Let There Be Rock School in Columbia opens for young rock stars

The innocuous, quiet front to the Let There Be Rock School in Columbia, tucked away among offices on Red Branch Road, hides a bold, loud interior.

Through the bright red hallways — painted like a Van Halen album and stenciled with images of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison — come the strains of electric guitars and the voice of Olivia Miller, 15, singing AC/DC's "T.N.T."

As the band reaches the chorus, Tylyn Serland, 15, rushes out from the rehearsal space where she had been watching.

"They're so good!" she said.

"You'll get there," assured Tim France-Kelly, owner and director of the Let There Be Rock School in Columbia. "It's not a competition."

Tylyn and Olivia are two of 35 students at the school, which opened in May and specializes in performance-based musicianship. It's the only school in Howard County like it, France-Kelly said, and that's just what the students like about it.

"I like to sing rock music," said Tylyn, a rising sophomore at Atholton High School who lists Flyleaf and Soundgarden among her favorite bands. "And this is a rock school — there are none around here. There's piano schools, lots of piano schools, but they'll make you sing to classical music."

As Tylyn made a face at the mention of Bach, France-Kelly said that at most music schools, kids don't always get to the learn the music they want to learn. But that's not the only thing that sets Let There Be Rock School apart.

"They don't ever get to play on stage with each other," he said. "If they do, it's a stuffy recital that two of their grandparents and one of the parents get to go to."

Not so at the Let There Be Rock School, where students are practicing with fervor; their first live gig is Oct. 15, at Nottingham's Tavern in Columbia. Each will play a small set of AC/DC songs. But none of the bands are cover bands, France-Kelly said; rather, they're tribute bands.

For Tylyn, singing AC/DC songs can be a challenge, she said, but she remedies that by singing in a different octave, avoiding the tenor of Bon Scott or the high baritone of Brian Johnson.

"Apparently, it sounds fine," she said.

Individual instruction, bands

Once a week, students meet individually with their instructors, where they learn guitar, vocals, bass or drums. Additionally, students are grouped together in bands with others on their skill level, and the bands practice once a week.

Currently, there are four bands practicing in the Let There Be Rock School in Columbia; not every student is placed in a band, France-Kelly said. The school provides the amps, microphones and drums, but each student provides their own instruments.

Olivia said she started teaching herself guitar on her 13th birthday. Two years later, to the day, she stood on the practice stage at Let There Be Rock, surrounded by bandmates playing AC/DC.

Olivia, a rising sophomore at Centennial High School, is a member of the band M.R.I. ("Mad, Rockin' Idiots") with Coston Nolan, 12, and a rising seventh-grader at Bonnie Branch Middle School, Miles Allen, 13, a rising eighth-grader at Murray Hill Middle School and Eric Sann, 11, a rising sixth-grader at Bonnie Branch.

The bandmates tease one another in a brief break in between practice sessions; while Olivia calls herself an "extreme tomboy," Coston points out that her boyish ways just might have the opposite effect.

"I don't know," Coston said. "Hanging out with dudes is kind of girly-like."

Students at the school bring a wide range of music taste with them; while Olivia's birthday outfit included a spikey black wig like Billie Joe Armstrong, frontman for the pop-punk band Green Day, Miles is currently learning the baseline to "September" by Earth, Wind and Fire.

Miles also plays in Murray Hill's Jazz Band, said Heather Allen, his mother, but the bassists are tucked upstage behind everyone else. The Let There Be Rock School lets her son work on his stage presence, coached by professional musicians with lifetimes of experience.

"This gives him an opportunity to express himself, find his own style and personality," she said.

More than that, Heather Allen said, the school is a good place for her son to hang out.

"This is a great group of kids, and a element to be in, in terms of creativity and music," she said. "It's a safe, supportive environment."

Kitchen, game room

That's just part of the package, France-Kelly said. With lessons, students have unlimited access to the school during business hours, including a kitchen, a game room with foosball and air hockey, and a lounge with a big-screen television — all decorated with rock 'n' roll memorabilia.

The school is modeled after the first Let There Be Rock School, in Frederick (another one operates in Folsom, Pa.), where France-Kelly's son, Mason, 10, still attends lessons and practices with his band.

France-Kelly, 40, a Mt. Hebron High School graduate, said there are 120 students in 25 bands in the Frederick school. One day, he said, he hopes to have those numbers at the Columbia school.

"Once this catches on, it's going to be hard to stop it," France-Kelly said.

The goal of the school isn't to turn out rock stars, he added, but to give them a foundation in music and a community for that music.

"If these kids have music in their lives, they can communicate," France-Kelly said. "They can go to Europe when they're 19 or 20, and sit down in a coffeehouse with someone from, say, Russia, and they don't even have to speak the same language. They can play a Metallica or AC/DC song together, and for those minutes, they're connecting. If they can do that, we've done our jobs. That gives me goose bumps."

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