The School of Rock, we salute you
Stacey Marmolejo is a rather unassuming matriarch for a school whose mission is to teach tiny children and teenaged tumults how to play rock 'n' roll in all its forms and configurations. She describes herself as coming "from a corporate background," and mentions no names—as a good businessperson might. Marmolejo presents herself in a composed and understated manner and smiles sincerely and quite often. She strikes you as the engaged and lively teacher or principal or aunt or whatever you always wished you had (unless you did, and if so, please count yourself lucky).
Five years ago, Marmolejo's then-15-year-old son attended a rock summer camp—which is exactly what it sounds like—the finale of which was playing an afternoon show in the First Avenue Mainroom. Afterward, the younger Marmolejo told his mother, "That was the greatest high of my life, and I'm just really bummed I have to wait another year to do it again."
Marmolejo, seeing how much this experience meant to her son, set out to prevent that wait as best she could, with really no idea how to go about it. A month or so later, during a business trip to Philadelphia, she stumbled upon the School of Rock, situated in a rather posh area of downtown in a space donated by a jovial and supportive dentist-slash-father of a budding rock star. It was exactly the medicine she had been searching for, and soon after her life and the lives of innumerable talented but misfit kids were changed—why fight an apt cliché?—forever for the better.
The School of Rock was originally called the Paul Green School of Rock. Paul Green was a rock-inclined guitarist, inhabiting the densely populated gray area of professional musician and pauper, regularly playing out and possessed of some chops but missing the shimmering "something" required to embark on the loopy waterslide of artistic success. He became, in 1998, something more suited to his nature (and his ego; the documentary Rock School depicts him as a somewhat attention-hungry personality): guiding kids to the stage, practiced, prepared, and confident.
Whatever star power Green lacked was well made up for in his affinity for teaching and sharing with the younger set a love of hallowed rock 'n' roll. Several years and some business details later (suffice it to say that the opportunity practically fell into his lap), he was running three Schools of Rock in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Manhattan. Not long after that a franchise business was established; administrating three schools across two states is a Herculean feat as it is, but trying to regulate them across the country with any sort of consistency would be impossible.
Several years later Marmolejo drank deep the Kool-Aid, urged on by a preternaturally supportive streak. "I mortgaged the house and emptied my savings account and bought the franchise rights," she says. With a new location in Burnsville, there are now three Schools of Rock in the Twin Cities, and the kids are all right—and a goddamn sight to behold.
During a visit to the St. Paul School of Rock, you'll see the typical practice rooms, the inevitable backpacked clutter in the lobby, the milling and giggling we all remember from a certain time, and an excitement most of us can't recall. It is undeniably adorable, all of it. But that aside, it's quite impressive. On a Wednesday afternoon I watched a revolving, motley cast of kids, from munchkin to practically full-grown, run through Radiohead songs in preparation for an upcoming gig. "Taking music lessons and never playing a gig is like going to basketball practice and never playing a game," Marmolejo says. It's the reason any of this matters, too. Imagine being a boxer and never punching anyone in the face. Now imagine being a rock musician and never punching anyone in the face (with music). Frustrating.
Walking into Epic on a Saturday afternoon, the sound of Soul Asylum's "Somebody to Shove" fills the large room as little sisters and brothers dart about and parents drink beer behind the nylon fence erected around the bar. The event is Minnesota Rocks, an all-local tribute to the music of the Twin Cities performed by students of the school. It was go-time in the darkened venue; onstage over 20 young musicians wait intently, prepping and watching their peers onstage, everyone clapping and singing along and giddy to the eyebrows. Every song brings a different band from the mass on the side stage, everyone rushing on and off with high fives and anticipation. Sure, some are better than others—an intractable fact of existing—but no one performer stands out as the star of the show. They are supportive of each other in their shared, odd little corner of experience in youth.
My friend, a local musician, leaned over to me during one performance: "Why wasn't shit like this available when I was a kid?"
The School of Rock recently expanded to three metro locations; the Burnsville chapter, near the intersection of 35W and 35E, includes a full recording studio where students can learn the rigors of laying it down. More info at schoolofrock.com.
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