If you still think music lessons mean learning “Fur Elise” with a grouchy, blue-haired piano teacher, think again. These days, Loudoun kids are hitting the ground running with rock ‘n’ roll favorites thanks to performance-focused music instruction from some decidedly cool schools.
From east to west, the county’s most popular music schools put performance front and center, giving students a chance to shine and get their groove on while still getting solid grounding in technique. Top school owners agree: it’s all about tapping into student passion.
Ashburn’s School of Rock franchise celebrated its 10-year anniversary last month, with group performance at the heart of its formula.
“What we’re trying to do is create musicians, which means they can literally do anything they want. They can play in a band. They can write their own original music. They can go onto music school, whatever their goals are,” said owner Laura Bollettino. “Some of our students are going to go onto engineering school, but hopefully they’ll always have music as a passion.”
At School of Rock, each student not only gets private instruction, but also participates in a group experience beginning at the advanced beginner stage and performs several “full blow rock shows” each year, setting both short-term skills goals and longer-term performance goals.
“What we see is that these short-term goals that they’re working on with their teacher privately and in the group setting really develop amazing skills quite quickly,” Bollettino said. “In the process, they make a ton of friends, they get very tight knit, they find other kids that have the same passion, the same drive.”
Beginner students start with private instruction and the school’s Rock 101 introductory group program before moving onto other performance options. The school offers an audition-based house band that plays gigs around the region, along with the School of Rock national all-star group that tours around the U.S. In some cases, School of Rock students branch off and form their own bands, like the beloved Ashburn-based teen girl group Stone Cold, winners of last year’s Loudoun Youthfest Battle of the Bands.
“We want to get them playing a song or two as soon as possible because that increases your confidence and the fun factor,” Bollettino said.
Stone Bridge High School senior Sumi Gray, 18, started at School of Rock nine years ago at age 9, after taking private guitar lessons for several years before that. She now plays bass in the school’s elite house band.
“The performance aspect kind of helps you evolve more as a musician. Performing in front of an audience and on a stage with a bunch of other people expands your knowledge in a different way,” Gray said. “I really think that I wouldn’t be as good of a musician now if I didn’t perform on a stage in front of people. I feel like that kind of pushes you to be better, too. If you’re actually working toward a performance, there’s a real reason for you to get better. … It pushes people more and makes better musicians, and it’s also fun.”
Across the county, Scott Kinney, owner of Shamrock Music Shoppe on Purcellville’s Main Street, also takes a heavily student-focused, performance-based philosophy. The longtime drummer and guitarist, who’s the model for Rodrick Heffley, the heavy metal-loving older brother in the beloved “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Kinney’s brother Jeff, draws on his own musical education when crafting his own approach to instruction.
“I wanted to learn to play Kiss songs and AC/DC. I don’t remember the teacher ever saying, ‘What do you want to learn?’” Kinney said.
Kinney’s approach involves tapping into students’ passions and interests and using those to create long- and short-term goals. As soon as they step in the door, Kinney works to find where each kid’s interests lie and runs with it.
“I find the hot spot and try to set up a road map with the first month’s goal,” he said.
Shamrock’s walls are covered with student-created guitar neck-shaped goal charts, loaded with contemporary and classic rock hits. For Kinney, it’s all about making sure that students want to be there, and the fun of a performance-oriented approach makes that happen.
What we don’t want to have happen is that we’re just the next activity until the more important thing comes along. … We want to create a priority. … I’m trying to make sure that mom and dad didn’t push them towards this because, if they push them towards this, they’re going to have to push them towards the practice chair. I want them to have to pull them offthe practice chair.”
Kinney opened Shamrock Music Shoppe on 21st Street in 2010, shortly after moving to Purcellville with his family. In 2015, the shop moved across the street to the town’s former post office. But Kinney still uses the upstairs room at the old space, now Jack’s Run Brewery, for concert-style student showcases.
Last month, Kinney and his students restarted the Shamrockers house band program after a hiatus following the move to the new space. This handpicked group of high school students will practice once a week and begin playing gigs, and eventually ramp back up to three or four school bands.
“They’re going to be playing old Scorpions and heavy Black Sabbath,” Kinney said. “It’s what they want to do.”
At Shamrock and other favorite music schools, instructors play a big part in student engagement and enthusiasm.
“A lot of it is the people I hire,” Kinney said. “I know very quickly if they’re one of us or not. It’s the spark in the eyes and you can tell. … That’s a big component of the success of our thing. I hire people who really care.”
Down the road at Lovettsville-based Loudoun Music Instruction, beloved owner/instructor Frank Keim is celebrating 15 years this year. Keim is the founding father of one of the county’s best-known teen bands, The Immortals, pulled from top students, along with a number of other in-house bands. While Keim last year passed the baton on running the bands to student mentors, he continues to offer the kind of performance-based instruction young people want.
“Our concerts—not recitals ‘cause we don’t learn to be juke boxes or records and just regurgitate … we perform—are a huge part of the confidence and growth process,” Keim said.
His instructional philosophy involves first helping students to believe in themselves and build confidence, then teaching them the language of music, including music reading, followed by technical skills with an emphasis on rhythm. The final component, Keim said, is performance and the importance of creating a relationship with the audience.
“I get zero requests for the classical training of my youth,” Keim said. “Everyone wants to be current and rock—the parents and kids. They also seek the precision and poise that performing requires. … In sessions, I let the student steer, no matter the age. It is their time, not mine. They tell me what they like and I try my best to shut up and listen. I want to hear their voice first, every week. When I sense their passion and learn about them, I know I have an ‘in’ to begin teaching them what they need to be great performers.”
For more information on Ashburn’s School of Rock, go to locations.schoolofrock.com/ashburn.
To learn more about Shamrock Music Shoppe, go to shamrockmusicshoppe.com.
To learn more about Loudoun Music Instruction, go to loudounmusic.com.