Rock On

There's no Jack Black in sight, but instruction at a new Baltimore chapter of the School of Rock isn't your father's music lesson

October 02, 2006|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sun reporter

Are you ready to rock?" the instructor asks.

The kid says nothing. He doesn't need to.

He's ready.

Music director Bryan Ewald's invitation is a bit of a tease, though. This is just a one-on-one lesson. The real jamming won't happen until two days later when a bunch of students get together to play in a group. But at the new Paul Green School of Rock Music in North Baltimore, even private sessions sometimes thunder.

Guitar in tow, Dane Filipczak, 12, joins Ewald in a practice room and starts riffing through a solo in Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II." Dane's red hollow-body guitar isn't plugged in, but the notes flow sharp and clean. Ewald is impressed.

"He's a quick study," Ewald said. "It makes my job easy."

Open for about a month, the School of Rock building itself is still unfolding as a home for piercing guitars, chest-vibrating bass and thumping drums. There is no sign on the front. The only decoration on the plain white and black walls inside one day recently was a full-size sketch of the School of Rock insignia - a scowling stick figure wearing a guitar with its right hand in the air.

The school offers aspiring Eric Claptons an alternative to stacks of theory books and sporadic basement jamming. While learning chord progressions and scales on paper is important, it shouldn't be the only focus, Green said.

"If you play too much to theory, it's going to change what you would do in a negative way," Green said. "I really think the key to being a good musician is just playing all the time. We hire good teachers, and we teach theory and all that. [But] by the time the kids get out of the school, they have hundreds of hours of rehearsal and stage time."

A documentary about Green's in-your-face teaching style and his pupils called Rock School was released last year. But another movie unrelated to Green's chain of schools - the 2003 hit School of Rock that starred Jack Black - may have had as much to do with doubling enrollment during the past year and creating a buzz about a rock approach to music instruction.

Green, a 34-year-old self-professed failed rock star, launched his business about eight years ago in Philadelphia. The Baltimore location, which opened in a former office building on West Cold Spring Lane, is part of a growing franchise, which includes 22 schools, 2,000 students ages 7 to 17 and 200 employees in 11 states. The school teaches kids how to play instruments through a weekly 45-minute, hands-on private lesson and a weekly three-hour band practice. Students are charged $225 a month.

This isn't your father's music lesson.

Ewald and the other instructors cover everything from the proper rock-star guitar stance (keep plenty of room between both feet) to perfecting the wailing, shrieking lead solo (known in the industry as the "face melter"). They hand out CDs and tell students to listen and learn on their own, and offer tuning and fingering tips during lessons. In the real-life School of Rock, students learn more by ear than through tabs or sheet music.

Several weeks ago, 10-year-old Noel Sitnick was playing the bass guitar loud enough to rumble through walls. Accustomed to the noise levels, Ewald didn't flinch.

"The bass has to be loud, right?" he said.

Far from being a Jack Black comedy, however, the school's setup is similar to the model that Baltimore's renowned Peabody Institute uses to train its jazz and classical musicians, said Paul Bollenback, a jazz performance teacher at the Peabody.

Peabody's programs use a mixture of private lessons and ensemble rehearsals and performances. And while Bollenback said he stresses the need for his students to study sheet music, playing live is crucial to a musician's development.

"The most important thing you can do is to get out and play with other people," Bollenback said. "Because ultimately, that's what it's all about. Unless you're going to be a solo artist playing all by yourself, or you're going to be somebody who's playing with a track where all you have to do is be a star, the magic is in what happens in the group. You don't learn that from any book."

Success in the School of Rock - and the music world in general - results from overcoming fears and having plenty of practice, Green said. He doesn't expect all of his students to become professional musicians.

"If they became rock stars, that would be awesome," Green said in a phone interview from Philadelphia, "but that's a little trickier and requires luck and a number of things that you can't quantify. I just want them to become the best musicians, and - as corny as it sounds - people as they can be. Whatever happens, happens from there."

School of Rock instructors are working musicians. Ewald, 34, started teaching guitar as a sophomore in high school and now plays with a number of local groups, including the Jarflys.

About two dozen students currently attend the local Green school, although the hope is that it grows much larger.

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