When beginners start lessons, they're given one of the core tunes that owner and general manager Hansel Lynn picked. Before you know it, you've got a 7-year-old warbling "Lean on Me" or wondering why it is, exactly, that we all live in a yellow submarine.
It can take time for kids to get it. Lynn, sporting an affable grin and a "Keep Calm and Rock On" T-shirt, thinks of one 10-year-old boy. "He had no experience, and a guitar takes coordination," he said. "Every day I'd say, 'Show me the G chord.'" Struggles ensued, but Lynn had faith. The kid had long hair and a rocker mentality. He could do it.
Then he did. With practice, the boy found the chords just clicked. Formerly quiet, he even started belting out songs.
Lynn has lots of stories like these, even though the school's been open only since January. Kids start shy and end up wailing on the guitar, or show up late for every rehearsal until suddenly they start wanting to do their part, to be a team with their bandmates.
What happens? Lynn smiles. "Rock 'n' roll."
Like people everywhere in the music world, from piano teachers to orchestra conductors, the folks at School of Rock will tell you that becoming a performing musician helps kids build confidence as well as artistry, and learn cooperation as well as chords. These guys just do it louder.
The Palo Alto venue is one of more than 100 School of Rock locations sprinkled across the country and as far as Canada, Latin America and the Philippines. (Its closest neighbor is up the Peninsula in San Mateo.) The first school opened in 1998 in Philadelphia, founded by Paul Green. By 2003 it had inspired a Jack Black movie with the same name, and soon after that new franchises began opening. Thousands of kids are now enrolled at School of Rock, whether they're beginners in the Rock 101 program or more advanced, in the performance program.
The company also recently started offering some adult classes, and growth doesn't seem to be slowing down. In February, School of Rock won a spot on CNN Money's "5 Hot Franchises" list.
Students, who are typically aged 7 to 18, study guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and vocals in weekly private lessons and group band practices. Some kids like to focus on one favorite instrument, but it's common to see them jumping from one instrument to another. Rock is the main focus, of course, but students can also get a healthy helping of punk, alternative, funk, reggae and metal.
If rock is the soul of the program, the performance-based approach is the heart. We don't need no theory education up front, Lynn says. First, teachers emphasize the fun of playing on stage, the joy of the music and the teamwork of working with bandmates. Kids learn by ear, practicing root chords and building on them. Then they realize they've been learning music theory.
Beginners' songs have been chosen because they have straightforward chord structures, easy to grab onto. "In order to teach you theory, we'll teach you this song," Lynn says.
Sitting in his office at the front of the school, Lynn toys with a piece of paper with the chords from Pink Floyd's "Vera." Bits of music and conversation float down the hall from the rehearsal classrooms, and kids come in the nearby front door for their private music lessons. They pass by the front desk, designed to look like a pile of roadie cases.
It's hard to imagine that Lynn looked this happy when he worked in corporate high-tech and real estate. After 20 years in that world, he was looking for a change and then spotted an ad in a business magazine about running a School of Rock franchise. "The light went on," he says.
A native of Hong Kong who now lives in Palo Alto with his wife and three kids, Lynn had a lot of nostalgia for his days playing in a punk-pop cover band called Timmy Ramen with a bunch of other techies.
"I was the lead singer. I was not a very good singer," he confesses. "We were novices. We were good at marketing and stage presence, so we always had a good crowd." But the music, he confesses, wasn't the best. "It was the experience of being on stage. It was so much fun."
Lynn took those star-studded memories and his love of The Who, Green Day, Linkin Park and Jack Johnson and opened School of Rock Palo Alto. Now his school has 50 students from 7 to 18 and an array of instructors.
Longtime Palo Altan Andrew Levin, an experienced guitarist and graduate from Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, is the associate music director and an instructor. A Paly graduate, Levin has also taught at Summer Rock Camp of Palo Alto (a separate, seasonal organization), gigged on cruise ships and played the Whisky a Go Go club in Los Angeles.
