At 4 p.m. on a Saturday, 25 kids are huddled in the back of Cancun Cantina, a Hanover nightclub known mostly for country music line dancing. The kids, ages 8 to 16, are dressed a lot like their parents might have been in the '60s: miniskirts, go-go boots and platform shoes, headbands and newsboy hats, fancy suits and puffy shirts, and lots and lots of fringe.
We are assembled for the first of two performances of the '60s British Invasion show, a new-fangled recital, starring a cast of students from the Paul Green School of Rock Music (SoR). That's right. Rock School. Last summer, while my friends' kids were in specialty camps—ice hockey camp, acting camp, jump rope camp, even camping camp—my kid was getting schooled in the ways of the true guitar hero.
Some kids take private music lessons for an entire year, never learning a single song from start to finish. That sort of thing can lead to painful renderings of Chopin's "Nocturnes" and the inevitable cringe-inducing recitals for parents and select family members. Rock school students, on the other hand, play Peter Gabriel, the Kinks, and Radiohead songs in clubs full of family and friends. And what could feel better to an 11-year-old lead guitarist than the cheers of peers—many of them waving iPhones with the lighter app?
All over the country, rock 'n' roll camps for kids are spreading like poison ivy. The most well-known of these are Camp Jam, with 16 locations; Day Jams, in more than 22 cities, including Baltimore's Roland Park; and various girls-only camps, including San Francisco's Bay Area Girls Rock Camp and Brooklyn's Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. There's even a book: Rock 'N' Roll Camp for Girls: How To Start a Band, Write Songs, Record an Album, and ROCK OUT!!
But the forerunner and leader of the pack, Paul Green's school, will have 50 locations by year's end. SoR is a mini-rocker microcosm where preteens, tweens, and teenagers fulfill their own—and sometimes their parents'—rock 'n' roll fantasies, where tomorrow's guitar and keyboard virtuosos emulate yesterday's rock gods, and where wannabes become true musicians.
Green, a die-hard rocker, opened his first school in Philadelphia in 1998, hoping to ensure rock's future by teaching kids its past. The school's motto is, after all, "Saving Rock & Roll, one kid at a time." In the SoR manifesto, Green states the school's specific goals toward that end: "To help our students realize their potential as artists, to put them on stage in front of as many people as possible, and to help foster a new generation of incredible musicians."
What is not a goal of the Paul Green School of Rock is the creation of teen superstars, like Hanson and the Jonas Brothers. Green would like rock campers to grow up first, so they can go on to become respected musicians. His spirited style of teaching, rockumented in the film Rock School (and fictionalized by Jack Black in School of Rock), can find him shouting the f-word at his young rockers for missed beats or sour notes. At the end of the movie, though, his teen musicians steal the show with a virtuosic performance in Germany.
The Baltimore branch of SoR sits at the end of a section of busy eateries on Cold Spring Lane. Even if you've spent some time in line at Miss Shirley's, you might not have noticed its neighbor with the yellow façade and the wigged-out guitarist logo. That's because young rockers start lugging in their gig bags long after lunchtime. Run by regional manager Len Sitnick (who has taught at Victor Wooten's Bass Camp), SoR is decorated like a teen's bedroom—hallway walls papered with photos of Zeppelin, Hendrix, Nirvana, The Beatles, Zappa, and Aerosmith, among others.
In the lounge, which is furnished with castoffs like a too-smooshy couch and three diner-style booths, teens practice their electric guitar parts unplugged, do their homework, catch up with friends on Facebook, and share subs and pints of ice cream. During a recent rehearsal for the New Wave show, Grace, a 15-year-old guitarist and student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, spread foam Korean letters on the carpet and used them to teach the alphabet to a couple of other girls.
My 11-year-old daughter, Serena, is my personal rock star, here to finish what I only started in the early 1980s as lead vocalist for my band, Question 47. Though my husband, Marty, plays guitar well enough to teach her, it's not so cool to rock out with mom and dad in the basement.
Serena wasn't sold on the SoR idea at first—and Marty is still balking at the cost of about $275 a month—but that changed when we saw the rock school tribute to David Bowie at the 8x10 in Federal Hill. That night, 26 kids played 24 near-perfect covers of some of Bowie's greatest songs to a packed house full of screaming fans.
Serena was something like awestruck. Instead of a two-week summer camp to get her feet wet, she went all in for weekly private lessons (45 minutes each) and Rock 101, a weekly 90-minute jam session where kids learn song structures, harmonies, and how to play nice with others.
