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Paul Green’s School of Rock is cool. The kids are cool. The music is cool. Their slogan, “Saving rock and roll one kid at a time”, is very cool. Rick Carney, in charge of Austin’s school, explains what it is all about.

AUSTIN DAZE: Tell us about School of Rock—what it is and how it came to be.

RICK CARNEY: The school started overall in Philadelphia in 1998. The founder, Paul Green, was giving guitar lessons to some kids and decided it would be better if instead of practicing and never having any payoff, he got them to do a performance. And after doing that for a little bit he realized that the kids were much more motivated to practice knowing that they would have to perform in front of people and couldn’t let their friends down. They quickly opened a few schools in the area. The way I got into it was a friend of mine was a concert promoter named Jake. Jake always comes down for SXSW and stays at our house and always brings someone with him. Well one year he brought his friend Paul and that was the year that the School of Rock documentary was coming out and playing at the festival. Paul wanted to open an Austin branch. Unbeknownst to me, Jake had more or less nominated me to run it. Paul came down, we went to dinner, and an hour later we had a deal to open the school here.

AD: Does the school have anything to do with the movie of the same name?

RC: They took the concept from our school but not directly. Paul had a camera crew follow him around for a reality show for awhile and that didn’t pan out but the same company that did that, Viacom, eventually produced the movie and the script six months later. We influenced the whole thing.

AD: What had you been doing before School of Rock?

RC: I was always a musician but had never formally taught guitar before. All musicians give lessons in one way or the other. They trained me in Philadelphia for a couple of weeks, I flew out to the east coast a couple of more times for more training, and then we opened up in September of 05.

AD: How many kids are at the school?

RC: We have about 70 right now.

AD: How many teachers?

RC: Well, nobody is full time besides me but I have 6 main teachers and then a couple that sub for me.

AD: How many performances are there?

RC: We do three seasons a year and right now we are doing 3 shows a season. At the end of each season we do a Best of Season show. Then we have the B Team, which is the show band and those kids play all the time. This year they played the Irwin Center and ACL, Ruta Maya, La Zona Rosa, Antone’s—basically anywhere in town.

AD: How does a kid get involved?

RC: All they have to do is contact us and we can sign them up. There is no prerequisite for instruction–we take complete beginners starting at age 7 to 18. We’ve taken younger kids on a case by case basis.

AD: Are they separated by age group?

RC: No. That’s the one thing people have a hard time understanding at first—they all perform together. It’s sort of cast like a play: I’ll have two sets of material and they each will be about 45 minutes. A group of 20 or so kids will perform between 4 and 5 songs a piece throughout the two different sets, but they will be in different combinations of kids in different songs. It really works out well because the younger kids always steal the show and then the older kids work harder so that they don’t get upstaged by the smaller ones. We also found that rather than dumb-ing things down, if we set the bar real high, tell the kids what they are doing is sort of extraordinary, they are much more likely to accomplish it. You tell a little kid he’s not supposed to know how to play an Eddie Van Halen song and pretty soon he’s doing it anyway.

AD: What are some standout moments at these performances?

RC: Every time we do a show I’m amazed by something and it’s always something different. Whenever a school opens, the first thing we do is Pink Floyd’s The Wall all the way through. That’s a real learning experience for the kids and the teachers and once you get through that you realize that anything is possible. So we do set the bar kind of high. At our last show we did some stuff that was fairly technical like, Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein and Eric Johnson’s Cliffs of Dover—things you wouldn’t expect a kid to play. And sometimes I’ll see a 7 or 8 year old and just be amazed by them and how far they have come from the moment they walked through the door to the time they are on stage.

AD: Have you had any kids go on to do greater things?

RC: We are almost into completing our third year and we are going to see that because we are finally starting to graduate kids now. The first person I expect stuff out of is a student named Gina Spigarelli—she just graduated from high school and is going to be going off to Texas State. In April she toured as part of the backing band for Jon Anderson of Yes. His backing band was comprised of nothing but our All Star national kids. So of the 2,000 Paul Green School of Rock music students across the country about 10 were chosen and 1 was Gina. There was a brother and sister that graduated a couple of years ago that are now Adrian Belew backing rhythm band. His solo band is just him and these two kids.

AD: How many schools are there?

RC: We have 41 schools on the east and west coast. We don’t have as many in the middle section. Dallas is opening up now.

AD: Do the schools compete against each other?

