School of Rock students make old tunes new

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 of Rock franchise in Anne Arundel County. (Amy Davis, 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.

Some knew a few chops. Kevin Strasser, 15, of Millersville, Chris Castle, 14, of Severn, and Blake Wilson, 13, of Odenton are already in a band, Adrenaline, that has won contests playing heavy-metal cover songs. For the first day, at least, staffers herd them into their own room.

Castle gets a few nasty blues licks from his electric guitar. Wilson plunks a bass.

Strasser, a pint-sized Mick Jagger look-alike, sings and plays authoritatively on drums.

Their next gig? "August 26, at my house," the freckle-faced Wilson says. "Our neighbors are moving to Rome. We're having a party."

The rest of the class fills a second space, where the School of Rock's pedagogy becomes clear.

First there's connection. Vocal teacher Meg Murray asks how many have heard of The Who. Two hands go up.

"Do you ever watch 'CSI'? The Who plays the theme music," she says. A few more nod.

Next, material. Murray jots lyrics from a rock anthem on an eraser board: Rebel Rebel, you've torn your dress. Rebel Rebel, your face is a mess. They read as if studying the multiplication tables.

Finally, repetition. Staff has chosen Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" because it's simple — D to E, D to E — and has a beat that's hard to miss.

The players sit among drums and amps. Cooper, 18, a multi-instrumentalist from Cape St. Claire who starred for years in classes at the Baltimore School of Rock, weaves among them, bending over every so often to offer pointers on bass, guitar, piano, drums. Within a few minutes, every kid knows a part.

Murray punches the tune up on an iPad (the 1974 "Diamond Dogs" version). Soon Bowie's voice is pounding through two speakers — "Hot tramp, I love you so!" he sings — and the kids are rocking.


In these early weeks, a lot of the work is smoothing out kinks.

Take the first five-day camp. It was a hit, Bartlett says. Ten kids from around the county threw themselves into their material, and they rocked their Saturday show at Wild Willy's in Annapolis. But there was that noise problem.

"Every time I set the levels on a kid's amp, he'd turn it back up as soon as I walked away," he says with a laugh. Staffers also heard plenty of knocks on the wall coming from the bank next door.

Bartlett has pushed the amps closer together for better surveillance — and switched from real drum kits to the volume-controlled electronic kind.

"You learn as you go," he says.

Same with the campers.

In the newbie group, two kids didn't know how to play an instrument when their parents dropped them off. Cooper calmly teaches them what they need to know, tunes a student's guitar, and more than once tosses out the rocker's official word of approval: Cool.

"Rebel Rebel" starts sounding a little more Bowie-like every time.

In the other room, things feel more like a band rehearsal. Kevin, the drummer, picks up a guitar and teaches his bandmates a song he has written. Guitar teacher Jordan Sokel, 25, nods in approval.

Then Sokel punches up "Yer Blues," a wailfest from the Beatles' 1968 White Album. The kids play along.

"Thank [goodness] the Beatles are finally on iTunes," Sokel says, referring to the fact that the band's surviving members gave Apple permission to carry their catalog just last year. "Thanks, Paul."

"And John's wife won't let his music go on iTunes," Blake says. "What's her name? Yoko? Is she still alive?"

"Unfortunately," Kevin says.

They learn about rock history, they say, from their rock 'n' roll-mad parents and from surfing the Web. The knowledge adds a twist of jaded humor any rock star might envy.

Kevin mentions Eagles guitar hero Joe Walsh. "Does he even play his solos in concert anymore? I think he stands there and strums, and some other guy plays the lead," he says, and everyone cracks up.

Then Sokel, mindful that these boys habitually play blues-based rock, chooses "Hotel California," the Eagles' 1977 hit, on his iPad.

Its 54-second opening instrumental unfurls through two speakers.

The laughing stops.

Chris tries to copy the complex guitar solo. He hits most of the major notes, but the ethereal twang isn't there. Kevin sings the lead, mostly on point, but his voice stretches in the tricky parts.

Blake navigates the chord changes with a furrowed brow.

"Wow — there are some twists in that song," he says.

Before they get old

It's hard to know exactly where this session — like the Annapolis School of Rock — will end up.

The students must come together early in the week, suggest a batch of songs to play at their end-of-week concert, and work with teachers to decide who's going to play and sing which parts.

The whole camp comes together in the lobby during a break, and opinions are loud and diverse, as you'd expect from a bunch of artists.

"Can we do 'Beat It?'" asks Ally Braz, 13, of Millersville, a vocalist.

"I hate Michael Jackson," says guitar player Alex Zamfirov, 11, of Arnold, and that debate ends.

Jake Schwarzmann, the restroom kid, pushes his big glasses back up on his nose. "Let's do 'Blue Christmas,' by Elvis Presley," he says. "All you have to do is mumble."

Murray deftly corrals their energy, making a first cut down to about 10 possible songs (one is "My Generation") and starts asking who wants to play what on which.

She types their replies into another iPad. "This technology rocks," she says.

And the school? Everything's cool so far, Bartlett says, and he and Borgeson aim to have 20 students per session next year at this time.

They also hope to buy and open more Schools of Rock near Baltimore and Washington over the next few years.

A long shot? That's fine with Bartlett. He has always enjoyed improvising his parts.

"We've crunched the numbers, and we think they're there," he says. "In the meantime, I get to play and talk about drums all day. It sure beats working in an office."


If you go

Annapolis School of Rock Summer Camp Show

Where: Wild Willy's Rock House, 2072 Somerville Road, Annapolis

When: Noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6, noon- 2 p.m.

Admission: Free

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