School of Rock Chapel Hill provides a sense of community and a place for kids and teens to hone their music skills
By Erin Sullivan | Photography by Beth Mann
The crowd at The Pittsboro Roadhouse dances as Izzie Bannister, 16, nails the high notes in Heart’s “Barracuda,” part of a rousing hourlong set of rock classics performed by the School of Rock Chapel Hill’s House Band. The band, which opened for Liquid Pleasure on the Friday after Thanksgiving, consists of 19 talented guitarists, drummers, bassists, keyboardists and vocalists ranging in age from 11 to 16. Each auditioned to earn their spot in the group. The House Band wraps up with The Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” and is met with cheers and applause while David Joseph, owner and general manager of the school, takes the stage. “Thank you all so much for coming out!” he says.
David moved to Chapel Hill with his wife, Sally, and their son, Chris, in 1999; daughter Evie was born at UNC Hospitals on the same day the movers arrived with their furniture. After working 17 years at SAS Institute, David opened a School of Rock – the largest music school franchise in the country – in May 2017.
On any given afternoon at the school, which is located in the former 501 Diner space near Trader Joe’s on Fordham Boulevard, dozens of students cycle in for lessons and group rehearsals. There’s a focus on learning by doing, and the staff of 18 instructors train kids on guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, ukulele and vocals. Enrollment has grown to almost 170 students who also take part in summer camps and live, themed group performances year-round. The school also supports summer tours for the House Band. This past year’s tour hit hot spots in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Philadelphia and Wildwood, New Jersey. It was quite an experience, David says, playing near the roller coaster on the boardwalk in Wildwood on the Fourth of July and then watching the fireworks.
Bella Jackson-Ruybal, 13 and currently in seventh grade at Emerson Waldorf School, plays bass and sings backup vocals. “I didn’t expect the crowd to be so pumped up this year,” she says of the summer shows. “It was much better this year because we are more experienced.” Caleb Lackey, 15, a sophomore at Carrboro High School who plays drums for the House Band, also joined the summer tour. “Meeting new people and having music in common really had an effect on me,” Caleb says, crediting the school for providing him with this musical community he did not have before. Of the tour experience itself, he admits the early mornings could be tough. “I was definitely glad when it was over, but at the same time, I can’t wait to do it again!” he says.
Victor Thorne, 16 and a home-schooled junior, says The Pittsboro Roadhouse show was a high point for him. “It’s probably the most fun I’ve had at a show so far,” he says.
Along with performance opportunities, students appreciate the friendships they build in the studios at the school. Noah Hess, 16 and a sophomore at East Chapel Hill High School who plays keyboard, guitar and bass, says he spends much of his time at the school. “My closest friends are here.”
Much like these teens, David grew up playing drums anywhere and everywhere, including the school band, a church band, a concert band and a garage band. “I wanted to be a rock musician,” he says with a grin.
But he says, “I went to college, started a career, got married and had a family. Thirty years went by, the kids were growing up and growing out of the house, and I started to think about what I was going to do with my life. The School of Rock franchise opportunity came across my desk, and I thought, ‘Hmm, that might be a cool way to get back involved in music, do something good for the community, for kids, and – as it turns out – take an old building in a great location and put some new life into it.’”
When David took ownership of the former diner, he found the menus still in stacks and a stocked pantry, the place apparently untouched since the doors closed years earlier. He kept much of the original decor, including the diner’s bar and several of the booths near the front door. That area now serves as the reception and waiting spot for parents. Other booths adjacent to the rehearsal studios offer the kids a place to hang out or do homework between lessons. Walls are plastered with rock posters; the bathroom doors are labeled “Rockers” and “Rollers.”
The structure provided by the parent franchise makes it possible to offer the benefits that come with affiliation to a larger company, including a complete musical curriculum and an interactive digital app for each of the instruments. At the same time, the school has a small-business mentality and ability to make a genuine investment in the community. David says they are proud to be an Orange County Living Wage employer, which allows instructors, most of whom are working musicians, the flexibility to teach during school hours and still play gigs on nights and weekends.
Justin Ellis, an instructor in bass and vocals, plays in several indie rock bands in the area, including Happy Abandon. “I’m here any hour the school is open,” Justin says. “I love it.” He particularly admires the school’s support of group performances at local venues like the Southern Village Green and The ArtsCenter. “What it allows the kids to do – play out in the community and learn how to play together – is something really special that took me a long time to figure out on my own.” Justin’s enthusiasm is echoed by Christian Cail, a guitar instructor and a senior at UNC. “It’s always nice to share with people the music that I like,” Christian says, adding that, at the school, “it’s probably the case that a lot of lessons are learned that are not necessarily just music.”
David believes it’s those lessons that are the most important. “My dad was an Episcopal priest,” David says. “I feel in some ways like I’m carrying on his work, creating a safe place for young people to find themselves. This is a place where everyone is welcome. Are you a musician? That’s all I care about.”
The kids, he says, “come in here, and they are welcomed and accepted, and they are finding their people.”
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