.Rocking in Be Natural

Learning to play and perform in front of crowds

The wild energy of youth is pouring from the practice rooms of Be Natural Music on rehearsal day. Evening approaches in the hours after school, and the kids have traded textbooks for guitars and drums, saxophones, and microphones.

Days before Be Natural’s annual fundraising concerts begin, the band members of Le Son are laying down their playful blend of ska and traditional jazz. “Yoga Matt,” their guitar playing music teacher, bandmate and taskmaster, calls out the tempo changes before launching into a crazy, overdriven solo, backed by the sax, bass, drums and keyboard of the teenage boys.

By the end of the hour-long rehearsal, the combo has run through a creative mix of jumpin’ genres, from the ska classic “One Step Beyond” (“because it’s fun”), to the hard bop “Song for My Father,” creatively reimagined, a piece by the late American jazz pianist Horace Silver.

The quiet between songs is filled with the riffs of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” coming from the band rehearsing next door in Studio B.

Le Son doesn’t seem to notice. They’re hesitant to start the next song because “the timing is scary.”

secure document shredding

Matt holds their attention with a firm reminder that practicing at home every day will make the time changes easier.

A ferocious rendition of Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” filters in as Le Son launches into Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” When a first take goes awry, Matt keeps things humorous while hinting at his holistic attitude about learning.  “Are you guys okay?” he asks. “Are you getting protein in your breakfast?”

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE Adrian Sanchez on guitar and Avel Gonzalez on bass will join bandmates Ozzie, Mica, Gus and Max for Be Natural Music’s Spring concerts. PHOTO: Be Natural

At the top of the hour, the kids gather up their instruments to head home, as a new band arrives, the pre-teens of American Nightmare.

Tomorrow, they will be performing for an audience at Pono in Downtown Santa Cruz, at the first of Be Natural’s fundraisers. No one knows what the turnout will be or how the show will go, but the kids appear cool and ready for the challenge.

YOGA MATT

Ozzy Osbourne may have changed little Matt Pinck’s life forever way back when, and his future world for the better. The grinding metal of Black Sabbath proved unforgettable to the 7-year-old, when his brother invited him to listen to the band’s new record.

“‘Iron Man’ is obviously cliché, right? But the power chords, I couldn’t believe it,” he says, tracing his way back from his present vocation teaching a new generation the joys of music.

Later, in 7th grade, his brother handed him a CD. “Ride the Lightning,” by Metallica.

“He shaped me a couple times, without realizing it.”

The founder and driving force behind Be Natural Music, now known as “Yoga Matt,” began his journey here with piano lessons at 5 years old, getting airplane stickers on his sheet music as a reward for sight-reading. As a kid he wrote a lot of music, and even tried playing tuba and saxophone.

“I did pretend radio shows with a cassette tape recording—just goofy stuff.”

Soon he was taking guitar lessons, being taught the fundamentals and the rudiments, something he appreciates and makes a part of his method as a teacher.

“My first guitar was called a Hondo,” Matt laughs. “It was so fake. I was like, what’s a Hondo guitar?”

By junior high he was into metal—Metallica and Megadeth.

“My room had a second-floor window where I would rock out with the window open. The neighbors hated it!”

His advanced education in music continued, including studies at UC Santa Cruz, Berkeley and Cabrillo. He earned his music degree in jazz guitar, but his love of rock music remains.

Matt came to Santa Cruz from Southern California, following a girl who broke up with him on his birthday in 1997, and has been teaching music here for 25 years.

“When I got here, I was just teaching door to door. I just fell into it, I just started teaching.”

His girlfriend at the time got him to teach at a Montessori school in Felton, teaching 4-year-olds the piano.

“The first thing I learned was I was too intense. Which I still am, I’m still pretty intense. I remember the first kid I made cry. I actually used to make a lot of kids cry. I even made some parents cry. I don’t do that anymore.”

Matt jokingly credits his early education with his penchant for excellence.

“I went to Catholic school,” he laughs. “They’re too strict! I got hit on the knuckles by nuns in the ’50s and ’60s!”

A later influence on his career in teaching came from studying martial arts for four years, when he placed third in the nation for ages 12 to 15. The philosophy of the Be Natural schools reflects his time in the dojo, a blend of structure and playful coaxing to excel.

