For Those About to Rock

Todd Labo came to MSU Denver a guitar player and left a musician.

By Kurt J. Brighton

Publish Date: October 17, 2014

Something happens when adolescents first encounter the music that becomes Their Music. Something visceral, something joyful yet poignant, something bordering on magic.

The record that hooked Todd Labo (B.A. guitar performance, composition ’98) is crystal-clear in his memory, even 30 years later.

“I was 13 and I heard Def Leppard’s ‘Pyromania’ and totally fell in love,” Labo said, laughing in the snug room where he gives 40-45 guitar lessons a week. “That and Iron Maiden’s ‘The Number of the Beast.’”

Although Labo’s lesson room in the back of the venerable Littleton guitar shop, Music Go Round, is small, his passions are not. He’s framed by posters for shows he’s produced featuring students from his Littleton Conservatory of Rock, an advanced music program for aspiring musicians ages 7 to 18. Labo and a former partner founded the program in 2010 to give kids an opportunity to take their music further and experience playing in front of live audiences.

Each summer and fall, two groups of 10 kids come together for a four-and-a-half-hour weekly session for 10 weeks. They work on nine or 10 songs, with drums, bass, guitar and vocalists participating. All of this culminates in a series of concerts at Denver and Littleton venues.

But what Labo is most proud of is his spring program, when lessons transform into something more conservatory than rock. While in past years Labo has successfully arranged and conducted massive pieces like 28-guitar renditions of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” these days he keeps the selections on a more manageable scale.

“Our spring show is an acoustic guitar show, and although we call it that, it’s actually a classical guitar show. It’s just my private students, and they play in trios and quartets.

“I love the rock shows,” he added, “but I love the classical guitar show best.”

For Labo, the road to falling in love with classical guitar was a convoluted one, and one that really began at MSU Denver, a good 10 years after he first picked up an electric guitar and banged out “Smoke on the Water.”

“I met the amazing [Associate Professor of Music and Coordinator of Guitar Studies] Alex Komodore who taught classical guitar,” said Labo. “He was a fantastic instructor. It was inspiring to watch him play and teach. Sometimes even now when I’m practicing, I can hear what he might say in response to a passage of music I’m working on.”
Judging by his students, Labo honors Komodore every day by inspiring his own students.

“Above all, the performances definitely keep me coming back,” said 16-year-old Sammie VanNorstrand, who has studied with Labo for four years. “After a summer of hard work, watching everything come together at last is relieving and thrilling. Todd works so hard for the shows to be perfect and they never disappoint.”

Labo’s own inspiration comes from seeing the hard work of kids like Sammie pay off.

“When that door shuts and I’m teaching, this is the greatest job in the world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said.

But were it not for Labo’s own instructors pushing him out of his comfort zone, it’s doubtful he ever would have touched so many lives himself.

“I went into Metro State a guitar player,” he said, “and I came out a musician.”