School of Hard Rocks

From his wheelchair Doug Burris runs the show, loud and proud, at Miami Beach High

"A, B, D, B" he says, before singing the notes. He stops the guitarists after they pluck out each phrase, and has them replay it. After repeating this exercise a few times the group catches on, and they eventually begin to strum in a reverberant (though still flawed) unison. Burris calls their attention to the number "13" printed on the sheet music above the thirteenth measure of the song they are attempting. He tells them it's a rehearsal point, and has them play just that measure a few times while he sings the melody.

"I know it'll be tougher for some of you than for others," he says, talking them through a similar exercise at measure sixteen. "What note is that?"

"F," they respond as a whole, with one girl dissenting.
"What was that, Michelle?" Burris questions.
"F-sharp," she says.

"The note is F-sharp," he confirms, "and that note is played fourth finger, fourth string, fourth fret."

Burris sometimes teaches by proxy. "When I explain [how to play] something, out of a classical guitar class of 35 kids, there's got to be at least one who will get it," he says. "Then I have that student model it for the others. And it works, 100 percent."

And so it goes for Burris with his 8:30 and 9:30 beginners. Some will progress no further then this first class; others will move on to his Classical Guitar II at 10:30, or his combined Classical Guitar III and IV class, which meets daily at 12:30. It is these advanced students who eventually perform publicly with the Classical Guitar Ensemble, and who are often inspired to study music at the university level.

But Burris's other classes are pretty inspired as well. At 1:30 each day he hosts a session called Electronic Music that is essentially an hourlong training period for would-be audio engineers and electronic drum or keyboard players. Many of these students hope to find jobs at local recording studios, or as touring sound engineers. Some of them stick around for Burris's 2:30 class: Rock Ensemble.

Young musicians filter into the room as engineers Blaise Girard and David Mercuri, already proficient in electronic puzzles such as a MIDI keyboard connection or a monitor mix, get the PA up and running. Drummers assemble their shared kit; guitarists and bassists plug in their amps.

Burris is bombarded with questions. Karina Bermudez supplies many of the answers and fills her teacher in on the status of a half-dozen other students. The band begins to fire up. These teenagers, ranging from fourteen to eighteen years old, are already accomplished musicians and vocalists. Burris has molded them into a professional unit. And like any professional unit, there's plenty of ego to go around.

Midsong, guitarist Rodolfo Troncoso takes off his instrument, lays it on the floor as the band continues, and walks away. When the tune ends, a screeching feedback sends the engineers scrambling for Troncoso's amp. Burris asks him what happened.

"Did you hear that guitar?" the teen responds.
"I heard it. Why didn't you do something about it?" Burris demands. Troncoso complains that the equipment is inadequate. They decide that from now on he'll bring his own guitar and amp. Later senior Tennille Maisner says she doesn't want to sing "Just a Girl" (Costanza Pezet, the freshman who first sang the song, has decided to drop her daytime classes). Burris replies firmly that he "didn't ask her if she wanted to." Another blowup with singer Talita Real threatens to cast a pall over the room until a student steps in to defuse the situation. Afterward everyone, especially Real and Burris, laughs off the tension.

There are lots of laughs during Burris's classes. And there's obviously a special relationship between teacher and student. No "Mister" -- he's Burris to them. He watches as a group lifelessly plucks out a piece. He tells them, forcefully, directly, to put some emotion into the music. When he becomes animated, he moves his head back and forth. The young rock and rollers mimic him in birdlike motions, calling out: "Do the Burris!"

Today the group runs through a dozen or so songs ranging from classic to modern rock, from R&B standards and pop ballads to Spanish-language reggae-rap. As they rehearse the vocalists sing directly to Burris, looking for any sign of his approval. When Burris realizes the bass player for "Hazy Shade of Winter" is absent, he recruits Troncoso, a lefty who does an admirable job playing a right-handed instrument turned upside down. The singers support each other with harmonious background vocals. Burris, meantime, is analyzing their performance.

The Rock Ensemble class is actually an elective seventh-period class under the auspices of Beach High's night-school program. By the time the students have packed their gear (everything goes into locked side rooms and closets), the school grounds are nearly empty. By 5:30 p.m. when Burris boards the Medical Care Transportation van for the trip home, a personal aide has arrived on the scene; two of them currently are Beach High students.

At home in Coconut Grove (Burris has lived on the same block since 1969) he relaxes with a bourbon and Coke, eats, and listens to music or watches TV. His aides help him with his mail and other household affairs, and he talks them through cooking dinner. ("I love to barbecue," he says.) The lights are usually out by 11:00. When on duty Canete or one of Burris's three other rotating aides sleep in a spare bedroom they call "the bunkhouse."

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