My Very Own Schools of Rock

By Bill Henk – No one will ever accuse me of being a connoisseur of fine films.  Let’s just say that too many of my favorites have Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey cast in them.  Another “actor” who cracks me up is Jack Black, and the star-turn he took in “School of Rock” ranks as a classic in my book.

Look, I realize that the film is not exactly a triumph of cinematography, acting prowess, and screen writing, but it’s a cute, funny story set in a school.  And I’m pretty much a sucker for movies  that somehow connect with education regardless of the age level of the students or the type of film  — everything from Kindergarten Cop through Dead Poets Society.

Briefly, for the uninitiated, School of Rock is the story of a rock musician, Dewey Finn, who gets kicked out of his band for being too over the top.   Desperate for money to pay his rent, he pretends to be his roommate Ned who’s a substitute teacher, so he can take a short-term job in a prestigious prep school.  When he gets there, he realizes that rock music is the only topic  he knows well enough to teach the kids.

Although the kids are stiff, some have genuine musical talent, and Dewey sets up an entire rock and roll curriculum where every student takes on a role for a touring band.  Of course, much of the fun is in Dewey trying to hide the unorthodox things he’s doing from the school mistress, Ms. Mullins, and the rest of the teachers. The transformation of the kids into gifted mini-rockers that win a battle of the bands becomes the plot of the story.

But let’s move on to MY Schools of Rock.  I promise to return to the movie at the end, and pull together why it’s a nice fit with our education blog.

My School of Rock for Kids

Having attended Summerfest with my wife, daughter, niece and her fiancé a few days ago, the topic of music has been on my mind.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about how my poor child has been subjected to her daddy’s very own school of rock.

You see, it doesn’t matter where we are or what we’re doing, if there is rock music playing I never miss an opportunity to educate her about it.  For instance, when we ride in the car together listening to the radio, we actually practice keeping a beat. singing back-up vocals, and pretending we’re playing instruments — and she is turning into quite the talented little air guitarist I must say.

And so you know, I’m not a rock purist; we make up raps in the car, too, and we listen to smooth jazz, country, and Christian music as well.  Did I mention that she’s taking piano lessons (that I don’t think she wants) and actually owns a pink guitar of her own?

At any rate, I have almost no real idea what I’m trying to accomplish by pointing out legendary lead guitar riffs and chord progressions, funky basslines, wicked drumming, timeless lyrics, and two- and three-part harmonies to a six-year old.  The best explanation I have centers on wanting to give her the tools to appreciate music even more than she would otherwise.  To her credit, she’s a very good sport.

My School of Rock for Adults

Well, it turns out I’m even more addicted to imparting rock music knowledge at Summerfest where I’m surrounded by lots of bands and other adults.  Regrettably, I’m compelled to educate helpless bystanders whether they want the enrichment or not. 

The bad news for the latter is that this year’s Summerfest experience put me in a talkative mood.  The day we went to the festival grounds qualified as exceptional.  Every single venue we visited showcased musical acts well worth listening to.

As a result, I started sharing information about what we were seeing and hearing with my family and anyone else who couldn’t escape listening to me.  I couldn’t help myself.   It was as if I’d been morphed into a steroidal version of the know-it-all character Cliffie Clavin on Cheers.

The reason I know as much about this stuff as I do is that I grew up with the rock music of the late 60’s and 70’s and played drums, guitar, and keyboards badly in some woeful bands.  Even more importantly, I enjoyed the distinct and profound privilege of running the “sound board” for an amazing band for a while when I was in college.  These guys were music majors  and really knew what they were doing.

This latter experience seemed to me like having the greatest live stereo in the world.  The band members were outstanding musicians and singers, and I controlled everything sound-related on the stage.  I coordinated a truly massive amount of wire and connections and maintained responsibility for each instrument and voice — its volume, tone, and special effects.

As a result, I came to grasp and appreciate the technology that undergirds live rock music and how to mix sounds, and I’ve kind of kept up with it over the years.  That’s probably why I feel the need to have not one, but two, stereos in my home, both of which are ridiculously high-end for the space, as well as four guitars, a piano, and a keyboard — none of which I play any better than I did 30 years ago probably.

To make a long story short, at Summerfest I started ranting about wah-wah pedals, as well as overdrive, distortion, fuzz, and reverb effects, guitar bell tones and slide bars, capos, synthesizers, high hats, and shredding.  Not that anyone cared, but I pointed out all makes and models of guitars like Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters, and couldn’t stop there — OH NO, I had to explain their various features and detail their relative advantages and disadvantages.  And did I stop there?

Not a chance.  Instead I blathered on and on and on about immortal bands and guitar Gods like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, and Joe Satriani to name a few.  Like Dewey Finn, I seemed determined to teach rock and roll history to my defenseless “students.”

The Big Finish

All I can say is that I hope I wasn’t TOO obnoxious.  I honestly don’t think I go into these endless rock and roll tirades trying to show off or impress anyone.  It’s the teacher in me that I can’t turn off.  I just love the music, and want others to be able to enjoy it as much as I do.

I’ll just leave my compulsion by saying that listening to music of all types becomes a much richer experience when you know how to isolate the various instruments and vocals in your mind.  And it gets even better when you understand how the musicians and engineers put it all together to create unforgettable music.  I want that appreciation for my daughter and for my family and friends and anyone else who might want it, too.  But I guess I should ask them first, right?

Anyway, coming back full cycle to School of Rock, when I saw the movie I was struck by how engaged the kids became in learning about all aspects of rock and roll.  The topic didn’t matter to them at all beforehand.  But Dewey’s passion and knowledge of the content won them over.  Everything from the music to the business end of rock and roll became fair game for learning.

His curriculum amounted to a thematic unit of immense proportions, and although we’re talking fiction here, I couldn’t help but feel that kids taught this way would NEVER forget the experience.  It became relevant and authentic for them and would leave indelible positive impressions.  I just wish more teaching and learning could unfold that way in schools.

And so you know, the highlight of my day at Summerfest came in a remark from my niece.  She turned to me late in the day and said, “Uncle Bill, I had no idea you were so hip.”

That one remark sounded like a monster power chord blaring — bass drum thumping — cymbals clashing — keyboard soaring — bass pounding — rock song crescendo finish to me.  In other words, MUSIC TO MY EARS.

2 Responses to “My Very Own Schools of Rock”

  1. 1 K Newman July 12, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Great post, but one point of clarification:

    The kids do not win the battle of the bands; they only get called back for an encore.


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