeded my wildest predictions for success and has been very satisfying.

The challenge for me is to keep it on track without running myself into the ground as I already work fulltime, have a family, etc, before I even think about the Academy of Rock. Part of the secret to that has been finding teachers that will take my aims and goals to themselves and run with them and, fortunately, they all have. Although I have no intention to step back from it, I'm confident that with some minor adjustments the Academy of Rock could now continue without me if needed.

What are the pitfalls and high points of working with young people?

The many positives for me include seeing the development of the young people we work with, not just as musicians, but also in confidence, self esteem and a sense of belonging. It has been very rewarding to see kids, that previously didn't have a 'community' outside of school, find a place that they felt they could be part of.

Sporting teams and clubs give kids a mini-community, but many children don’t have that, and we are meeting that need for some of them. For a number of young teens, we are the place that they choose to go to hang out.

The music teachers are another set of young adults that the kids can engage with, and this has been very important for some of them, just to feel that they have someone they can talk to. We have actually found ourselves helping a few kids to deal with a number of really heavy issues and this has really opened the eyes of the teachers to the value of what they do and the importance of them being there.

I enjoy the enthusiasm and energy of the kids, and helping them to channel it into something worthwhile. I enjoy seeing them stick with something and see the rewards of perseverance. Another really great benefit is in seeing the growth of the young teachers who, for many of them, this is their first job. They are learning to be responsible workers, manage their time, problem solve and function effectively in a workplace.

What's the most challenging thing about what you do?

Apart from the obvious challenge of trying to work wonders with a very limited income, the age of most of the participants is also one of the biggest challenges. We have to deal with all of the usual teen 'stuff', including laziness, inconsistency, unreliability, mood swings and the various distractions in their lives, while trying to keep them interested and motivated. One of the hardest things for me is when I see a kid with enormous potential fizzle out and throw it away because they can't be bothered, or the novelty's worn off.

I'm also nearly twice as old as the majority of the teachers, and for many of them this is their first real job since leaving school, so part of what i've had to do has been to mould them into effective workers. They're all phenomenally talented, but that is tempered by their youth, inexperience and lack of work history. I find myself in a mentoring role to most of them. I have a teaching background, so I've enjoyed sharing my skills and experience with them to make them effective teachers. That same youthfulness is also one of the highlights for me, harnessing their energy, enthusiasm and creativity and doing something great with it. I feel that the combination of my experience and their passion and skill is a potent mix and is largely the reason that we've been so successful and are so well regarded in the community.

How do you attract teachers? Are they volunteers or paid?

It has been different for each one. We now have quite a high profile and, as a result, often get approached by musicians expressing an interest in teaching work if it becomes available. In the early days, we advertised in local papers to find teachers. Later on, I actually head-hunted a few teachers personally, selecting people that I thought would be ideal for what i had in mind and contacting them via their Myspace pages and offering them work, which was very successful. Musicians also have strong networks, and the calibre of the people now working with me has given me a certain amount of credibility in the local music scene.

All the way through this venture, it has been dependent on me being proactive and making things happen. I had to 'upskill' myself, bearing in mind that my background, training and experience is in education and childcare, not music.

When we realised we really needed access to a good rehearsal studio, I did some research, scraped some money together and with the help of some of the students built our own one, which is now widely regarded to be one of the best in the city and is regularly booked by local bands needing somewhere to rehearse. Rather than spend a fortune hiring sound engineers to run our concerts, we sourced some P.A. gear and learned how to do it ourselves, training up some of the students to help.

How has your program grown or changed over the last three years?

We started with very modest ambitions, as a spin off of the local primary school's after school care program. We thought we might be able to help a few kids have some fun with music after school, maybe put together a 'band' so they could have a go at being rockstars. To everyone's surprise, we have achieved far more than that.

Our main student band has become an in demand rock band, performing regularly locally and even traveling interstate to perform with some of Australia's top children's entertainers  including artists like Hi 5  at a huge family event, as paid performers.

We are now providing services we wouldn't have dreamed of a couple of years ago. We have been able to provide employment to some of Adelaide's finest young musicians and have a waiting list of amazing musicians who are keen to work with us if a spot opens up.

Our reputation has spread far beyond the local area and we are constantly surprised at the people who contact us for support. When we started, we had 4 guitars, 2 amps and an old drum kit. Through hard work, local generosity and creative fundraising we have managed to get enough equipment to run good programs for our students. We are seeing young kids who are developing a love for music, learning to appreciate different genres of music and branching out as artists. Students are joining bands, establishing themselves as performers, exploring the live music scene. We have shown them how music can be used as a positive force, how it can rally the community together, and what a fantastic vehicle it can be for personal development and self expression. We see so much potential for further growth and many exciting new directions to explore with the right support.

Do you get any funding or other support from the local community?

We get a lot of moral support from the local community, the local schools now see us as a valuable resource and their music teachers are starting to reap the benefits of the quality of the young musicians that we are pumping out into the community.

I have a strong working relationship with the music teachers from both local high schools and the local primary school and we sometimes collaborate on projects. One of our students (now in year 12) is now so skilled as a musician that his high school has helped him to set up a drum teaching program for a group of year 8 students during school time.

The local council is now fully aware of us (largely as a result of the publicity generated by the Music in Communities Awards) and is very supportive of what we do, as is the local Recreation Park group, which owns the facilities that we use as a base.

There is a new local radio station about to go to air in the town too, and we have a close involvement with them and are looking forward to working with them in an ongoing capacity, perhaps with our own radio show/segment which will be great fun and will give our students the opportunity to experience a whole other aspect of the music industry.

Unfortunately, we don't get any funding and have to be completely self-sufficient. It's certainly a struggle and cashflow can be very tight. I don't expect to get back any of the money that I originally pumped into the venture to get it started any time soon, nor is it likely that I will be able to get paid for my time which is a shame because there is so much more that I would like to do with it, but I have to rely on doing it during my (scarce) free time.

We try keep on the look out for relevant grants as they come up. The prize money from the award was extremely useful and helped us to pay off a photocopier that we rely heavily on to produce resources for the students, as well as helping us to buy some more microphones and some much-needed foldback monitor speakers which we otherwise couldn't have afforded. It was money well spent and much appreciated.

Lee’s tips and ideas:

  1. Be bold: If you don't ask, you don't get
  2. Don't try and do it all yourself; if what you're doing is worthwhile, others will be willing to contribute to it in various ways
  3. Keep perspective. When you're passionate about something, you can get so invested in it that you lose sight of everything else. Be disciplined about how much time and energy is healthy to spend on it, and stick to it.
  4. Make it fun. If you're not having fun doing it, what's the point? The Academy of Rock is full of fun-loving people who enjoy being there and that rubs off on the students and their parents. A lot of parents choose to hang around in our tiny shop while their kids are having lessons because they enjoy the banter with the staff.
  5. Take it one step at a time. Have an idea of what you ultimately want to achieve and work towards it at a realistic pace, but don't get disheartened by setbacks, and don't be afraid to re-evaluate your aims along the way.


A recent Music in Communities Network project looks at one of the key issues facing community music groups – indeed, many kinds of community groups – finding space to meet, rehearse and perform. READ MORE