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Music to their ears

How a Berklee grad helped build a haven for local kids — and found one himself

Rick Aggeler, 24, started the Music Clubhouse to give kids like Chris Mason (pictured) a chance to sing and record music. Rick Aggeler, 24, started the Music Clubhouse to give kids like Chris Mason (pictured) a chance to sing and record music. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / August 7, 2010

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When he was 7 years old, Rick Aggeler had brain surgery which left a scar on the back of his head and made him so self-conscious he couldn’t move away from home fast enough. “I was always the kid who had the brain surgery,’’ said Aggeler, who grew up in northern California. “Everyone knew.’’

Even worse, he wasn’t allowed to play sports. His mother suggested he learn the drums, which had definite appeal at that low point in his life: “I was excited about hitting things,’’ he said.

He hit things so well, his sixth grade band teacher Ronite Gluck took him under her wing and changed his life. She convinced him he had talent and offered him the chance to perform his first drum solo. That moment gave him a rush — and the confidence, eventually, to attend Berklee College of Music.

Aggeler graduated in 2007, but he never forgot his teacher, and when it came time to choose a career he thought about her even more. Did the world need another aspiring drummer he asked himself, or did it need someone like Miss Gluck to show other kids how music can change their lives?

Miss Gluck won out. “What she did for me made me subliminally want to work here,’’ said Aggeler, now 24 and the director of the Music Clubhouse at the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester. Three years after Aggeler started it, the Clubhouse has produced three CDs, helped one 14-year-old boy record a single that’s now on iTunes, and become the model for other music programs around the state.

“In a very quiet way, he is really changing lives over there,’’ said Gary Eichhorn, executive director of the Boston-based Music & Youth Initiative, which develops after-school music education programs called “music clubhouses’’ in underserved communities, including the one at the Blue Hill Club.

The title of “music director’’ hardly does justice to Aggeler’s work, which involves overseeing a multifaceted after-school music program and summer camp for kids age 10-18, which he refers to as “Baby Berklee.’’ If Aggeler had a formal job description, it might read like this:

“Be proficient in several instruments. Teach the rudiments of music theory, plus ear training. Teach recording, engineering, and the use of production software. Teach kids how to rap and how to perform in front of a crowd. Help the kids produce their own CDs, and organize release parties for them. Set a good example. Be a mentor.’’

Aggeler has covered the clubhouse walls with posters of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and Bob Marley. Instruments are everywhere, along with recording and mixing equipment. It’s not the sort of facility you’d expect to find in a youth center where kids have to pass through a metal detector at the door.

“The energy here is unbelievable,’’ said Aggeler. “I’m here 12 hours a day and I’d rather be here than home. Does that sound weird? Monday morning is a lot more fun than Saturday.’’

There are 11 kids in the summer program and they learn the rudiments of drums, guitar, vocals, and keyboard, and play together in rock band which performs for the Club twice a month. Another part of the program is learning how to rap: One Monday morning’s assignment is to come up with a rap about the past weekend.

“I didn’t do anything on the weekend. I just slept,’’ one girl lamented.

“That’s OK,’’ said Aggeler, who was writing his own. “My first line is, ‘I like to sleep in.’ ’’

Aggeler has been involved with the Blue Hill Club since he was a junior at Berklee, which places students in youth centers and schools to teach music. One of his friends worked at the club as a digital music tutor, and Aggeler volunteered to help him.

Seeing that Berklee had donated some drum sets, they offered informal lessons in the only space available — a tiny room called the log cabin, “about half the size of your bedroom,’’ he said. “We could only fit four or five kids, and the rest had to wait outside.’’

The kids did wait — so many of them camped outside the door that fights would break out. Since they couldn’t accommodate everyone, they asked kids to write an essay about why they were serious about learning music.

The responses were poignant. A 14-year-old girl who learned how to sing in church begged to get in because music was her “passion.’’ An 11-year-old boy wrote: “This is my last and final chance to become what I want to be . . . ’’

Aggeler saw the program as a way to launch his career, too. A Berklee administrator introduced him to philanthropist Eichhorn, an amateur jazz guitarist with a technology background; he and his wife, Joan, started the Music & Youth Initiative, which had opened two music clubhouses in Lawrence and Boston.

Aggeler had taken an entrepreneurship course at Berklee and knew a good opportunity when he saw one. He wrote an elaborate business plan proposing a music clubhouse for kids.

Eichhorn was in. “Here is a guy who, totally on his own, without any support or official encouragement, wanted to give something back to the community,’’ he said. “We were there to take his program to the next level.’’

Serendipitously, the Blue Hill Club was expanding, which made moving to the next level a lot easier. Berklee donated keyboards. First Act gave guitars. Zildjian contributed cymbals. Avid Technology sent recording equipment and Pro Tools software. Harmonix Music offered Rock Band video games.

In some ways, leading the Clubhouse didn’t come easily to Aggeler. “I was from the snobby school of jazz,’’ he said. “If I were going to teach something, it would have been swing or salsa. I came here never having listened to rap or hip-hop. I knew absolutely nothing.’’

But rap and hip-hop were what the kids wanted. Luckily, he found a tutor — a 14-year-old Dorchester rapper named Javon Martin who comes from a family of DJs and uses the stage name of “Yung Fresh.’’

Martin, a lanky boy with braces on his teeth and a prodigious sneaker collection, describes his raps as having “clever lines and metaphors.’’

He brought Aggeler up to speed on the artform, advising him, for example, to pay attention to rap phenom Drake.

“Now he’s pretty much got it,’’ said Martin who, with Aggeler’s help, has written and produced his own CD, laid down a track with Darryl McDaniels of Run-D.M.C., and had two songs in rotation on Hot 97 Boston.

Martin’s learned a lot from Aggeler and not just about music. “He’ll teach me life lessons and stuff, like how character is a big thing. The way you carry yourself and present yourself to people. How you always have to be humble about everything.’’

“He’s like an older brother for me,’’ said Akeylah Roscoe Hunter, 11, of Dorchester. “He teaches us about different ways of music and about how to talk to people — ‘Hi, my name’s Akeylah’ — and then start a conversation.’’

Aggeler said he’s learned a lot from the Clubhouse, too. He’s aware of the tough circumstances some of the kids deal with: fear of gangs, foster homes, the member whose family had been without hot water for three weeks.

“The kids here aren’t ashamed to talk about these things,’’ Aggeler said, which he said prompted him, finally, to talk about his brain surgery.

“In California, I didn’t know how to live with it,’’ he said. “Even at Berklee, I said it was a surfing accident. But how can I lie to these kids? Maybe I didn’t grow up in a rough neighborhood, but I’m able to say to them I did grow up with adversity. Everyone has something we feel insecure about.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com.