It's been 10 years since Jack Black turned a classroom full of pre-teens into a full-fledged rock band as lovable burnout Dewey Finn in School Of Rock. Saturday, Milwaukee gets its own school, a unique music program that combines individual lessons and group performances, a concept that just might have inspired the 2003 film.
"Paul Green opened the first one in Philadelphia in '98, and it was all him just doing it by himself," says Todd Richards, general manager of the new Shorewood location. "Word got around, and some people came in to do some kind of filming at the school. After a few weeks, [Green] never heard back from them, and then the movie came out."
Green was never credited, but the school grew exponentially thanks to the film, and now has over 100 locations across the globe. The Shorewood location celebrates its grand opening this Saturday in what used to be the Wisconsin chapter of Gilda's Club, a resource center for cancer patients. Whitefish Bay native Rock Marasco, a former executive at Abbott Laboratories, opened the franchise after his children attended a School of Rock in Highland, Ill. Richards, who has years of music and teaching experience, signed on later as general manager.
When I visit Richards at the school, a stout, two-story brick building on Oakland Avenue, we take a walk through the still under-construction basement level. He shows me the individual practice rooms, which are big enough to fit two drum kits: one for the instructor, one for the student – a real luxury where drum lessons are concerned. He shows me the full-band performance area, a lounge where students and instructors can hang out after lessons, and a brick wall emblazoned with the school's logo. The school is currently looking to lease the upstairs, but Richards says it might one day be used as a recording studio where students can learn how to engineer their favorite records. Even in its half-finished state, the School Of Rock, unlike the stuffy music shops I remember from my music lesson days, is undeniably cool.
"If I think back to my own getting-involved-in-music, if you weren't in high school band or something, you were in a garage or a basement," says Richards. "To actually have more of a culture and community based around it, the same way you would with a sport, that's one of the things that impressed me most about the School Of Rock."
Unlike the traditional half-hour-a-week music lesson, School Of Rock is actually a big time commitment. A student in a performance group will have three hours of group rehearsal a week on top of individual lessons. Richards likens it to the Milwaukee Kickers, with practices, games and teammates that depend on each other. He tells the story of a School Of Rock group that harped on its drummer for wearing a Nike shirt to a performance. In other words, the kids take it seriously.
Bands are "cast" by instructors based on their needs and interests. "Let's say you have someone who likes Zeppelin, someone who likes Taylor Swift, someone who likes Radiohead. It's going to be hard to navigate those three kinds of inspiration, so we make sure we cast them in ways that are going to feed their inspiration; find something that has elements of each one," says Richards.
The lessons and rehearsals culminate in a concert open to the public. The first show will be Brit Invasion-themed, and Richards has looked into playing venues like the Pabst Pub, Hotel Foster and Club Garibaldi – places that "adult" rock bands might scrap around for years to headline.
Although he has a wide musical background, Richards is serious about rock 'n' roll and its potential to inspire young (and old) people. "If I'm a 13-year-old boy or girl, rock is a lot more appealing to me than listening to a Charlie Parker record from the 50s," he says. "It's more accessible and it's more inspiring for our age group, which is 8-18." But what about adults who want to rock? Richards says it's never too late to start, and that the school will offer adult classes at some point. "Why not? You could be in a tennis club, or you could be in a rock group," he says. "Life is pretty short. You don't have to abandon those types of things forever."
The School Of Rock will celebrate its grand opening this Saturday, Oct. 12 from 2-7 p.m. and will feature demo classes, a raffle, and a special guest performance.