For 16-year-old Chris Rondon, performing in the bi-weekly jam session at The Garage: Music & Arts Center is a pretty big deal.
He’s only been learning guitar since January and has never played in front of anyone except his parents. On top of that, Rondon is self-taught, and his only lessons have been those he can find on YouTube.
As he walks up to the musicians and plugs in his red Fender guitar, Rondon lets the three older players know he is inexperienced, but they don’t really care.
“The only thing we care about is the look on your face,” says one mandolin and harmonica player.
“Yeah, make some of those guitar player faces,” the bass player says.
Any musician can show up to the jam session and sit in. They can request certain songs they know or sit out for a song if they don’t know it.
Rondon asks to play “Where Is My Mind?” by the Pixies, and the four start jamming. It’s not exactly a perfect performance. JR Lakey, The Garage’s director who also plays piano and sings, has to stop the song a couple times to go over the chords and keep Rondon playing at the right tempo.
But that’s the point of The Garage. It’s a venue and practice space intended to bring together musicians of all skill levels, where anyone can come to learn and perform with others in the community. While there are a couple rows of chairs for audience listeners, it’s almost always a low-pressure environment.
Lakey said this kind of casual space for musicians to connect was something he and Associate Director Kelly Durham noticed lacking in the community.
“Everyone has to get started somewhere, and right now there’s nowhere for anyone to meet up,” said Lakey.
During an intermission, Rondon said he was glad the space existed and otherwise wouldn’t have a way to play with others.
“I’m glad I was actually able to play something and not sound half-bad with other people,” said Rondon, who heard about the jam session through his counselor at Hoquiam High School.
Located in the Shoppes at Riverside mall in South Aberdeen, The Garage is part of the 98520 Music and Arts District Initiative, a nonprofit organization that looks to create and promote different art forms in places around Grays Harbor County.
The Garage has been open since November, and offers a few different services.
Anyone can walk in for free to hang out and play instruments, which The Garage has a lot of. Mounted on the wall are more than a dozen guitars, basses and other string instruments. There is also a keyboard, a drum set and a table full of percussion instruments.
Lakey said part of his goal with The Garage was to provide a safe place for those in Aberdeen who need it.
“We know there are a lot of people and kids who don’t have anywhere to go,” said Lakey, who also teaches music at Grays Harbor College. “So we’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re a safe and sober place you can come and do something productive.’”
Some of the instruments were provided by Lakey and Durham, but Lakey said most have been donated by community members who wanted to help out. Since the two founders put in their own money to lease the space, Lakey said The Garage has paid for itself with the services they offer.
In addition to the main lounge and jam space, The Garage has practice rooms and a studio rehearsal room available for rent. Booking the practice rooms is free for students and $3 per half hour for non students. The studio rehearsal room can be rented out for $25 for one hour.
On the third Thursday of the month, The Garage hosts a community drum circle on the main stage in the center of the mall at 5:30 p.m. Both the jam sessions and drum circles are open to all ages and anyone interested in listening and playing.
For students who are just starting there are private instructors who teach lessons out of The Garage, and musicians can purchase supplies like guitar strings and woodwind reeds at the venue’s store.
There is also a string orchestra that rehearses on Tuesdays at 6 p.m., and is available to students in the area for $25 a month.
A few additional programs are also starting this summer. Lakey said a rock choir for teens and adults, as well as a group guitar class for teens would be offered through the college. In the future, Lakey said he hopes to have more bands perform in The Garage, and would allow them to charge cover fees if they wish.
Those interested in The Garage can visit Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-7 p.m., or can attend the next jam session June 11 at 7 p.m. The phone number is 360-209-4129 and the email is Biz@98520musicandarts.org.