After a semester of Rock 101, kids choose to play in one or two of the five shows offered, depending on their tastes and talents, and attend three-hour rehearsals for those shows. In just a few weeks, my daughter's musical repertoire exploded. She learned to fingerpick The Beatles' "Blackbird" at school and came home to teach herself Cheap Trick's "Surrender" and Green Day's "American Idiot." And at the end of a few months, I'll bet she knew more songs than most kids know in two years of private lessons.
Rock and roll is still a male-dominated genre, but if the SoR lounge is any indication, girls figure prominently in its future. Just over a quarter of the school's students are female, with guitar, bass, and keyboard well represented.
"We expect the girls to play as well as the boys," says Sitnick. "We don't ever want to hear, 'They play well for a girl.'"
Dulaney High student Savannah Tanbusch is the only female drummer, and she kicks it with the best of them. "Drumming," Savannah says, "is very much a testosterone thing, so when I first joined School of Rock it was really awkward because I thought I couldn't be as great as the gentlemen."
Now, she says, she's so comfortable behind the kit that there are only two drawbacks: "You can't see me—and I love attention—and I can't wear great shoes on stage because of the bass drum."
After "graduating" from Rock 101, Serena chose the '80s Hair Metal show, partly because her mother is hot for metal heartthrob Kip Winger. But that group was comprised heavily of older-male guitarists, which intimidated many of the younger kids. Serena's only song after a few weeks of rehearsal was an unchallenging riff from Twisted Sister, so she switched to the '60s British Invasion show and quickly landed six guitar parts, including three leads—on "Lola" by the Kinks, "Bus Stop" by the Hollies, and "Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones.
About two-thirds of this show's students are new—Sitnick added it to accommodate a jump in enrollment. Even in tough times, rock camp enrollment has held steady.
The British Invasion kids manage to get through 25 songs in three hours each week. The first few weeks, Sitnick shows the kids how to dissect a song to determine its structure. While he speaks to them about imitating the styles of rockers—including how to emulate Jimmy Page once you've learned the fundamentals of playing a Zeppelin song—the kids are plucking their instruments' strings and coaxing little more than random jangles and twangs from them. Eventually, through some combination of rock osmosis and dedicated practice, the kids get it and are ready to show their chops to a packed house at Cancun Cantina.
The kids are also responsible for selling seven tickets to each performance, and only the performers get in free. The more tickets you sell, the more chances you have in the raffle to win guitars from Paul Reed Smith or gift certificates to Guitar Center. We sold about 40 tickets for Serena's two nights.
It's hard not to well up about your kid's accomplishments when the show director announces, "We are going to start everything off with some Stones, and let's hear it for Serena Miller, who will be playing the first note of the show." After a few months of lessons, my daughter is playing lead guitar on "Satisfaction." In her jeans, fringe vest, puffy shirt, and psychedelic headband, she looks like a star.
While she's up there, I chew my lip. I recognize her nervous doe eyes as my own from back in the day, when I pretended not to be frightened out of my wits. But by her second song, our fears have given over to a healthy adrenaline rush.
When the show is over, the newbies are glowing. Some of them, including Serena, are asked to sign programs. No one is dwelling on sour notes or bad timing, because hardly anyone has noticed the mistakes; instead, they are deciding which "after party" to attend. My daughter looks ecstatic and repeats, "Oh, my God, that was so awesome!" over and over again. "This was the best night of my life," she says.
And she's ready to do it again, as the signup sheets for U2, R&B Royalty, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, and New Wave appear on the wall at the school. Serena's pick: New Wave, a keyboard-heavy show. Guitarists are encouraged to branch out—do a little singing, play another instrument. So, while her guitar parts are minimal, she plays sax on "Our House" by Madness and "Love is the Drug" by Roxy Music, and sings lead on "Head Over Heels" by Tears for Fears and two Elvis Costello songs.
Such song assignments might be the only contentious part of SoR. Many parents lament the minor parts given to their kids, while many of the more experienced kids seem to have an excessive number of parts in multiple shows. Sure, the seasoned students help make each song sound better, but it could be more equitable, especially when some kids have just two parts in a single show. But because complaining is seen as a bit too stage-mom, most parents bite their lips or attempt to broach the topic gently with the instructors.
And don't let a mom catch you dissing her kid: Rocker moms are like pitbulls with lipstick and black nail polish—they kick soccer moms' butts.
The side effects of all this rockin' out—in addition to utter cool (just ask Serena's classmates, who were in awe during the Cancun Cantina show)—are respect, self-confidence, cooperation, and camaraderie, without the dysfunction often associated with rock bands. Rock = good clean fun? Who'da thunk it?
Upcoming School of Rock shows: September 12 and 13, Detroit Rock City; September 26 and 27, One Hit Wonders; October 3 and 4, Monterey Pop Festival Tribute; October 10 and 11, Elvis Costello.