Where’s a good place in Chapel Hill to be stuck in traffic during warmer days? If you’re sitting at the light at the intersection of Fordham Boulevard and Eastgate Crossing, there’s a chance you’ll get to hear a live performance of some Led Zeppelin, or The Rolling Stones, Beatles, or maybe some Nirvana being performed by a group of talented students.
“When the weather’s nice, we can throw open the garage doors and play out to the cars sitting at the red light,” said David Joseph, who runs School of Rock Chapel Hill. “Especially during rush hour. It’s better than a billboard.”
Joseph opened his business in a former diner in May 2017. He has nearly 20 instructors (Joseph is also an instructor) on staff, and almost 220 students. School of Rock is a Living Wage Employer, which Joseph said is especially important these days, and has helped him attract and retain high-quality employees.
Each staff member receives a background check and safety training. “The kids’ safety is even more important than the music,” Joseph said.
Students can receive lessons for vocal, drums, guitar, bass guitar, and keyboards. Most students will have individual time with an instructor. But the goal of School of Rock is beyond just learning how to play an instrument.
“The whole point of what we do at school rock is to not only teach them how to play their instruments, but to teach them how to play together as a band,” Joseph said. “That’s the whole thing. It’s a performance-based music program. By that I mean, teach them how to play as a band and then we get them out on stage somewhere actually putting on a show.”
The youngest, or beginner students, usually enroll in Rock 101. They’re often still learning their instruments, but they will also begin learning how to play together in a band, playing simpler songs. When they graduate from that, the students, usually middle or high school age, move up to the Performance Program. At that level, kids are putting on 60- to 90-minute themed shows that focus on a particular band, genre, or time period.
Rock posters hung throughout the School of Rock promote past concerts from the Performance Program. Joseph has what he refers to as the Pink Floyd Wall of Shows, in which ‘bricks’ contains info on each of the shows students have done since the business opened.
“Even during the pandemic we’ve been able to do live streams from the Cat’s Cradle, or outdoor shows in the open air. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Also adding to the experience of being in a real rock and roll band, students are allowed to write or draw on the bathroom walls at School of Rock.
“We let the kids decorate it like it’s a rock club. Just no bad words.”
School of Rock Chapel Hill retained some of the diner décor of its original use. Booth seats and tables are in the lobby and a central room that doubles as a break area for students. There are several small studios for one-on-one lessons for guitar and vocals. Larger rooms with two drum kits are for future rock drummers. There are two more larger rooms for band rehearsals. Those have glass garage doors that open on warmer days, making for legitimate garage band practice.
Students in the Performance Program can audition to be in the School of Rock House Band, which is kind of the premiere-level of musicians from the school. House Band members get extra rehearsal time each week and get to do extra shows.
“They typically get to do a multi-city tour in the summer, and with other School of Rock locations on the same charter bus,” Joseph said. “We go and visit the cities that have other School of Rock locations and they host us, secure venues for us, and then we play all together in a big, long show. Then we move on to the next city. It’s all chaperoned. It’s a charter bus, hotels, the whole thing. It’s a little taste of the rock and roll lifestyle without trashing the hotel, or anything like that. It’s very well controlled and organized and regimented, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Joseph said the House Band tour was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, but he hopes something can be done for 2021. During much of the shutdown because of Covid, School of Rock instructors gave virtual lessons to students in their homes. When it was able to open back up, the building was fashioned with plexiglass throughout, hand sanitizer was readily available, and masks were required. Masks are still required, but the plexiglass has been removed. Students receiving drum lessons must bring their own drumsticks, and vocalists must bring their own microphones.
Not long after he opened School of Rock, Joseph became a member of the Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce. “As a member of the chamber, I have the opportunity to meet and connect with other business leaders in our community, and to work together with them for the common purpose of keeping our community such a wonderful place to live, to work, and to raise our families,” he said. “We are stronger together.”
For Rock 101, individual lessons go for 45 minutes and run about $1/minute. They also get an additional 90-minute group rehearsal. In the Performance Program, students get the individual time plus 2 hours and 15 minutes of group rehearsal time. Joseph said the cost for School of Rock is comparable to other music lessons.
But he insists it’s all about learning to play rock and roll by having fun. “By making it fun and having kids play in a band with other kids their age, they enjoy it more, and then maybe they spend a little more time at it and as they do that they get better at it. As they get better at it, they enjoy it more,” he said.