School of Rock students make old tunes new

At the Annapolis School of Rock, students from 10 on up learn the ABCs of their parents' music

  • Students learn together at a week-long camp at the first School of Rock franchise in Anne Arundel County.
Students learn together at a week-long camp at the first School… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
August 06, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

The band members met for the first time just two hours ago, but they're already hard at work on a rock classic, and to be honest, it's not sounding half-bad.

A rhythm guitarist pounds out G and F chords. A bass player settles on a solid beat. A singer steps up to the mike.

"The things they do look awful c-cold," he croons, sounding every inch a latter-day Roger Daltrey, longtime frontman of The Who. "Hope I die before I get old."

But something's amiss with the keyboard player. He squirms in his seat. His hand shoots into the air.

"I have to go to the bathroom," 10-year-old Jake Schwarzmann announces, and his teachers stop the music as he bolts for the facilities at the new Annapolis School of Rock.

Jake, a bespectacled 74-pounder from Millersville, has been playing piano and drums for a couple of years now. The rhythm guitarist is a 10-year-old from Crofton. The graybeard on bass, Luke Turner of Severna Park, 13, had never heard of "My Generation" at the time his parents dropped him off this morning.

"I'm into more alternative stuff, like Weezer, Muse and the White Stripes," he says.

They're members of the latest (and second ever) class of summer campers at the school, which a pair of local entrepreneurs opened last month after a year of preparation. It's the first operation of its kind in Anne Arundel County.

"I wish this kind of thing were available when I was starting out," says Brandon Bartlett, a professional drummer from Crownsville who co-founded the place with longtime pal Nick Borgeson of Edgewater, an accountant. "We hope to make this experience available to as many kids in the area as possible."

The kids noodle on their instruments until Jake returns. He wipes his nose, sets his keyboard to "synthesizer" and gets ready as teacher Evan Cooper steps back to the mike.

"Why don't y'all just f-fade away," he sings. "Don't try to dig what we all say." They rock the song to its end.


The School of Rock, an international company based in New Jersey, got its start in 1998 with a single academy in Philadelphia. Its motto: "Inspiring kids to rock on stage and in life."

The brand gained fame, of course, when Jack Black starred in the 2003 comedy film of the same name, which was based, in part, on events at the Philly school.

Since then, its growth has been faster than an Eddie Van Halen solo. The new Annapolis franchise (actually, it's in an Arnold strip mall) is the 70th in the U.S. and Mexico.

It, too, will use a method that might give old-school piano teachers the willies.

School of Rock staff, always veteran professionals, offer a blend of private lessons — guitar, keyboards, bass, drums or vocals — along with regular group jams over a course of weeks. By playing music they like, the theory goes, students get engaged, gain confidence and end up curious about music theory. The end of a given camp or semester features a blow-out live concert.

No experience is required, though most students have some. "We believe the best way to learn music is to play music," reads a statement on the company website.

Bartlett is down with that. A Davidsonville native, he got his own start at 5 when his dad, a hot-rod mechanic, gave him a drum kit. By the time he was in grade school, he'd learned "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones and felt rhythm in his bones.

"Something about it got to me," says Bartlett, who played in award-winning school ensembles and skipped traditional college in favor of a 21/2 -year drum collective in New York.

Back in Anne Arundel, he was playing in several bands when a friend called to tell him a School of Rock was opening in Baltimore. Bartlett applied for a job and ended up teaching there for four years.

That was where he learned what he sees as the basics of teaching rock. Starting out simple is always key, and so is repetition, he says. And kids also get hooked if you let them play music they already like. But exposing them to new tastes is also vital.

"A lot of kids will come in loving heavy death metal, and they'll leave loving Neil Young," he says.

And there's always that tension between craving stardom and learning to work with others.

"You can have kids who have been playing [on their own] for five years, and they think they're amazing," Bartlett says. "Put them in a group, and it brings them down to earth. That's where you learn to be a pro."

Slowly with Bowie

A School of Rock semester — either Rock 101, for newbies, or Performance, for those who have played a little — generally lasts five or six weeks and costs somewhere north of $300.

During summers, though, the school offers a compressed, one-week version of those programs, a camp in which rookies and long-timers interact for seven hours daily.

The second one started Monday morning, when seven boys and two girls walked in.

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