Youth Culture

What can the School of Rock in St. Paul teach the latest generation raised on rock ’n’ roll?

THE STUDENTS are often no bigger than their instruments. But there’s nothing child-like about the hammering these kids give their guitars as they pound out the chords to the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” during a class at the Paul Green School of Rock.

Since opening in St. Paul last September, the School of Rock has been trying to find its niche in an area that already has several acclaimed music schools. It’s part of a national chain with 31 branches that began in 1998 by Paul Green, whose music-school concept provided the basis for the movie The School of Rock. Green’s philosophy runs counter to the idea that rock-star wannabes need to begin their training the same way other musicians do, plunking out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano. To learn to rock, the theory goes, you just need to start rocking.

This isn’t news in a place known for spawning such punk bands as the Replacements, who barely understood their instruments, legend has it, when they started playing. But Stacey Marmolejo, the St. Paul branch’s co-owner, believed there was a need for such a school here—she brought the chain to the Twin Cities after scoping out music options for her 17-year-old son and finding nothing that catered to kids between ages 8 and 17 who are serious about rock ’n’ roll. So far the school has attracted about 40 students—enough that Marmolejo is already looking into opening more locations in the Twin Cities.

Marmolejo says her son’s experience illustrates the need for the School of Rock. When he attended a summer rock camp sponsored by the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, the instructor asked how many of the 30 or so participants wanted to become professional musicians. About four students raised their hands. “If you asked 30 of our students the same question,” says Marmolejo, “I’d guess that 25 would raise their hands.”

For this reason, Marmolejo believes her school isn’t drawing kids away from other music programs. “We’re attracting students who would otherwise take lessons in their home and attempt to pull together a band in their garage,” she says. So would the Replacements have been School of Rock students if it’d been around in the 1970s? Perhaps, especially if they knew that Marmolejo’s students are drawing a following through bands organized by the school. One, the Street Team, has become big with teenage girls (four of the five band members are boys). On its MySpace page (headlined “Don’t give a damn, it’s rock and roll!”), fans have gushed “U will c me regularly this summer!!!!!” and “Please don’t change!”

Staff from the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul have attended School of Rock concerts, looking for potential students. The kids have performed at civic events and at bars such as Bunker’s Music Bar & Grill in Minneapolis and Station 4 in St. Paul, their repertoire mostly classic rock: Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, the Who. They are responsible for marketing their concerts, setting up and tearing down the stages, and trying to keep their bands together.

For the most part, the 9-year-olds belting out AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” haven’t run into trouble—either with each other or anyone who might find that idea unseemly. “If we’re going to become politically correct, we can forget about being a rock ’n’ roll school,” Green says. But there are exceptions, like earlier this summer when the kids rocked the Ridgedale Library in Minnetonka and substituted “darn” and “heck” for swear words—concessions a star like Prince never would have made. But, hey, every young rocker has to start somewhere.