For kids: School of rock 'n' roll

Music lessons at this school include rocking out onstage with a band.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Music director Bill Galatis (center) gives instruction.
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    A.J. Nathanson (left) and Alex Goulet (right) take a break.
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    Rocking out: Cameron Clements practices at the Paul Green School of Rock.
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While many kids play sports or join the school newspaper, some kids simply prefer to amp up the volume. In Watertown, Mass., every week after school, 67 kids head to a practice space covered in hip posters of the Who, the Beatles, and the Doors to practice tunes such as Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " and Queen's "Somebody to Love." Forget warbling trumpets and squeaky violins. These kids are here to rock!

At the Paul Green School of Rock Music, students ages 7 to 18 learn basic music skills and theory, but they also learn how to play for an audience. Becoming more comfortable on stage is an important part of the program, and while most music schools often focus on classical theory and scales, this school takes things one step further.

At the end of the 12- to 16-week program, the budding rock stars will show Mom and Dad what they've learned by playing live at a local music venue complete with fog, lights, and onstage gusto.

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"Most music schools are like being on a baseball team [and] practicing but never playing games... [W]hen you're in front of a live audience, it makes all the difference," says Paul Green, the rock school's president and founder.

Aspiring rockers can enroll in any of the three semesters throughout the year. Students can learn how to play the keyboard, guitar, drums, or bass, and take voice instruction. Every week, students participate in a 45-minute lesson and a three-hour group rehearsal. The school also offers summer camp sessions where students get lessons in recording their own music and marketing. Last summer, students at the school came up with their own band names and made T-shirts and fliers.

The story behind the School of Rock

Mr. Green grew up playing guitar and bass. He taught music lessons and played gigs to pay his way through college. Ultimately, his lessons turned into jam sessions when he asked his students to collaborate with him – and play the music they were individually learning. That's when the idea for the school emerged. In 1998, Mr. Green opened up the first School of Rock in Philadelphia.

Now, 10 years later, there are 45 schools across the country, with 20 more schools set to open. June 2009 will also mark the second annual School of Rock Festival, where kids play with well-known rock bands. Last year, the Dropkick Murphys and Less Than Jake headlined the festival.

The school offers other professional opportunities, too. Each year, students audition for a spot in the school's All-Stars group, a three-year national touring band of the school's top students. Over the years, students have played with Eddie Vedder, Alice Cooper, and Peter Frampton, and traveled internationally to play shows in Europe, Mexico, and Singapore.

At the School of Rock, a group of students is getting ready to practice for one of the three big shows at the end of the winter season. Pounding drumbeats echoed and shook the walls of the school's basement. Elijah Berk-Silverman, a 9-year-old with a curly mop of hair, croons the catchy chorus of "Surrender" by Cheap Trick and "We Are the Champions" by Queen, pumping his fist in the air as his band mates groove along with him. The school's music director, Bill Galatis, sings backup harmonies and keeps the band insync from behind the soundboard.

A bunch of students wander in and out of the rehearsal space as Chris D'Agostino stands behind the keyboard and begins playing a trill of melodies at the start of the song "Lady" by Styx. Mr. Galatis stops Chris and asks him to play the melody again – this time using a different time signature. "Don't worry, there's no pressure. This is why we practice," he says.

Learning group dynamics

This is a perfect demonstration of how the school's emphasis on live performances challenges students to learn to play together.

"They actually have to learn songs, they have to play with other kids, they have to prepare for a gig, and they actually have to do the gig," says Joe Pessia, a guitar and bass teacher at the school.

Mr. Galatis never thought about teaching music lessons until he heard about the school two years ago. Now he's conducting weekly music rehearsals.

"What I can confidentially do is point a kid in the right direction [to listen to great music]. Don't just stick with one type of music ... expand your horizons, learn some things. Even if you don't like someone like Frank Zappa, listen to him," says Mr. Galatis.

For these kids, the rock school is not only a place to learn how to rock out, but a place to make friends.

"You meet a lot of cool people and become friends with them, so that's kinda cool," says Joe Cecere, a guitar student.

Matt Cuddy, a high school student, found out about the school when he was buying a bass guitar at a music store. He joined the school last July and really enjoyed playing in the punk rock show earlier this year.

"You can take guitar lessons, but this is really the only school that offers the full band experience," he says.

Many parents also are enthusiastic about their kids' live shows. "I love watching him up there perform," says Kristen Ferrante, mother of Austin Ferrante, a drum student at the school.

Lionel Goulet, father of Alex Goulet – who plays bass, keyboards, drums, and guitar – says that seeing his son perform is "a thrill every time. Alex has been a musician and performer since Day 1, and I needed to find some place to get him onstage, and this provided that."

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