“I’m known for being a hard-ass for teaching in this town,” he says. “You need to have discipline, and you need to have fun. As a teacher it’s a balancing act.”

Matt’s wife and music partner, Sarah, teaches voice, saxophone, harp and piano at Be Natural.

They met at a natural food store, The Herb Room, in 2011 and married in 2022. The pair honeymooned in Europe from Amsterdam, through Belgium, Paris, London and Dublin.

“We busked the whole way and we had the best time of our lives.”

They love to perform as street musicians when they travel—recently to Kona—Sarah with her alto sax and Matt on guitar with his little 5-watt street cube amp.

THE SCHOOLS

The modest size of Be Natural on Water Street belies all of its creative activity. There are nine teachers at the Santa Cruz school, and 10 at the sister school in Cupertino. There are 190 students in SC, and 60 of them are in bands.

Importantly, Be Natural is a jazz and rock performance school.

“It’s because when you’re on stage there’s a difference,” Matt explains. “When you’re in a band and beginning to bond together, it gives you interaction and meaning. It gives you purpose.”

The live shows that the bands perform every spring are also part of learning and growing.

“When you’re up on stage at Abbott Square and a lot of people are listening, those nerves are still there, and some kids still get nervous, so I have to coach them on that too.”

Matt explains the significance of the name. “There’s a play on the natural half-step, the musical note. But it also has to do with a healthy lifestyle—musicians are known to be pretty unhealthy unless they get rich enough to have really good caterers—or blood transfusions. Our shirts say ‘Just Be.’”

THE KIDS

PJ Corbal, the lead singer of Faceplant, came to Be Natural like many of the students, wanting to sharpen her skills for a school project. Dressed for the day’s rehearsal in cut-off jeans, Doc Martens-style boots and an oversized flannel shirt, she is the playful spark at the center of her seriously focused bandmates: Kai on bass, Dylan and Max on guitars, and Frank behind the drums.

PJ explains between songs why the kids still appreciate the music that was written before they were born, with rock from the ’90s most often at the top of the list.

“The older rock music is just more real and less produced and artificial.” she says. “It’s music that a live band can learn and perform.”

She’s a big fan of Damon Albarn, the singer from Blur and Gorillaz. Kai says Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers is his favorite bass player, and Frank names drummer Daniel Carey of Tool as an inspiration.

The setlist for today’s practice includes a long-rehearsed challenge, the song “Limelight” by the Canadian prog-rock band Rush. The young musicians handle the complex arrangement and rhythm changes with confidence, and their pride in accomplishment shows as they nail the last note.

But it’s not all classic rock for the kids of Be Natural.

Some of the new musicians are “metalheads,” as Matt calls them, but many of the youngest kids, especially the girls between 7 and 9, love the chance to practice pop tunes, songs from Disney musicals like Frozen, and Broadway shows like Hamilton.

The enthusiasm the students have for their favorites is the opportunity Matt takes to inspire well-rounded musicians. “I really appreciate the kids who are studious,” he says, “and I think comes from their parents.”

“Kids will come in to work on something they’re doing in school, like Hamilton, but we have them do their warm-ups, some scales, and then land on what they’re working on.”

When kids come to Be Natural with songs to practice that they don’t love, Matt makes sure they’re given something extra.

“We get kids that say, ‘I’ve got to practice a song I’m doing for school,’ but some are terrible, like the worst songs ever. So we’ll teach them how to play the song, but we tell them, you should also learn a song that you like that you listen to on your phone.”

Matt notes the difference in music culture as it’s changed from the ’80s and ’90s.

“Kids have so much media at the tips of their fingers now. With the music, it’s overstimulated, there’s too much to check out. And everything’s mixed, so kids hear classics through a remix. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but it’s nice for them to know that song was written in 1970.”

PIZZA PARTY At fundraisers like this (at Woodstock Pizza) kids get excited about making music. PHOTO: Be Natural Music

SUMMER IN THE CITY…

When summer arrives, it’s time for Be Natural’s music camps. In the five-day camp, musicians hone their craft, learn basic music composition, and prepare for a multi-track, professional-quality recording session. Students participate in the full production of an original song and music video.

