Local Current Blog

School of Rock gives aspiring musicians the real-world rock experience

Credit: Photos by Andrea Swensson/MPR

It’s just before dinnertime on a Tuesday afternoon, and the brightly painted, snaking hallways of a downtown St. Paul school are swarming with young kids making music. Behind one door, a student who can’t be more than 8 years old stands behind an electric keyboard, stoically playing a part from a Radiohead song. Next door, a teacher and young student work on playing their guitars in time with a drum beat, and further down the hall a full five-piece band fronted by a young woman with a blazing pink mohawk hammers through an original tune that sounds like a new single from the Heavy.

Welcome to the School of Rock, a small dorm hall-meets-practice space style campus nestled into the northeastern corner of Lowertown St. Paul.

The St. Paul school is actually one of three Schools of Rock in the Twin Cities, part of a franchise that is owned locally and modeled after a national chain of unconventional schools that emphasize live performance just as much as musical technique. Budding young musicians who take lessons at the St. Paul campus, which opened in 2006, have the option to study their instruments privately and rehearse in groups, and are rewarded with real-live rock shows at Cause and O’Garas that reinvent what it means to put on a recital.

“We want these kids to learn how to be rock musicians,” says the school’s general manager Corinna Turbes. “We sort of bill it as an internship for rock stars.”

Turbes leads a small staff of teachers in St. Paul, and recruited bassist Adam Durand (formerly of the Future Antiques) to launch an original music program in 2010 and help bring the students out of the rehearsal space and into clubs.

“One of the biggest things that we stand by at the school is, if you’re taking lessons on your instrument without performing, it’s kind of like learning to ride a bike without ever actually riding a bike,” says Durand. “We like to give them opportunities to actually play shows. So they’re taking lessons along with rehearsing, and then every four months we put on a big show.”

He says part of the fun of focusing on the performance is teaching the kids skills they wouldn’t pick up in an average piano or guitar lesson. “We have rehearsal spaces where they can sit there on the stage and get used to the stage lighting, and we have a drum riser, so I can go, ‘If you want to jump off the drum riser it needs to be on [this beat] because this song is such and such,'” he says. “It gives them the experience to have fun and really live it instead of sit in a room and get bored with one or two pieces that they’re being taught every week.”

All the students I spoke with at the school offered up ringing endorsements of the school’s approach — especially an animated young player named Simon Thomas, who goes by the stage name “Craig Salsa.” “I took lessons at a different place before here, and that place was really lame compared to here,” he says, laughing. “You get here and it’s like, woah! And if you can’t be here anymore and you go back [to a different school], it’s like, can’t we do something else? Like fun stuff?”

“It makes you a very diverse musician, because you get all aspects of the music spectrum,” says student Zach Avery, while aspiring frontwoman Bella Caruso adds: “Totally. They have such a diversity of shows. My first show was [covering] Clapton, and then I went to old-school punk. And then for every show we have, you kind of learn something — learn about the artists of that show, or just that era of music.”

But can you really intern your way into rock stardom? What happens once the students leave the school? Durand says he’s seen a lot of his students go on to study music at McNally Smith College of Music and form their own bands, naming Burn Fetish, Whistle Kid, and Cue the Click as a few Twin Cities examples. He also adds that indie stars Dr. Dog came out of a School of Rock based in Pennsylvania.

“A lot of students come to us, and a lot of parents, too, and say it changed their lives,” says Turbes. “We have such a great and diverse student body — it’s great to see how these students grow with each other, as well as individually. We get a lot of feedback about the friendships that form out of there, the skills that come out of there, and just giving these kids a chance to explore music in a way they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

St. Paul School of Rock students performing at the Minnesota Music Cafe

For more on the school, visit their website. The St. Paul School of Rock will also be featured as part of our upcoming “Back to School” edition of the Local Show, which airs this Sunday night from 6-8 p.m. 

And hear about the School of Rock and some observations on the growing trend of high schoolers making waves in the local scene in this segment from Morning Edition, which aired Friday, August 31: