Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
What do you think of when you hear “School of Rock?” Most likely the phrase conjures images of a burly but sensitive, music-loving dude teaching a group of precocious kids how to jam like his heroes in Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Sure, you’re most likely thinking of the 2002 Jack Black movie or the School of Rock Musical but the concept actually applies equally as well to the Albany franchise of the School of Rock music academy.
On a sunny spring day, David Bodie–stocky, bearded, and shoeless–skips, jumps and contorts himself as he makes his way through the hallways of School of Rock’s Latham location. He avoids kids carrying bases and guitars, opens the door of a classroom, and what was a loud hum turns into a fully realized roar of Foo Fighters’ “My Hero.”
“Do you think you can do it?” he asks the group of young musicians as the song ends, tossing out another number for the kids to try. “You got it,” he says and closes the door smiling. The halls here are covered in concert flyers, portraits of Jimi Hendrix and other fallen rock gods.
“When I was a kid I’d spend one hour a week with a teacher by myself or in a basement practicing,” Bodie explains. “I didn’t join a band until junior year. When I started working at the Tenafly location I was watching the kids work together and I was hooked. I thought, ‘This is what music lessons should be!’ I talked to my partner and we brought it up here.”
Kids at School of Rock do take music lessons alone in a room, but that is only the beginning. The school offers them the opportunity to play in a band while they learn and, if they want to, eventually join the house band that regularly plays shows at events across the region. They’ve become a fixture at Tulip Fest and other local festivals.
Founded in 2002 by Paul Green, the original School of Rock was based in Philadelphia. The school’s focus on live performances quickly drew the attention of Spin magazine and Viacom. Independent filmmakers started producing a documentary on the school, but before filming ended, Green found out that Paramount was working on a fictional movie starring Jack Black. Green decided not to pursue legal action against Paramount despite his and the belief of many others that the movie was based on him and instead decided to reap the benefits of being associated with the film. Green opened franchises across the country. In 2009 he was bought out by a group of investors. The for-profit company currently has 140 locations across the world.
Bodie, an accomplished drummer who played for internationally recognized avant-garde metal act Kayo Dot, was connected to School of Rock by friends. He was coming off a tour in 2010 and his wife was pregnant. He was looking to put down roots. He soon was soon commuting from Saugerties to New Jersey to serve as the music director of the Tenafly location–not a short commute by any means.
While Bodie directs the band, his friend Jesse Calhoun manages the front desk–talking to parents about upcoming shows, collecting checks and introducing prospective clients to the program.
Bodie brought Calhoun on as general manager earlier this year. Calhoun, originally from Ohio, came to Albany to play a benefit show and decided to stay. Since then he’s been involved in both music and politics. He served as the frontman for The Ameros–a rap, funk, rock project with a political bent. He ran for Albany mayor in 2013 on the Republican line. He ran for the Assembly in 2014 on a pro-medical marijuana, anti-Common Core line. He lost to now-Assemblywoman Patricia Fahey. He challenged her again last year. Calhoun made his musical background a center of the campaign, filming a musical campaign ad and playing guitar at political events.
Calhoun has focused on spreading the gospel of School of Rock and increasing membership.
Bodie opens the door to the practice room again and introduces me. “This is Dave from The Alt. He’s going to ask you some questions. Try not to overwhelm the guy,” Bodie says.
“There are so many Daves! My dad is named Dave!” “There are so many Daves! In an alternate universe my name is Dave!” the voices go up like a Greek chorus.
I ask the kids how they got started in the program.
“I got started when my parents were looking to get me out of the house and looking for me to socialize for once,” says Nora Gauna.
“My mom told me to get a life, and now I’m here,” says Blake Lazorischak, smiling.
“Blake and Norah are the only two students left from the grand opening,” adds Bodie.
Bodie says that while there are over 11 School of Rock franchises in the area, there aren’t any close enough to have laid the groundwork for the community to already have an understanding of School of Rock’s mission.
“For the kids here it’s like starting from scratch, there is no one to look at. We have the goal that our house band is going to play out–play real shows–but sometimes I don’t think the kids and parents can visualize that because the community is not used to it. The parents see the kids starting out practicing at the beginning of show season start kids but it isn’t until they play live that they come up and say, ‘I get it now!’”
Bodie says that watching the kids of School of Rock take their talents out into the world is what is exciting. “What’s really neat is that we’re in our second pop-up of bands and Emily, who is fantastic songwriter in her own right, went to summer camp and formed a band with kids from two separate School of Rocks from two other states.”
Throughout the year the School of Rock house band plays theme shows at venues across the area. This weekend the band played at Lucky Strike Social’s Jupiter Hall, performing tribute sets to Nirvana, David Bowie and the blues. This year they played Move Music Fest and had prominent gigs at The Hollow in Albany.
“Shows like David Bowie might not be the majority of kids’ cup of tea but that’s not the point. We want them to listen to it now and cultivate it for understanding,” says Bodie.
On May 13 of this year the School of Rock band is charging through a Zeppelin tune as the sky opens up. The kids keep playing, putting hoods over their heads, grabbing jackets. Vanessa Gabor watches as her 13-year-old daughter Alexa prepares to sing.
“It’s this real experience–she meets kids all over the Capital District that have like attitudes and it’s not like she’s taking piano lesson once a week–this is a collaborative thing–she gets together with friends and she’s also formed a band with students in School of Rock separately from the program.”
Gabor says she’s seen Alexa grow thanks to the program, in ways she’s not sure she would have without being connected to so many creative peers.
“She’s such a shy kid and has a lot of social anxiety– but she can get up in front of a crowd of 100 people and sing–which just blows my mind. It gives her a lot of confidence and you can’t buy that,” says Gabor.
“There are kids in here into other extracurricular activities like sports and stuff but most of these kids are marginalized– not part football, not cheerleaders–they are a group of artistic, just different kids who march to the beat of their own drummer. They’re just a group of creative people.”