Music lessons and kids don’t always mix, particularly when an emphasis on sight-reading and the repetition of scales sucks all the fun out of playing an instrument.
With more than 30,000 students in 200 locations worldwide, the Massachusetts-based music school franchise School of Rock has developed – and succeeded with – an alternative method. It’s a performance-based curriculum for kids age 8 to 18, which means there’s an emphasis, from Day One, on playing rock ‘n’ roll music with other young musicians, in real time, in the same room.
In other words, fun comes first at School of Rock. “It didn’t feel like you were going there to take your lesson and leave,” says Alec Simpson, who studied guitar at School of Rock in his native Texas. “It felt like you were going there to hang out and to learn music. And meet all your friends.”
Simpson, 23, went on to graduate from the prestigious Berklee School of Music with a degree in music production and engineering. This week he’ll debut as general manager of St. Petersburg’s first-ever School of Rock, which he co-owns with his parents, Hank and Julie.
School of Rock is opening with a staff of professionals who’ll teach guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and vocals. Always, there’s performance. Along with studios for each of the musical disciplines, there are several rooms – replete with lights, a sound system and all the instruments – just for rocking out. There’s a house band, for performing in the community. There are end-of-season concerts.
“Theory and scales are important, sure,” Simpson explains. “It’s not something that you just wouldn’t teach. It’s just that our approach is a little bit different, in that that’s what you learn second. You learn how to play a song first, and when you’re comfortable playing it you go into your first lesson and you go ‘OK, why does the song sound this way?’ ‘Why does it work?’ And how can you transfer that to another song.”
It’s designed to keep the kids engaged and interested, Julie Simpson adds. “They get to play the music that they hear on the radio. They get to play music they like. It’s fun to play, and it’s part of a group. And then the theory that’s taught in their private lesson just reinforces what they’ve already learned.
“So if they learn a simple, three-chord Beatles song, they take it back to the room and talk about the chords, and how you’ll find the same progression in other songs.”
“It’s kind of a balance,” Alec says. “You want them to learn some theory, but not at the expense of learning the song and having fun. Also, when you’re learning theory in the context of a song, it’s a lot more interesting. Nobody has fun when they’re told ‘OK, play a pentatonic scale,’ and they play it up and down. But if they play you ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd, and say ‘OK, play a pentatonic scale over this chord progression, and you want to focus on these root tones,’ it’s a lot more interesting.
“You care about what the scale is, because you want it to sound like David Gilmour’s guitar solo.”
Hank and Julie Simpson both hail from Bartow, in Central Florida, and spent their early years of marriage in the Orlando area. His job took him to McKinnney, Texas, near Dallas, and that’s where Alec was born and raised.
A few years ago, not long after their son had graduated from Berklee, the Simpsons decided to move back to Florida. A plan was hatched to go into business with Alec, and with his education and talent, School of Rock seemed like a natural. The trio flew to company headquarters, and spent days on end at a couple of the school’s busiest locations.
Tampa already had a SOR franchise, and the family liked Sarasota, but it didn’t appeal to them as much as St. Petersburg.
As luck would have it, the 3,000 square foot former home of Grand Central Stained Glass – in the uber-trendy 2400 block of Central Avenue – had become available.
Families have already begun signing up – even though the doors won’t officially open until this weekend, several instructors have begun giving lessons.
School of Rock was the name of a 2003 comedy film, starring Jack Black as a character based on franchise founder Paul Brady. Although it was played for laughs, the movie – and the Broadway musical adaptation – hit a nerve: Kids develop their talents more proficiently, and their self-esteem exponentially, when they’re allowed to explore and to have fun.
Of course, Black’s character teaches his kids more about posing with a guitar, and looking cool, than the fundamentals of music. Because, Hollywood.
Still, Alec Simpson says, “I would look at the movie as more of a positive than a negative. Yeah, it misses a little bit of what we do here, but it’s kind of got the core concepts: It’s not really about sitting down and learning theory, it’s about performing onstage, being in a group and making friends. Letting go of that whole ‘sit in your room and practice scales for six hours’ vibe. I think the movie actually nails that.”
WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 26, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
WHERE: 2401 Central Avenue
WHAT: Live entertainment from School of Rock Orlando’s House Band, refreshments, tours, giveaways and more.