Music Issue: Learning how to rock

The growing School of Rock franchise offers performance-based lessons. For some members of the current generation, the only exposure to classic rock and roll music comes with shredding on a plastic Guitar Hero controller in

The growing School of Rock franchise offers performance-based lessons.

For some members of the current generation, the only exposure to classic rock and roll music comes with shredding on a plastic Guitar Hero controller in their living room. Modeled after Gibson-brand guitars, the game’s wireless controllers,  which appear to be better suited in a Fisher Price box than the hands of a young, aspiring rockstar, give the opportunity for players to reach faux-rocker-god stardom with a few taps on color-coded frets and flicks of a plastic strum bar.

Young rockers of a new generation are stepping outside the comfort zone of their living room recliners, trading in their plastic instruments for professional models and performing for live audiences beyond their buddies sitting on the couch next to them with the help of School of Rock – a thriving international franchise that provides performance-based music education in guitar, bass, vocals, keyboards and drums to kids younger than 18 years old.

“In most schools you go to, atleast in higher education, you learn classical music and there’s no getting around that,” Craig Waxman, Philadelphia School of Rock general manager and marketing director, said. “Rock and roll is totally negated, so it’s always been a quest of mine to legitimize other forms of popular music.”

Philadelphia was home to the first School of Rock established by musician Paul Green in 2000 at 1320 Race St., which has since been condemned and demolished with the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Now, School of Rock has opened more than 80 company owned and franchised schools in more than 30 states, as well as two schools in Mexico.

The Philadelphia location, now at 421 N. 7th St. that neighbors the Electric Factory, is owned by Dennis O’Keefe and Mike Morpurgo – who also owns two other schools – one in Doylestown, Pa. and the other in Princeton, N.J.

The schools operate on a “backward learning approach,” Waxman said, who holds a bachelor’s degree in music education from West Chester University and a master’s in music theory from Penn State. Unlike traditional music lessons, which may require students to perfect music notation and theory before progressing onward, School of Rock teaches students how to play the songs they want immediately, leaving theory for later.

“If you go to a School of Rock concert, you’re not going to see music stands, you’re not going to see music – some of the kids can read music, some can’t,” Waxman said. “The point is that they’ve internalized the music, they’re hearing it, visualizing it in a totally different way.”

“Here, you can walk in and say, ‘This is my favorite song, teach me how to play it’ and I’ll be like ‘OK cool’ and you can just learn it the first day,” said Noelle Hoover, Philadelphia School of Rock musical director. “Everything can be simplified to a point where you can walk out of here after one lesson having learned your favorite song.”

Hoover, who began working at the Princeton location before coming to Philadelphia, has come a long way since her “dorky marching band days,” and has established a bold presence as a bass player in the city’s rock scene after she arrived in 1985. She said she was first encouraged to see a Led Zeppelin themed School of Rock show through Morpurgo, a friend of hers who was playing in a band called Dandelion at the time.

“If you turned your back and didn’t look at the stage and just listened, it sounded better than the actual band,” Hoover said. “I’ve heard some live Zeppelin bootlegs and sometimes they can be really sloppy, so it was really killing me because these kids were amazing.”

“It was really, really attractive for me to be a part of something like this,” she added. “It’s really important for kids to have an opportunity to come somewhere that isn’t so serious and to be themselves and not have a certain box to fit into – let them spread out and discover themselves.”

While Hoover said that instructors are open to teaching songs outside of classic rock, the school tends to stick to music that can be categorized as rock because, “they’re really good to teach with because they contain all the best elements of music.”

“There’s something universal that you can connect with, whether it’s a really catchy melody or whether it’s just a really well-written song,” Hoover said. “It’s sort of like, we as a collective group, have for whatever reason decided that this stuff is what we’re going to hold onto, what we’re really going to love. There’s a lot to chew on there with the classic rock.”

Students new to School of Rock receive a tour of the school as well as a trial lesson to get them acclimated with the instructors. For those picking up an instrument for the first time, Waxman recommends starting in the Rock 101 program, led each Saturday by Mach22 guitar player Ty Asoudegan, who teaches basic technique without the stress of a group performance looming.

For those more advanced, the performance program places students in groups where they focus on preparing for live performances and learn to handle group interaction – a skill that Hoover said is really the “meat and potatoes” of what School of Rock teaches.

“The kids get to experience some of the challenges and get a head start – understanding how to problem solve and learning how to deal with different personalities that they might not necessarily always get along with,” Hoover said. “A lot of the bands kids have gotten together after they graduated from here are so good because they’re already really great players.”

“It’s good because you know what it’s like to work with people that are hard to work with, and you also meet a lot of people that you’re comfortable playing with,” Mike Bailer, 17, who has been selected as a School of Rock All-Star for the past two years, said.

The audition-based All-Star program selects the best students from its global network of schools to tour across the country during the summer. Last year, Bailer, played the Gathering of the Vibes Music Festival in Bridgeport, Conn. He has been playing guitar for three years, and said he now mainly focuses on vocals, which he started lessons for two years ago.

“[Bailer] is a musical prodigy that would have gone unnoticed, at least in K-12, if a school like this didn’t exist,” Waxman said.

“I wish there wasn’t such a divide between music that’s taught and music that’s enjoyed,” he added. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with classical music – I’m not saying that at all – but for whatever reason, to only consider certain things worthy of teaching is crazy.”

However, Waxman noted that the approach School of Rock takes would not work in the public school setting with a band teacher who has more than 80 kids in the room.

“How could they teach rock bands that have five people in them when you have to have 30 kids in a class to warrant a teacher getting paid?” Waxman said. “I can understand why what we do isn’t in the public schools, but I think that this supplements it and also offers alternatives for kids who can’t find what they’re looking for in public schools.”

The franchise plans to accelerate its development, according to a press release from April 19, which said Sterling Partners led a $5 million investment to School of Rock. The company plans on tripling the number of schools by 2015, as well as doubling enrollment numbers in the next two years.

“It’s such a great idea, so of course it took off like wildfire,” Hoover said. “No matter how big or corporate it gets, I feel like it’s still going to be the same. It’s the people that work here, it’s the thing that we’re doing – it’s always going to have the same spirit, that same sort of dangerous, ‘I can’t believe my folks are actually encouraging me to do this,’ feel.”

“When music, which is something that everyone’s supposed to love and be art and cathartic, becomes difficult to learn and kids get angry and hate it, that’s the worst feeling ever,” Waxman, who hopes to open his own franchise in the future, said. “To be in an atmosphere where the kids are so psyched and have such self-esteem about it is neat to watch.”

Cara Stefchak can be reached at

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