PLEASANTON -- When you're an aspiring rock musician -- whether child or adult -- it's tough to make that dreamed-of leap from performing in your garage to entertaining on stage in front of a crowd. And without an audience, it's tough to stay motivated.

Veteran musician Joe O'Loughlin knows this from experience and decided to do something about it. His business, "Garage Band Academy," not only offers instrumental lessons; he also helps students form their own bands, find gigs and learn the ins and outs of stage performance.

O'Loughlin, 48, of Pleasanton, has been playing music since he was a kid and performing in a wide range of bands since the age of 12. The idea for Garage Band Academy hit about 31/2 years ago, he said, when several adults came to him asking how to make the leap from playing rock music at home to organizing a band with neighbors or co-workers.

"I thought this could be kind of fun and lead to something," he recalled. "I built a studio in my garage and put this together for adults, but found out quickly that between family and work, the adults realized this was difficult and needed commitment and time."

Catering solely to adults didn't work, but word of his idea got out, and a few parents began asking him what to do with their children who were bored taking music lessons. He knew the schools often provide excellent music training in symphony or jazz, but little for students who want to play pop or rock music.

"Their parents realized there were not many options except practicing at home and recitals, and I remembered how I'd hated recitals -- they felt so forced," O'Loughlin said.

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if kids could get together to play the music they loved and also be able to take it to the next level -- to play to real crowds on real stages?' When that happens they get the rush of that, and figure out why they have to learn the instrument. They have the incentive."

O'Loughlin hired instructors in guitar, bass, keyboard, drums and vocal music and began designing workshops to teach the art of stage performance.

"Some of these kids were standing behind the amps facing the wrong way," he said. "They had no idea. Stage presence is a big thing; trying to get them to relax, have some fun, engage the crowd and be aware of their surroundings.

"We teach them what to expect, which is the unexpected," he added. "What happens when an amp breaks or a microphone dies or a guitar string breaks?"

The business has moved out of O'Loughlin's garage to a new Pleasanton location, where about 40 students take lessons, with another 30 to 40 participating in five bands. Students range in age from 8 to adult and come from Pleasanton, Livermore, Dublin, San Ramon, Alameda, Fremont and around the East Bay. O'Loughlin recruits band members from among his students as well as other musicians looking to form a group. For younger musicians, there is a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility.

"They learn how to get along with people, a lot about compromise and about being reliable and responsible," he said. "The one thing I'm really trying to do is tell them 'This is your band, not your parents' band or your teacher's band. Sometimes parents try to help set up, and I tell them to get off the stage, that you're not doing your kid any favors. They're not learning what it's like to make it out there like a musician and live like one."

So far, O'Loughlin's students have played gigs at events including Wente Winery's Front Porch Music Festival, Pleasanton's Concerts in the Park and First Wednesday Street Parties, the Alameda County Fair, street festivals, fundraisers and private birthday parties. Band members occasionally earn small gratuities, but most performances are not paid.

Ray Hartjen is a publicist for Sony and one of the academy's adult students who polishes his guitar skills as his schedule allows.

"I consider myself a hack musician and one prone to plateaus," he said. "To grow I needed to take lessons ... There's no way I could commit to every Tuesday at 4:45, but every now and then I go, get an assignment and continue working with it."

While he doesn't currently perform in a band, Hartjen appreciates the academy's goals.

"Joe knows a lot about the business," he said. "It's a craft, and he's able to share that with them almost from a band manager perspective.

"It's fun to play, but a lot more fun to play for people. You become a better musician the instant you play in front of people."

Linda Wong's son, Aaron, 15, has studied guitar for three years at Garage Band Academy and plays in the band "Donut Democracy."

"This is different, because once the kids show an interest in being part of a group, they don't have to play for years and years to be part of a band," she said. "My son has such confidence when he's on stage playing with a group. They all have to buy in on learning a new song and decide if everyone likes it, can they all play it, can they have solo pieces. They have to get along as a group.

"He's a good student, and we expect a lot of him, but it can't be all about that," she added. "There has to be a creative outlet, and this is totally his creative outlet."

Aaron, a freshman at Amador High School in Pleasanton, agreed.

"It's a lot more interesting than just taking private lessons," he said. "We learn how to cope in a band environment ... Joe gets us a gig about every month, and maybe two or three during the summer.

"You want to play more, so it's not a chore anymore."

Garage Band Academy
Where: 435 Boulder Ct., Suite 100, Pleasanton
Contact: 925-249-9879 or http://garagebandacademy.com