School of Rock

The kids who take music lessons from Marc Solomon don't have recitals. They have concerts. Recitals require stiff suits and taffeta dresses, church manners and minor anxiety attacks. But these kids wear whatever they want--torn T-shirt, faded jeans, a tie if they're feelin' it. Backstage, in between their performances, the kids chat about the show, the vibe, give each other pats on the back. It's not exactly a paying gig. But for a group of pre-pubes who arrived in the back seat of their parents' minivans, it ain't bad.

Thirty-seven-year-old guitar teacher Solomon calls these regular concerts for parents and other camera-toting parties "The Rock Show." They're relaxed and casual: wine for the adults, Rice Krispies treats for the kids. The evening's set list alternates between finger-picked classics and all-out rockers guaranteed to please, anything from the Beatles to Green Day, from Elvis Presley to U2. Back when I was a kid taking piano lessons, our dreaded yearly performances were as nerve-wracking and solemn as a first communion. Not here: This is the kind of place where a 9-year-old once sang the most amazingly tongue-in-cheek version of the Fountains of Wayne MILF anthem, "Stacy's Mom," to a great deal of (adult) hooting and hollering. At 10 p.m. or so, when the show has wrapped, the kids are usually spent, lying across fold-out chairs. But it's not unusual to see a mom on her feet for the finale, throwing devil horns in the air.

The 2003 film School of Rock familiarized us with the concept (and the cuteness) of little kids strapping on electric guitars. The film is essentially a comic fable, but the trend it portrays is real: Musically curious children are shaking off the confines of orchestra and band in favor of the riffs and raucousness of rock. Local underage bands like Minority, DV8 and Eisley became scene veterans before they could even vote. And this is happening all over the country: At this year's Sundance Film Festival, director Don Argott premiered Rock School, a documentary about Paul Green's after-school music program, whose curriculum includes lessons on Metallica and Led Zeppelin. Green hopes to eventually take the school nationwide.

As a hobby, rock music isn't exactly cheap--Solomon charges $40 an hour for a private lesson, and your run-of-the-mill starter guitar costs around $500. Of course, some parents spend a fortune more on amps, pedals and accoutrements, and it's not unusual to see a kid walk onstage at one of Solomon's rock shows with a $2,500 Les Paul. Kinda makes a grand piano seem thrifty.

What's amazing is not that kids love electric guitars, power chords and noise but that their parents do, too. When I was a teenager, guitar lessons were a phase to be indulged, like spiky bangs and blue mascara. Today's parents, weaned on '70s and '80s radio, can't get enough of it. It's familiar to them. It's cool. This family-friendly celebration of rock may also signal its demise: As hip-hop and metal push rock off the radio dial and into the classroom, it's hard to argue the genre holds much in the way of danger or rebellion anymore. Still, for these kids--who are more 92.5 FM than 102.5, anyway--these songs rock. Solomon has so many kids (and some adults) clamoring to take hour-long rock music lessons that he's had to hire extra hands, including guitarist/bassist/violinist Eric Neal and pianist Mike Saunders, to keep up with demand. Right now, the school has around 70 students. It will continue to grow.

Twice a year, I come to these rock recitals--I mean concerts. Not so much because I'm inspired by the kids' talent, but because I'm inspired by their enthusiasm. They have a joy in performance that is so earnest, so wonderfully free of the posturing and attitude older, wiser musicians use to obscure the fact that performing in front of strangers is kinda scary. These kids have fun, and it's hard to hide a smile when they're onstage. But, strangely, I also feel a flicker of envy. From age 6 to 10, I took piano lessons from a rather stern old woman who often pinched me when I missed a note. I played classical songs and quaint old hymns, but I can't imagine she would much tolerate what I really wanted to play--pop songs, music with lyrics written in the 20th century. Hell, I would have settled for Barbra Streisand. I hated practicing, feared lessons, but I'd sit in front of the Dan Coates songbook of contemporary classics for hours, tinkering around with "Feelings" and the love theme from Ice Castles. It didn't occur to me this was, in itself, a kind of piano practice. Instead, it felt like cheating.

In fifth grade, my mother finally allowed me to quit, a not entirely bloodless triumph. But I wonder what might have happened if I'd had a teacher like Solomon, someone approachable and excited about music. My kind of music. Someone, you know, cool.

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Sarah Hepola