Karate teacher rocks, in and out of the classroom


BY Helaina N. Hovitz

The boys in Manhattan Youth’s Martial Arts class want to be just like their teacher, and the girls want the boys to be like him too. Their teacher, James Clifford, is also the bass player in the Energy, a pop/rock band that will be celebrating the release of their third album at Irving Plaza next weekend.

Every Friday afternoon, the Energy gets ready to spend the weekend touring cities across the East Coast. The band has two other albums and an EP under their belt, and has achieved something of a celebrity status, opening for bands such as Vertical Horizon, Fastball and the Click Five.

Between the band’s busy tour schedule and his full time job teaching music at Bay Ridge Preparatory School, Clifford still makes time to commute into Lower Manhattan every Monday and Wednesday to teach Manhattan Youth’s Martial Arts after school programs at P.S. 276 and P.S. 397.

Clifford may be a born-and-bred Brooklyn boy, but his heart has always been in Lower Manhattan. He took the train in from Bay Ridge every weekend to play football in Battery Park, and remembers spending most of his free time around Chambers and Greenwich Streets, hanging out with friends and frequenting his favorite diner.

“Gee Whiz always hooked it up for me,” he remembered fondly. “When I began teaching, I’d go there on my breaks between classes to have a cup of tea.”

But Clifford’s favorite Downtown destination was always J&R, where he stopped in every Tuesday to buy new music as he walked from P.S. 89 to Southbridge Towers. Clifford first ventured to the area at the age of eight, when his uncle, Manhattan Youth Martial Arts Program Director Dr. Charlie Fasano brought him to his first karate class at P.S. 234. Dr. Fasano, also the headmaster of Bay Ridge Prep, worked closely with Bob Townley, president of Manhattan Youth. When Clifford turned 17, Townley hired him as a martial arts instructor. He went on to become the program’s assistant director.

“Bob took a chance and gave me a lot of responsibly at a very young age,” said Clifford. “ It made me feel confident.”

Clifford continued to take up bass and guitar in high school, where several of his music teachers played in bands outside of school. After seeing that it was possible to become a teacher while still pursuing dreams of musical stardom, he joined the Bay Ridge Prep faculty, along with two fellow band members. He has since spent over a decade showing students that even though he’s a member of a popular band, he’s also grounded.

In fact, he said, it’s his students who help keep it that way.

“The industry is an emotional roller coaster. The kids I teach are so innocent, and they’re real,” said Clifford. “They keep me grounded and help me take a step back.”

Fellow band member Adam Wolfsdorf said teaching karate has kept Clifford “rooted,” because the kids are exciting, original and haven’t been “turned off” the way many adults have.

“We’ve toured with some pretty huge artists who think the world should revolve around them,” said Wolfsdorf. “But we know that we’re part of a whole. It’s like you’re Clark Kent during the day and Superman at night. We’re living two lives, but those two lives are yin and yang, and you need both.”

Clifford said his teaching gigs provide him with a sense of balance that most other successful artists don’t have, noting that many groups quick to make it big are also quick to fall apart. In order to maintain this balance, he must establish a clear set of boundaries in the classroom.

“The kids see that we have lives, that we aren’t just boring teachers, so they want to know more about what happens on the road,” said Clifford. “But we don’t actually tell them. We usually just give ‘em a funny answer.”

Students often frequent the Energy’s shows with their parents, who are grateful for the opportunity to go and do something with their kids. When a student, who was an aspiring musician, expressed some doubts about pursuing a career in music, the band let her open for one of their acoustic shows. Clifford still receives phone calls from students who have graduated and gone on to pursue careers in music, attributing their success to his encouragement and leadership by example.

Clifford believes it is important to show his students that with hard work and ambition, anything is possible. Commitment is one of the most important words in his vocabulary, so it’s not surprising that as last week’s blizzard was underway, the karate group gathered to practice — and fall, a lot — in the snow.

“He puts himself into things with full force; he doesn’t go halfway,” said Wolfsdorf. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to accomplish the things we have.”

Not many people can wear both hats at once, but Dean Bevilacqua, Clifford’s mentor and fellow faculty member, said he’s a dynamic teacher, and is just plain great with kids.

“He’s a pied piper. If you see him at the school or on field day, all the little kids gather around him like little geese,” said Bevilacqua.

Bevilacqua has always been a brother figure to Clifford, and began bringing him to shows when he was just nine years old. Clifford now opens for bands that they went to see perform years ago.

The Energy’s sound is heavily influenced by early 90’s rock, and ideas for songs come to Clifford in snippets, which he hands off to Wolfsdorf to shape into lyrics. Of the 2,000 CDs lining the walls of his room are bands like REM and Radiohead, who Clifford values for their ability to make listeners feel like they are part of a whole. He makes a strong distinction between this music and his favorite “ear candy,” bands like Weezer and All Time Low.

Clifford met the band’s vocalist, Adam Wolfsdorf, in the Manhattan Youth Martial Arts program back in 2000, and the two began attending open mic nights together. Soon more musicians joined in, and an early 90’s cover band was formed, playing local bars in Bay Ridge for two years. Clifford and Wolfsdorf wanted to start writing original tunes, and sought out a permanent drummer and guitar player in 2005. By early 2006, The Energy became regulars in Clifford’s home away from home at Tribeca’s Knitting Factory.

The band, whose other two permanent members include Ian VanderMuelen on guitar and Chris Flanigan on drums, has yet to sign with an actual label, but continues to run their own “min-label.” They work closely with Wavelength Entertainment and renowned industry publicist Tracey Miller, and their manager, Beth Bogdan, is senior director of artist relations at Universal. Their booking agency, Supreme Entertainment Artists, is based out of Boston, and represents bands like Maroon 5 and Eve 6. Since all four band members work full time, it took almost a year of traveling to Boston and back every weekend to cut the new album.

Clifford has no plans to give up either of his teaching jobs, and will soon be adding yet another responsibility to the list.

“I have an 18-month-old girl, Rafaela, and when she doesn’t think I’m cool anymore, I’m gonna call on him to take her to concerts, like I did for him,” said Bevilacqua. “He’s already said he’s got it covered.”

The CD release party will be held at 8 p.m. on January 15 at Irving Plaza, where the band will be performing later in the evening. The music video for the first single off their new album, “Go to Girl,” is due in February.