Just think Jack Black from the 2003 film, “School of Rock,” and you’ll get the picture. JUDITH GAP — Students say it was loud last fall when their band teacher John Steinhardt played a concert in Judith Gap.
Steinhardt has another name and another look when he’s not teaching 5-year-olds how to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” When his pony tail shakes out, his blonde-gray hair flies about his face and his voice takes on a baritone growl. He’s Schizoid Johnny, the rocker.
“I tell everybody, I put on the tie and press my shirts and pants for school, but I’m Pete Townshend inside,” Steinhardt said last week.
Steinhardt is the band director for the entire student body at Judith Gap School, which includes 31 students in preschool through 12th grade. He’s got students as young as 7 reading notes and playing band instruments. Since Steinhardt loves rock, he’s re-written classic songs like “Old McDonald” into rock ballads with parts for electric guitar and bass and up to four drummers.
Visiting his class last week, I found it hard to keep my jaw from gaping open. Steinhardt looks all business in his eagle tie and cowboy boots, but then he straddles the stool for his drum kit and starts wailing.
Olivia Mitchell, 9, jumps up on her chair so she is the same height of the other clarinetist, 5th-grader Shayla Mager, 11.
A jam escalates driven by the four drummers and 9-year-old Lilly Morris furiously bobs her head as she bows her violin.
“He’s a good teacher and he plays all kinds of different songs,” Morris said.
Steinhardt is gearing up for a big event with his students in 2018. He couldn’t say exactly what it will involve, but the first step is prepping students to perfect their instruments.
The first fundraiser for this big project is an album-release show at Merrill’s Mountain View Ranch on Saturday, June 4, at 6 p.m. The performance will be in a big barn off Highway 191 between Harlowton and Eddie’s Corner. The venue probably won’t show up on your GPS so call the school at 406-473-2211 if you need directions.
‘I’m Not Who You Think I Am’
Everyone who shows up and pays the $9.95 admission, or $14.95 for a couple, receives an autographed copy of his latest CD, “Schizoid Johnny: I’m Not Who You Think I Am.”
Talk about a fitting album title.
Steinhardt says one of his ex-wives gave him the nickname Schizoid because he plays so many different instruments, often performing as a one-man band. For the June 4 show, he’ll play 14 different guitars, and bring in two touring musicians to perform with him.
Judith Gap, population 126 or so, doesn’t have a Starbucks or even a traffic light. That’s part of the charm. Kids ride the bus into town from ranches spread out all across the valley.
That was just the kind of place Steinhardt was looking for when he arrived in town last fall to start his teaching post.
The 60-year-old Steinhardt heeded his father’s advice and earned his music education degree from the University of Wisconsin as a fall-back plan if the rocker life didn’t pan out. A cheesehead for life, Steinhardt allows his students to take turns wearing with his cherished foam cheese wedge and has pictures of famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi on his bulletin board along with rockers Stevie Ray Vaughan and Kurt Cobain.
Four years ago, his voice started to falter so Steinhardt quietly thanked his dad and took a teaching job in Medicine Bow, Wyo.
“When I got hired I always ask one final question, ‘Do you have a stoplight?’ If they say no, I say, ‘I’ll take the job,’” Steinhardt said.
But his dream job was in central Montana. Area residents caught his act in Reno, Nev., more than a decade ago and persuaded him to come here.
“I said, ‘What’s in Montana?’ They said, ‘Hunting and fishing and elk.’ They got me with elk.”
Steinhardt played a gig at the Mint Bar in White Sulphur Springs several years ago and the place was packed, thanks to his new fans.
“Everybody in town was there,” he said.
Steinhardt started calling the superintendents of rural Montana schools every year, watching for an opening. When the band job opened in 2015 in Judith Gap, he was on it.
The students are playing instruments and music they never dreamed they’d learn in elementary school.
Theresa Baird, 11, picked up bass guitar in the fall and thinks that one day she’ll form a rock band, the Kitty Kats.
Goddy Bandola, 9, started playing electric guitar this year and practiced so much he got blisters on his blisters.
“I know how to play ‘Sweet Home Alabama,'” Bandola said, then picked a few chords from the song.
School is out for the summer, but some of the students will just keep on rocking, thanks to private lessons from Steinhardt.
“I’m really excited to be out of school, but I don’t want band to be over,” said Shayla Mager.