Feature Stories

How Dallas Became a School of Rock Hub

It sounds like tormented spirits screaming through the amplifiers as the guitarists play through the grinding riffs of "South of Heaven" by Slayer. They are fast, loud and soulful, as if generations of thrash musicians were inspiring them. Picks ignite strings that reverberate in rapid succession. Fingers run across the fretboard like spiders rushing to catch a fly, hitting notes in a succinct tone. Images of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman flash for a moment while Kirk Hammett and Dave Mustaine wait in the background, but these guitarists aren't even old enough to grow facial hair.

In fact, they could be the grandchildren of the gods of metal, and they're honing their craft at a school that doesn't focus on conformity or test-taking skills. It's a school for aspiring rock stars, a place that fulfills young musicians' dreams because the educators are teaching something many in the public system have chosen to ignore: confidence, collaboration and respect, not just for the instruments and the music but also for each other.

The School of Rock is located just off Dyer Street in Dallas in a building that looks like a place where struggling grunge rockers from the late '80s or early '90s would spend their nights crafting songs to melt the mind. The only thing that sets the rock school apart from the rest of the businesses is the music that flows out of the dark brick building.

Despite the name, the School of Rock didn't spawn from Jack Black's 2003 movie School of Rock. Paul Green, a music teacher in Philadelphia, first conceived the idea for a rock school in 1996 after inviting a group of students to jam with his band at his home where he taught individual music lessons. At first the results were disappointing, but after three weeks of jamming, he found these students had progressed faster than his traditional students. By 2002, he had 100 students attending his rock school, so he opened another location in downtown Philadelphia and soon the school spread across various counties in Pennsylvania. The expansion continued into New Jersey, Delaware, California, New York and, eventually, Texas.

More than 120 Schools of Rock are making aspiring musicians' dreams come true across the country as well as in locations like Australia, Brazil, Canada, Panama, the Philippines and Mexico. The Dallas location was the first School of Rock in the area, but six locations soon followed, including Flower Mound, Fort Worth, Frisco, Southlake/Keller and McKinney, with a new location opening in Mansfield on February 1.

"Each School of Rock will feel different to you," says Wendy Murphy, the general manager of the Dallas franchise. "It really picks up the culture of the community." The music leans more toward indie influences, although teachers like former Polyphonic Spree guitarist Ryan Fitzgerald, Shannon Grady of Hello My Name Is, David Fiegelman of Rodney Parker and 50 Peso Reward, David Ponder of Somebody's Darling, Wade Coffer of Homespun Remedies, Stephanie Burns of Spookeasy and Joel Butterfield of My Son My Executioner are more than capable of teaching all genres of music.

Before becoming general manager, Murphy was just like any other parent and brought her daughter Marlhy to the School of Rock in Dallas for music lessons. "She got really excited about practicing," she says. "I remember when I had to take music lessons, and I was supposed to practice by myself. But it kind of felt stupid." At 6 years old, Marlhy started playing drums and soon was backing the band in the AC/DC show. "It had a lot to do with the fact that she would learn it in the lesson but then have to rehearse with the other kids. It's like a positive peer pressure type thing."

Today, Murphy's daughter plays in three bands -- Pretty Little Demons, Zeppos and Rosalynd. She's opened for Sarah Jaffe and Polyphonic Spree and even played at South by Southwest. And she plans to attend Berklee College of Music when she gets older. "She tells me she wants to be a professional musician," Murphy says. "She found her niche, and this is what she wants to do."

The School of Rock offers a variety of programs that educate students. Rock 101 is for kids who need to learn the fundamentals of music in a group environment and includes a weekly private lesson and group rehearsals that lead to a live performance. The Core Program teaches students stage performance, harmonies, musicianship and music theory and offers private lessons and show rehearsals that prepare them for a live performance at a rock venue like Dada, Three Links, Trees or the Boiler Room in Deep Ellum. The Grad School is for older rockers and provides adults with the opportunity to take private lessons and jam with other adults in a band setting.

"The kids are incredible," says Shannon Grady, assistant general manager. "And we do really good things for these kids. They learn to work as a team, and they gain a lot of confidence just being up there onstage."

For those musicians who are already at an advanced level and jamming with their own bands, School of Rock offers an Artist Development program that provides three core areas to give their skills the edge they need to reach their rock star dreams, including Band Coaching, Epic Albums and Project Studio.

Inside the Dallas location, the students are preparing for their upcoming theme show. After that, they have a show at House of Blues on March 1, and on April 5, they'll invade Deep Ellum for the third annual Rockstravaganza, an event that brings students from all the DFW schools together to perform sets at the Boiler Room, Dada, Three Links and Trees on April 13.

Christened "The Garage," the rehearsal venue is perfect for aspiring rock stars to learn what it takes to perform together as a band. Students rotate through the various positions from drummer to keyboardist to guitar or guitar to "cowbells" while several of them step behind the microphone. Holding their iPhones with the song lyrics displayed, they perform songs by such music legends as Aerosmith, Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys while other students either watch the performance, waiting for their turn on stage, or play game apps or check social-networking sites on their cell phones.

"It's like passing the torch," says Fitzgerald, the music director. "It feels really good to see them get up to do their thing."

A Dallas native, Fitzgerald has been involved in music since he was a child tagging along with his grandfather's barbershop quartet. Inspired by Stevie Wonder, The Beatles and The Who, he picked up the guitar at an early age and studied at the University of North Texas until he joined Polyphonic Spree. "I went on tour for a long time," he says, "but I was missing my friends and family." He's toured with some legendary acts like David Bowie and played festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza and South by Southwest. He's also been on several television programs including the MTV Music Awards, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn and Scrubs.

Tonight, Fitzgerald is directing students as they run through a set list that includes "Baby You Can Drive My Car" by The Beatles, "Gold Dust Woman" by Stevie Nicks and "Crazy Train" by Ozzy Osbourne. The students, whose ages range from 8 to 15, rehearse the songs with grace, while some of the males' pubescent voices crack through the microphone as they struggle to hit some of the notes.

"Communication is the key," he tells the students once they finish rehearsing the Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music," a particularly difficult song for them to coordinate this evening.

The School of Rock wants students to leave being good musicians, not just knowing that one AC/DC song or Metallica riff. Fitzgerald also picks songs that will give them certain challenges. So he might cast one kid as the drummer on a particular song because it has a shuffle the student is working on during private lessons.

"It's the best job in the world," Fitzgerald says. "I've watched some of them become great musicians, and they're getting attention for doing cool things instead of the wrong things."

See also: -The 100 Best Texas Songs: The Complete List -The Ten Most Badass Band Names in DFW -The Best Bands in DFW: 2012 Edition -Photo Essay: The Tattoos of Dallas' Nightlife Scene

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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.