These days, many of the teachers and students have their eyes on "The Wall." School of Rock franchises typically perform the Pink Floyd classic album as their first concert, and Palo Alto is following the trend. Sixteen of the more advanced students will rock out on "Comfortably Numb," "Run Like Hell" and the other tunes on Saturday, May 18, at Club Illusions Palo Alto on California Avenue.
Lynn is already thinking about summer as well. The next big show, probably in late August, will be themed "Foo Fighters vs. Green Day."
But before the students hit the '90s, they're hanging out in 1979 with Floyd. Josh Poblete, who at 18 will be the oldest musician in the show, is gearing up for his guitar solo in the song "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2."
"That feeling when you get a song together is really great," he says, temporarily taking over Lynn's desk. He's quiet but well-spoken, and later when he picks up the guitar the dexterity in his fingers is obvious.
Poblete started on piano as a third-grader, then switched to classical guitar. He liked learning the techniques, but it was a lot more fun to be loud. So here he is on the electric guitar. Even when he doesn't have class, he'll sometimes drop by School of Rock to use the amps. His drummer brother Jeremiah, 17, is also enrolled here.
On the other end of the age spectrum is Julia Louth, 7, the youngest to perform in the Pink Floyd concert. She's arrived in the lobby for a private lesson with Levin and is all set to practice her vocal solo in "The Thin Ice."
"I like it," she says of the school, flashing a wide-open smile. "I just really like the music."
Besides singing, the young Taylor Swift fan has played the piano for three years along with some guitar. This will be her first big performance. She's excited and nervous for the concert, but getting to wear "cool boots" and jeggings should help ease any butterflies. She keeps beaming as she heads into the rehearsal room.
Concert opportunities can be exciting for the students in the performance program. The most advanced musicians, including the Poblete brothers, are members of the school's house band and get to play gigs at community events.
The Pobletes are also in a select school group who will perform at the Summerfest music festival in Wisconsin this summer. School of Rock has reserved stage time, and Lynn chose six of his students to go. "To even get one minute on a stage like that ... " Lynn says dreamily.
Another of his dreams is to have some of his students accepted into School of Rock's all-star program. Some of the best young musicians around get to tour in their own bus and play such big-name events as Austin City Limits.
There's just something special about watching the kids learn to love the stage, Lynn says. "I see the kids get stage fright, but they're nervous together."
That camaraderie is clear in a big rehearsal room where the Pobletes join forces with a group of others from the house band to practice. The students take up their instruments under a giant quote from John Lennon on the wall: "There is nothing more conceptually better than rock and roll."
Someone suggests The Police's "Message in a Bottle," and Zach Chang, in a sideways School of Rock baseball hat, counts off the beat on his drumsticks. Everyone joins in, and by the end, he's tearing it up with flair.
"Nice warm-up," Lynn says, and then the players are off and running on Green Day's "Basket Case." Jeremiah Poblete and Caley Vahedi take the vocals, holding up their phones to read the lyrics. The music reverberates through the red-walled room, resonating in listeners' skulls and chests. Another musician, Gabe Cohen, switches effortlessly from one stringed instrument to another.
These are songs that came out years — or decades — before the players were born, but there's no scoffing at the old stuff. Instead, during a break, Vahedi and Cohen riff on their absent friends who don't know the music.
Vahedi is sporting an Iron Maiden T-shirt, and Cohen asks in a mock-clueless voice, "That's Iron Man's wife, right?" They hoot with laughter. Then Cohen has a few choice words about his classmates who think that Nirvana is so cool "for covering that Miley Cyrus song 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.'"
Poblete is quieter, focusing on his guitar, but has just as much enthusiasm for the music. When he was asked earlier what his dream solo would be, his eyes lit up. Without missing a beat, he immediately said, "'Stairway to Heaven.'"
What: School of Rock Palo Alto plays its first big concert, an all-ages show of Pink Floyd's album "The Wall."
Where: Club Illusions Palo Alto, 260 S. California Ave., Palo Alto
When: Saturday, May 18, from 2 to 6 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $15/$13 in advance ($10/$8 for youth and seniors).
Info: For more about the club, go to illusionssuperclub.com or call 650-321-6464. For more about the school, go to paloalto.schoolofrock.com.
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