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School of Hard Rocks

Teaching kids to rock is harder than it looks.


Tommy Rich has three weeks to teach rock novices to play Pink Floyd's The Wall in its entirety. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Tommy Rich has three weeks to teach rock novices to play Pink Floyd's The Wall in its entirety.
A dozen young students rush into the newly opened School of Rock in Rocky River. They lug instruments twice the size of their bodies, glaring at parents who deign to follow them inside.

"Mohhhom, this is my rehearsal -- not yours," one boy reminds his AC/DC-shirt- wearing mother.

Another mom lingers at the door. "I didn't play in a band," she says. "I just listened hard-core." Her 12-year-old rolls his eyes heavenward.

The kids, mostly 12- and 13-year-olds, deposit themselves on cushy couches, a few trying to establish superiority. "I've been playing drums for two years. How long have you been playing for?" asks one. Others sit quietly dreaming about how the kids in their class will soon be swooning over their killer riffs and lilting falsettos.

In 1998, Paul Green started the first school of rock in Philadelphia. The musician-turned-teacher was dismayed that his students knew nothing of how to rock. So he set about teaching them the real-world wonders of Zeppelin and Hendrix.

Jack Black would soon recreate the story for the big screen. Interest in Green's schools exploded across the country, and Cleveland's debuted in January. Kids earnestly told director Tommy Rich that they wanted to be the next Jimmy Page.

But nothing is as easy as it seems in the movies. The problem at the moment is that approximately four kids can actually play.

From the practice room comes a screeching, knife-hitting-plate sound of a boy tuning his guitar. He looks up apologetically. "Sorry."

In the front of the room, Rich looks a bit like an overwhelmed babysitter. In three weeks, his charges will attempt to perform Pink Floyd's The Wall in its entirety.

Is there anything more sacrilegious than that? Rich's eyes seem to say. He acknowledges that this will be a "real challenge."

Rich isn't used to working with kids, and he's not quite sure what to make of them. In the '80s, the drummer with the physique of a Virginia Slim toured with Donnie Iris and a band called American Noise. Before this job, he'd "never taught or had any interest in teaching before," he admits. He imagined "eight-year-olds swearing and talking like in a regular band rehearsal," and thought, "Okay, this could be cool."

But he wasn't ready for Rocky River. Instead of torn shirts, piercings, and eyeliner, many of these kids are dressed in collared shirts and sweaters, looking much like the incoming class at a boarding school. Some have an encyclopedic knowledge of AC/DC. Others think Metallica is a color and that Black Sabbath is a religious holiday.

In the corner of the room, a few young musicians debate the merits of a recent Justin Timberlake concert. "He's stupid," one says. "You're stupid," the other replies. They promptly stop speaking.

On the couch, one 12-year-old earnestly explains to his peers that tarantulas are really "docile creatures . . . They don't hate humans. I don't know why we hate them."

Rich looks like he really needs a cigarette. Instead, he asks with the pep of an Adderall-addicted nursery school teacher, "You guys ready for rehearsal?"

Shane Lang, a 13-year-old in a hoodie and gym shorts, raises his hand. "My mom made me watch The Wall last week," he says.

"What'cha think of it?" asks Rich.

Lang wrinkles his nose. "It was . . . loud," he says finally.

"Shane, you're a drummer," Rich says exasperatedly.

He divides the kids into four practice teams, grouping the more experienced with the remedial. As if on genetic cue, the kids immediately complain.

"I want Darcy in my group," one boy whines. Rich shoots him a look. With a dramatic sigh, the boy picks up his guitar and moves to another room, then sighs again.

Rich weaves through the groups, handing out lyrics to the Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right (to Party)."

"It's a classic rock song," he informs the students. It also has only three guitar chords. Easy, Rich thinks.

He's wrong.

In the first room, students sprawl on the carpeted floor, tuning instruments and voices. A guitarist tries to replace one of his broken strings, but soon gives up, proclaiming it "stuck."

"Which string is it?" someone asks. "The second?" the boy says, then pauses. "Maybe the third?"

In another room, a kid in shiny gym pants swings his guitar back and forth, like a pirate-ship ride at Cedar Point. The lead singer, dressed in frat-boy attire, belts out lyrics in a snarling, angry voice, neck veins straining with the effort.

The groups are a bit off their game -- guitarists dragging behind singers like runners who can't keep pace. When one girl yells an off-key "kick it," the drummer looks like he wants to kick her.

"Huh," Rich says, then walks out rubbing his temples.

After an hour of practice, they pile back into the recording room and take turns performing. Rich stands in the back, arms folded. He claps politely for each rendition. Like on American Idol, the kids wait for their critique.

"Did we suck?" one girl finally asks.

Rich carefully considers the question. Then he nods slowly. "Yes," he says. "That was horrible, really horrible."

The kids briefly mull over the criticism, then shrug off the critique and head back to the practice rooms.

"Wait -- one last question," a boy asks Rich.

The director looks at him with wary eyes. "Yes?"

The boy smiles naughtily. "Can we get pizza?"

All rock stars, he knowingly informs his classmates, get food after their shows.

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