Sunday, November 18, 2007

Rock Study: Teaching Rock

Washinton Post

Rock Study
Schools Draw Crowds of Students by Setting Music Lessons to a Modern Beat

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007; D01

In a rundown walk-up in Silver Spring, class begins to rock.

On a recent Tuesday night, about 15 teenagers are taking turns approximating a pretty good Rush cover band at Paul Green's School of Rock, one of a number of rock 'n' roll schools popping up around the region and the nation.

There are at least three rock schools in the Washington area. The nascent sector got a boost with the 2003 film "School of Rock," in which a failed rock musician, played by real-life rocker Jack Black, impersonates a school teacher at an elite prep school and teaches a gang of middle-schoolers the only thing he knows: how to rawwwk.

Now, in real life, classically trained musicians, working session guys and aging rockers are discovering that there is an emerging business to be made in teaching kids the music of Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin and Kiss, instead of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.

At the Silver Spring School of Rock, a charmingly disheveled space across from the AFI Silver Theatre, a teenage drummer, guitarist, bassist, keyboardist and vocalist are playing on a makeshift stage under fluorescent black light, rocking a muscular version of "Tom Sawyer," the 1981 anthem by Canadian math-rock trio Rush.

The song, like many in the Rush catalogue, is among the harder songs a rock band can attempt. There is no three-chord simplicity here. "Tom Sawyer" showcases Neil Peart's uncanny polyrhythmic percussion.

Drummer Andrew Cohn, 17, is giving it his all on Peart's lightning-fast riffs but, halfway through the song, School of Rock music director Steve Kilgallon stops the music and addresses Cohn.

"Your one hand is, you know," he admonishes, without having to finish the sentence.

"Uh huh," nods Cohn, folding his sticks.

"You gotta go with the flow and give up on the sixteenths," Kilgallon says, referring to the quick-note drum fills, which Cohn is slurring.

"Right," Cohn says.

"So, I'm going to be annoying cowbell guy," Kilgallon says, referencing an old "Saturday Night Live" skit. Kilgallon, 31, still a working drummer, mounts the stage, directs Cohn to restart the song and bangs a cowbell to mark the beat of the tune -- much like a classical music teacher would use a metronome to rein in a piano student rushing through a sonata.

Classical music lessons are a staple of youth and have been for generations. But over the past few years, the fuzzbox has joined the metronome as a must-have of music education.

Paul Green, the school's namesake, was on his way to law school in 1998, when he got the idea to teach kids rock. Now, at 34, Green runs the nation's largest chain of rock schools, with 34 sites and more than 3,500 students, he said. He opened his first school in 2000 and is rapidly expanding via franchising. He envisions 100 schools by 2009.

Green played guitar in garage bands as a youth. He said he had no idea even how to go about making it big as a rock star. He said if he had attended a school of rock, "I probably still wouldn't have made it, but at least I would have known how to try to make it."

Lessons at his school range from $200 to $300 per month, which includes four hours of instruction per week. The students are expected to perform between six and 20 concerts per year. His top students play in all-star bands that tour with professional rock bands; this year's all-stars toured with Jon Anderson, former lead singer of Yes, prog-rock superstars of the '70s and '80s.

Paul Green's School of Rock is a privately held company supported by individual and institutional investors, Green said, and many of his franchisees are parents of students. The company is attempting to expand quickly and hoping the established schools support the new ones.

For example, the school in New York grosses about $700,000 per year, he said, enough to support the two new Washington area schools, in Silver Spring and Vienna.

Also in Vienna is All Things Rock, a school started in 2005 by Bard-trained musician Barclay Saul with a $12,000 loan he got from his mom. Two years later, he has more than 200 students and nine teachers, most of whom are part time, all of whom went to music school. A one-hour-per-week lesson (weekend jams included) costs $300 a month. Barclay said his school became profitable months after it opened.

Where Green's Schools of Rock also teach stagecraft -- how to look like a rock star -- Saul's focus more on musicianship. All of Saul's students must learn how to read and compose music. Both Saul and Green say their schools complement, rather than suck students away from, classical lessons. Green said about half of his piano students take classical lessons.

Saul's teachers are working musicians. Two are in a band called Honor by August, which recently opened for Bon Jovi.

"The vibe here is not to have some balding dudes tell kids, 'I remember when I used to play,' " said Saul, 31. "The vibe here is to have people who play and gig teach the kids."

David C. Levy, former head of New York's New School and Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art and a lifelong jazz musician, met Jeffrey Levin and his East Coast Music Production camp a couple of years ago. Levy was attracted to Levin's experimental instruction methods with young kids -- teach them simplified music they could master fairly quickly, hopefully encouraging them to keep learning music.

Levy left the Corcoran in 2005 after 14 years and a bitter tussle with the gallery's directors over its direction. He was looking for a new challenge. He and Levin formed a partnership in early 2006 and began raising money from investors for a full-blown rock school.

Now, after nearly two years and after amassing about $1 million in capital, they have 400 students in their Bach to Rock schools in Bethesda and Gaithersburg, with two in Virginia planned. The business is profitable, Levy said, and the newer Gaithersburg branch is about two months away from profitability on its own, he said. He opens the schools in places "where parents want to be," he says, such as Gaithersburg's Rio Center, with its stores and movie theaters.

Teaching kids rock in addition to classical music appealed to Levy because he wanted to turn traditional music lessons -- a solitary exercise often rued by children -- into a relevant, team-oriented enterprise, like playing in a band.

"You need to choose music that has some meaning to the kids," Levy said. "If this were the 18th century and Mozart lived next door, you'd play Mozart."

Back at the Silver Spring School of Rock, after the Rush set, Cohn says that Gilgallon's drumming advice was correct. "He knows when songs are not ready to be done," Cohn says.

Up walks Dan "Big Dan" Geraghty, who, at 13, is maybe -- maybe -- a head taller than his Jackson Randy Rhoads RR3 model guitar. Gilgallon informs Big Dan that he will play on the school's float in a holiday parade. Big Dan is cool with that. Why does he like the School of Rock?

"You play some songs, you go to Jerry's, you get some grub," he says, nonchalantly. "It's tight."

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