Stand outside the vintage colonial house at 845 Boston Post Road in Madison on most any weekday afternoon or evening, close your eyes, and listen. Yup, that’s classic rock-and-roll music you hear, anything from Elton John to Johnny Winter, Deep Purple to Green Day, The Who to who is that? What you won’t hear, though, are all the nonmusical lessons being learned—mostly by kids, but a few baby boomers, too—inside School of Rock (SOR), the recently opened location of an ingenious franchise business where real and wannabe rockers let their freak flag fly.
Step through the front door of the circa 1844 clapboard manse—originally the Dr. Daniel M. Webb House as listed by the town’s historical society, at one time a boarding house and most recently an art gallery—and enter a world of sights and sounds both modern and nostalgic that inhabit this unusual, raucous learning laboratory.
Launched in April, the place has few remnants of its past lives, beyond low ceilings and creaking staircases. On a wall to the left, across from the reception desk, SOR brightly announces its latest incarnation with a gigantic wall piece that spells out R-O-C-K in lightbulb letters. To the right is a sort of living room, populated by a gaggle of adolescents and teens, lounging on a long couch and in arm chairs.
They’re strumming guitars and flailing drumsticks as they chatter and chuckle. What distinguishes this from the typical family living room is the far wall, a patchwork of dozens of album covers.
The gregarious SOR students are waiting their turns for a weekly private lesson on guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, or vocals in one of the six practice rooms or a group session in one of the two rehearsal rooms. They’re preparing for the totally awesome culmination of each 12- to 14-week cycle of the curriculum—live performances. In January, ensembles will be on stage at Stella Blues in New Haven, rocking out in either Punk vs. Grunge or Led Zeppelin vs. The Who.
Many of the kids performed in earlier shows, British Invasion and Americana, covering such diverse rock legends as Pink Floyd, Van Halen, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Devo, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Queen. Last summer, groups opened for The Fix, a punk band dating back to the 1980s, at the Madison Beach Club. Some have gigged at Donahue’s Madison Beach Grille, others are readying for open-mike nights at the Madison Arts Barn.
Drummer Jack and guitarist/vocalist Monica, both 14-yearolds from Madison, have been SORers since it opened. Monica recruited her 11-year-old brother Dominick, also a vocalist, for the current session. They’re teamed with 12-year-old guitarist Josh from Guilford and 16-year-old guitarist Sam from Clinton. One night in October, in between rehearsing their Punk vs. Grunge set with faculty instructor Pete, a professional guitarist from Woodbridge, the teens were abuzz about not only the various rock bands and music they love but also the bonds they’ve made since meeting at SOR.
“We’re both in 9th grade at [Daniel] Hand [High School], and have been in school together for years,” says Monica, “but we’ve become friends here.” She’s voicing the essence of the School of Rock philosophy since the first one opened in Philadelphia in 1998 and evolved into more than 100 SOR franchises throughout the United States and Mexico. “It’s an opportunity for kids to learn, play, and perform music,” says Madison owner Courtney Gibbons. “It’s an environment where they can be themselves, grow and learn together—and have a blast at the same time.”
Gibbons saw that happen with her own two kids, then 11 and 9, when they signed up at the SOR near their home in New Canaan. “Seeing my kids in their first School of Rock performance—my daughter beaming on stage, belting out Janis Joplin’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ with my son on drums—was really the clincher for me.” So impressed was Gibbons, she decided to leave her marketing career behind and open a franchise of her own. “I looked in other towns in Connecticut, but chose Madison so we could be near New Haven and the robust music scene along the shoreline.”
Herself a classic rock devotee (“Neil Young is my favorite of favorites”), she’s about to give in to one of her instructors’ needling and take up guitar. Her business is successful—with around 60 students, ages 7–18, and a handful of adults (including a longtime air guitarist whose wife gave him the real thing for his 50th birthday)—but it’s the intangibles that are the biggest return on Gibbons’ investment. “I see kids who needed a space for themselves, somewhere that’s positive for them. So many have found that here,” she says. “They’re from different schools and ages, and making friends they might not have met otherwise. They teach each other, the olders often mentoring the youngers. They communicate in a seamless way, without any words. Someone takes the lead, but they all know it’s a group thing.”
And once they get on stage to perform? “I cry when I see them up there.”