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Teaching a New Generation to Rock
Thursday, March 03, 2011

Unless you were the captain of the football team, there’s a good chance you don’t have greatest associations with the word “school.” There’s a growing group of schools, however, where all the students are happy, and that’s because of instead of rocking gym shorts, and backpacks full of textbooks, they’re rocking out. This is the story of School of Rock.

School of Rock is the creation of Paul Green, a musician and teacher who, in 1998, while teaching in Philadelphia, turned his class of students into a band. It worked so well that the idea for School of Rock was born. Now, 13 years later, there are over 60 School of Rock schools across the US and one in Mexico.

I caught up with Terry Longhway, who owns six School of Rock franchises in the US, and Kristin Leigh, who has been the General Manager of multiple School of Rock schools, to find out more about the program, what it provides students other than musical instruction, and what a series of video games, and government cuts to our schools’ arts programs, have done for their enrollment.

Adam Bernard: How did School of Rock grow from a band of students put together in Philly to a nationwide series of schools? How’d you get from point A to point Z?
Terry: I kind of got involved at point Z. From my perspective as a franchise owner this is a concept, honestly, I’ve been thinking about it since I was like ten years old; why do sports for kids, why do they have practices and games and an interactive side to them, but they’ve never had that for music. I was always frustrated with that. My mom was a guitar and piano teacher and I always thought it was kind of ridiculous that I had to learn this thing by myself. My guess is once Paul started doing it people saw the rate at which kids were learning, and some people with some money wanted to start another one. When I joined three or four years ago it was pretty concentrated in the Northeast and was starting to spread. I think it was growing organically out there. It’s starting to really blossom.

AB: Being that you work with kids that are ages 7-18, do you think any part of your popularity may have something to do with a reaction to schools having their arts programs cut?
Terry: Oh for sure. No doubt about it. Understand, I opened my first schools in Detroit in probably the worst economy that city has seen in the last hundred years. It’s not viewed as a luxury by parents, it’s viewed as an educational thing. Parents see the value in it and they see that it is getting cut in normal schools. It’s not a frivolous type of spend to parents, it’s an important one for their kids and their families.

AB: Do you think the popularity of the program could influence people to bring the arts back to the schools?
Terry: That’s a tough one to answer. As a business owner I don’t necessarily want it to, but as a father I do. I think there should be more arts in schools.

AB: I don’t think the arts programs in schools would be doing exactly what you’re doing, so I don’t think you’d clash with each other.
Terry: I agree. My kids still have music programs in their schools, but they’re still learning about classical music, and not really playing anything, they’re just academically learning about music, and that’s not what we’re doing at all. It’s a performance program, and it’s learning their instruments in a real practical manner. Even when I was in school, as contemporary or cool as it got was like jazz bands, but in San Francisco, where one of our schools is, they have a rock band program, they actually have something called Rock Band, and I’m sure they got it from our concept, but they’re starting to do stuff like that.

AB: When you say Rock Band I automatically think of the video game. How much of an impact do you think kids playing a video game has had on them wanting to learn the instruments for real?
Terry: I kind of have a love/hate relationship with (those games) because they’re a little bit misleading in terms of playing. It’s a lot different to play an instrument, but at the same time kids come in and they know who The Doors and Led Zeppelin and Kiss and all the bands that we base our program on are. I especially noticed this when the whole Guitar Hero thing was starting, they had a pretty decent knowledge of rock music and I was like how do you know who that band is, or how do you know that song by Aerosmith, or Pearl Jam, and then I’d be like oh, it’s on Guitar Hero. Part of me kind of likes that. A lot of me likes it. It got em really interested in playing, so I think the video games have been awesome for us.

AB: Just don’t let them see any episodes of Behind the Music.
Terry: You need to see the first 30 minutes and the last 15. It’s that 30-45 where the drug use and inter-band fighting happens.

AB: Very true. Going back to what your schools do; other than playing instruments, what skills does learning how to rock cultivate in young people?
Kristin: That’s an awesome question. What I have seen just from being involved in this school for the last year and a half is these kids come in that don’t fit in in school and they don’t like sports and they’re outcasts or loners, or they’re teenagers and they’re rebellious, and they come here and all of a sudden they fit in somewhere when they never had before. The younger kids, they’re learning how to work as a group and work as a team and they get this self-confidence from being able to play music and have it sound awesome. Then you have these teenagers who all of a sudden fit in someplace. I’ve gotten countless emails and phone calls from parents almost in tears, just saying “you have totally turned my child around.” Who knows where they would be if they hadn’t come to the school because now all of a sudden they have a place where they fit in and they’re proud of themselves and they’re actually working and working on music has led them to have good study habits in school, so they’re making better grades or deciding they want to go to college. As cheesy as that sounds I have literally seen it with my own eyes with specific kids that I can relate to because when I was in high school I didn’t have something like this and I was the loner and the outcast because I hated sports and I didn’t want to do anything else but play guitar in my room. Now I’m watching these teenagers, and I don’t have kids personally, but I am at their concerts in tears because it’s so awesome. I’ve seen a kid come to us with severe issues and he did a concert with us and all of a sudden he was smiling for the first time in a year because he was doing something that he was proud of. You can learn a skill like a musical instrument in a lot of different ways, but you can’t learn life lessons unless you’re really given an opportunity to do it in a way that you like, and that's what I think is so important and so inspiring with what we do.

AB: It sounds like you keep in touch with a lot of the students after their time with the school.
Kristin: Oh totally. Not only that, a lot of these kids, they don’t like their (school) teachers, their teachers don’t like them in school, they don’t have any role models or anything like that. What we’ve found is our teachers are role models to these kids where before they never had role models. They don’t look up to their parents, they don’t look up to their (school) teachers, so we’re keeping in contact with them as they go through school and graduate. Maybe we’re even teaching them lessons to become teachers themselves.

AB: School of Rock has had a bevy of television appearances. Which have been some of your favorite on-air moments?
Terry: I was really proud that we were on this History Channel / VH1 documentary on Woodstock. I thought that was super amazing. It’s not just a heavy entertainment or news thing, but something that’s actually, to me, pretty weighty as far as a cultural event in the US and a huge historical thing in rock music, and there we are, a part of that, because we’re paying tribute to it.

AB: That’s awesome. Is there anything else you’d like to add about the school or the program?
Terry: A lot of times people see stuff with us and it’s usually like all-stars. Some of these kids can be just phenomenal, and I don’t say that lightly, and I don’t say that like they’re awesome for kids, they’re just straight up awesome, great, almost professional level musicians, but I want everyone to know that what we do is for everyone, all ages, all ability levels. Probably 40% of the students that start at our school literally just got a guitar or drum set, so it’s not just a program for people who already know how to play. What’s really been interesting for me over the past few years is the number of competitors that have popped up that have kind of stolen, or borrowed, our name. I get that people would want to do programs like this because the program is awesome, and I have no problem with that, competition is great, but I do hate when people are using our name, so I like to tell people to make sure they’re finding the real School of Rock and not Freddy’s School of Rock, or something like that.

Story originally ran on SubstreamMusicPress.com.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:23 AM  
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