RC: We have a yearly festival that started last year. There were 20 schools that participated and we all flew to Asbury, NJ and played over the weekend. Ween headlined one night and Bad Brains headlined one night. This year in Philadelphia we are going to be doing the same thing. My band, Jesus Christ Super Fly—it’s been a punk rock band here since ‘91—they are flying my guys out for that. Devo is headlining the festival and then Dropkick Murphy is on Sunday. With the kids, it’s a friendly competition—everybody goes and checks out the other kids. We all do exactly the same material; there is a standard set of shows that we perform. So if you are going to do a Led Zeppelin show you want to see someone else perform it and see what they can do. If you did the Frank Zappa show you want to see if they can do it as good as you did. There is a shred competition where every year every school nominates one guitar player and they go on stage and battle it out. We had a kid last year get to the semi-finals and I think our nominee this year has a good chance of getting to the finals if not winning. A little competition is good for the kids.

AD: Tell us more about the curriculum.

RC: The school in Philadelphia develops the shows. Like I said, the first show everyone does is Pink Floyd The Wall. Early on you do Led Zeppelin, you do ACDC, you do Black Sabbath and the Beatles; Rolling Stones. After that things get a little more esoteric. I think there are 70-something shows that have been developed. I just developed a new one for us and it’s called “Texas Rock” and that’s what we will be performing this year. And it’s everything from Buddy Holly to Pantera. There’s blues, pop–everything. We are doing 13th Floor Elevators and the big boys from Austin as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top.

AD: What kind of funding do you get?

RC: We are for profit. It’s a monthly tuition program. 10% of our students receive financial aide. It’s more of a commitment of time than it is the money. The kids have to commit to being there a couple of times a week—most kids have to come 4 or 5 times a week.

AD: Is there a minimum of hours?

RC: They get a weekly individual lesson and then they participate in a weekly group rehearsal. A beginner walks in and they get a lesson and they will be in rehearsal that week.

AD: That sounds intimidating.

RC: It can be intimidating but everyone is really supportive. It’s good for the older kids because everyone wants to outdo each other but the older kids are also really great about helping the younger kids. We try and bring people up to speed as quickly as we can without overloading them. The idea is that everyone is challenged on whatever level they need to be challenged on. For a 7-year-old just getting them in the room is a challenge. With a 14 or 15-year-old who has been with us for a couple of years, his challenge is working on his instrument and becoming a better musician.

AD: What about a 17-year-old who walks in the door for the first time?

RC: We have a few who knew they could only play for that one season. It’s hard to get your foot in the door with the band—especially when you are a kid. Booking is difficult; paying for rehearsal time is expensive. We take some of the sting out of that by providing a place for them to come and jam. They are developing their own stuff on top of the school stuff. They know the room is always open to come and rehearse. A lot of kids just hang out there.

AD: Is there a social element to it?

RC: Definitely. It runs anything from kids that are there as an after school activity to kids that really want a career in music. What sets us apart is that we can give those kids that really want that opportunity to get into business a meaningful experience and some connections. Paul Green talks about how he does eventually want to get into artist development and help the kids once they get out of our school and try and help them keep going. The music business is such a changing scene and changes every couple of years. It’s about how to navigate that works for the kids. We teach a lot of music business as well. We try and give them information so that they can go into a situation and not get taken advantage of. All musicians at the school at one time or another have been taken advantage of by somebody.

AD: Have there been any real challenges or obstacles that have come up along the way that made you consider abandoning ship?

RC: The whole thing is a challenge but it’s a fun challenge. There is a joke at school about how there are three sets of groups: the students, the families and the teachers and any given time one of them is giving me some sort of problem. As long as it’s only one at a time everything is cool. Having musicians as your employees and being a musician yourself it’s a lot like taking care of the kids. There is a lot of last minute scheduling and canceling and, “I’m going on tour tomorrow I forgot to tell you.” But we all get along great and I do have professional musicians. I teach lessons and I direct shows and right now I’m preparing for a national of All Star show with the kids and when teachers are out I sub for them.

AD: What’s next for you?

RC: Got a really busy summer. We’re beginning rehearsals for our summer season and our next three shows will be an Eric Clapton show, a KISS show with full make-up, and a Beach Music Show. Then we have summer camps as well this summer: we have a two week camp in June that is sold out and we have a two week camp in July that still has availability. ***

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  1. Travel

    Well said, finally a good report on this stuff