By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Most businesses herald their grand openings with a simple ribbon cutting. The team behind the new School of Rock in Alexandria celebrated the occasion a little differently – by smashing some guitars on stage.
School of Rock is the largest multi-location music school in the world, with more than 200 locations across the globe, according to its website. Its new location in Alexandria, headed by general manager and owner Steve McKay, opened at 3260 Duke St. on Saturday.
With the Alexandria community’s emphasis on music and arts education, it was a logical place for the company to locate, McKay said.
“What I loved about Alexandria is the art and culture,” McKay, who has played in rock bands for more than 30 years in Northern Virginia and Maryland, said. “… To see how much [Alexandria City Public Schools] puts into music and arts in the public schools was also a big deciding factor. Just to give back to this community, it was a no-brainer.”
School of Rock was founded by Philadelphia music teacher Paul Green in 1998. Despite its major increase in scale in just 20 years, the company retains the mission of its founder: to teach young musicians not just through scales, chords and beats but through playing in a band.
“Nowadays, kids can just learn on YouTube, but they can’t get the group feeling, the socializing, the mentoring of each other,” McKay said.
School of Rock’s emphasis on teaching its students the practical skills of a gigging musician extends to who it hires.
Nikki Jean, music director for School of Rock Alexandria, is a working musician who has written songs with titans of American music like Carole King and Bob Dylan for her “Pennies in a Jar” album, collaborated with hip- hop artist Lupe Fiasco and performed on the Tonight Show.
“All the mistakes I had to make as a professional on stage, they get to make in a safe environment, they get to make here,” Jean said.
School of Rock has three program levels – Rookies, Rock 101 and Performance – each based around a graduation model. Once a student has the necessary skills, he or she can move on to the next level.
Students begin in the Rookies program, where they experiment with drums, guitars, pianos or basses before ultimately selecting an instrument. Rookies learn the basics of song structure and genre as well as the bedrock of technique that will carry them through every level of the school.
In Rock 101, students continue to learn their scales and chords, but they begin to play songs with a band of fellow students. Here, students learn rehearsal and performance etiquette, as well as the ins and outs of their instruments.
Throughout these first two levels, School of Rock uses a song-first approach to hook students on the pure fun of playing great music, McKay said.
“Let’s say a simpler Beatles or Rolling Stones song,” McKay said. “We teach them the chords or the beat to the song, the basics of the verse and the chorus, and then when it comes to the trickier parts – the intro, the lead guitar solo – that’s when we flip it and teach them theory behind it.”
This approach culminates in the Performance program, where students take what they’ve learned to performances out in the community. By the time students complete this program, they will have gained experience performing in a band and in front of crowds.
“Our performance program – and the performance program at every School of Rock – is unique in that after a couple years in that performance program, those kids have the
skills of a gigging musician,” Jean said. “We play clubs out in the community. They’re not putting on recitals. They’re going out to a club, and they’re playing a gig.”
School of Rock is divided into three- to four-month- long seasons, each themed around a different repertoire of songs. At the start of each season, Jean will base her selection of songs on the range and ability of the students. School of Rock Alexandria’s first season is focused on the music of the British Invasion.
After a few seasons, students at School of Rock Alexandria will also be able to audition for a house band, which will perform a setlist defined by McKay and Jean at regular gigs in the community.
Despite its name, School of Rock emphasizes more than just rock music, Jean said.
“The primary bedrock of our program is rock music, but we play funk and blues and country,” Jean said “… So it’s not just rock. Because rock is broad. Rock has been influenced by a lot of things, and it influences a lot of things. No matter where you’re from or what you look like, you can find yourself in rock music.”
Through the years, rock and its many subgenres have often served as musical refuges for the lost. That history of solace is one of the reasons Jean and McKay said they want School of Rock Alexandria to be more than just a place their students come for a couple of hours of rehearsal each week.
“When I was 14, I ran away from home to my music school because it was such a safe place for me,” Jean said. “It was the place where I felt most like myself and where I felt I could be free and confident and capable. That’s what we want for these kids. Not for them to run away but for them to have a place where they can feel free and capable and confident.”
“We want the normal kids, we want the jocks, but we also want the kids who eat alone at lunch,” McKay said.
“Music is for everyone,” Jean said.