Bands often begin in the summer camp because there are many new kids. The teachers have basic songs to start with and the kids begin adding songs that all can agree on.

THE BANDS

Matt explains that the Be Natural bands are constantly morphing, as students come and go, and occasionally changing their name, many of which reflect the personalities of the members.

“We had a band called Not My Fault,” Matt says. “A perfect teenage sentiment.”

A band called The Uninvited became Lies and Lullabies and the dad of one of the band members, a tattoo artist, drew their logo.

“We used to have a band called MEH,” says Matt. “They hated it, but they wouldn’t come up with anything else.”

A band of 12-year-olds called Bananaman created a yellow T-shirt featuring a “banana man” slipping on a peel.

The youngest students with Be Natural are a mere 4 years old and band members are generally from 10 to teens. A band is currently re-forming in Cupertino with retirement-age members, called Young @ Heart. Matt is considering bringing back a similar band of seniors for the Santa Cruz location.

THE GIFT OF MUSICIANSHIP

Yoga Matt shows his passion and dedication for teaching music when asked about what kids get from learning music in an environment with a holistic approach.

“So many things—it helps kids’ cognitive skills, it helps you focus, it helps you in math and science. Besides that, what about your nervousness and your self-doubt, and how you feel about yourself? You’re here and you feel good. We help them cope with humor and being able to handle criticism and critique. That’s huge, and that’s what you’re faced with playing onstage, playing in front of your peers. Besides that, you can’t underestimate friendships. It’s sweet. Insecurity is such a common thing.”

He remembers a surprise birthday party at the school for a longtime student.

“I looked around and I thought, ‘All these people met through us’ It’s a trip, The psychological, emotional part.

“Every time I see someone from the way past, the last time I saw them at 10 or 12, you can really see how much they’ve grown. I saw some kids a couple weeks ago, and you could tell they’re so stoked for what I taught ’em.”

FAME

Matt shows an obvious pride in his students who have made music a career or a big part of their lives, but he’s honest and even protective about them aspiring to fame and stardom.

“There is no from here to here to fame unless you’ve written the right song at the right time with the right sound and the right person hears it at the right time—and I tell kids that fame kills you, it gets really harsh.”

He explains how the internet has changed the nature of fame and success.

“I keep finding a bunch of our kids in big bands that are really popular on Instagram. Will they become rich and famous? No, but there are so many levels of fame now, like pockets of fame.”

Matt wants the kids to be heard and appreciated. They ask how it’s done, and he explains how they need a distributor. Be Natural maintains a library of music from the bands on Soundcloud and uses Distrokid to distribute to other platforms.

KEEPIN’ IT REAL Be Natural rockers Lies and Lullabies kick off the 2024 fundraisers at Pono. PHOTO: Be Natural Music

CONCERT DAY

It’s a typically beautiful day in Downtown Santa Cruz as the kids of Be Natural gather at Pono restaurant for their fundraiser. In the minutes before concert time, there are still empty tables in the large space, but the kids are focused on sound checks and psyching each other up.

Yoga Matt takes the mic and starts to rev up the audience, while the first band takes the stage.

The tables fill quickly, and soon the room is SRO, filled with music and excitement. New arrivals are waiting outside hoping to get in. The sound is great and the crowd is almost as loud as the bands.

Matt is on fire and Sarah is beaming as the kids play their sets. At the show’s end, Matt is pleased and proud. He says it was the biggest crowd they ever had there, and they stayed around.

Matt’s verdict of the Pono show: “epic.”

Be Natural’s Fundraising Concert Series continues through May. Students will be performing at Abbott Square on Kids Day, May 4 from 11:30am to 2:30pm, and on May 5 from 12:30 to 4:30pm at Bruno’s Bar & Grill, 230 Mt Hermon Rd, Scotts Valley.

1 COMMENT

  1. Bravo John Koenig! You did a stellar job of capturing and conveying the essence of Be Natural, Matt.., and with well-deserved kudos to his Be Natural natural wife/fellow dreamer busker, Sara!
    We have watched this emergence/evolution through decades. It’s a quintessential Santa Cruz maverick, cultural creative micropreneur story. I’m so totally stoked to see this celebration the beauty of ‘one wild precious life.’

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